Pre-Performance Routine: “We are what we repeatedly do.”

We are proud to have Dr. Duncan Simpson as guest author for our blog. Enjoy his text about how to develop pre-performance routines.

Pre-performance routines (PPR’s) have been taught by coaches and advocated by sport psychologists (e.g., Boutcher, 1990; 1992; Lobmeyer & Wasserman, 1986; Lidor & Tenebaum, 1993) for many years. The widespread use of PPR’s is probably because the moments before skill execution are crucial in deciding whether a performer achieves a peak performance state (Boucher, 1990). Therefore, it is hardly surprising that PPR’s have consistently been shown to have a beneficial effect on performance (see Cohn, 1991; Cohn et al., 1990; Cotterill, 2010, 2011; Cotterill & Hill, 2014; Crews & Boutcher, 1987; Mesagno & Mullane-Grant, 2010; Wrisberg & Pein, 1992).

Athletes often use PPR’s in sports that can contain closed skills (e.g., tennis serves/returns, basketball free-throw, golf shots/putts). The nature of closed skills allows athletes crucial moments of personal control in an environment which is otherwise uncontrollable. The most commonly accepted definition of PPR’s is “a sequence of task-relevant thoughts and actions which an athlete engages in systematically before his or her performance of a specific skills” (Moran, 1996, p. 177). While, the terms routine, superstition, and ritual are sometimes used interchangeably by athletes and coaches there are important and distinguishable differences. Routines should specifically address task-relevant thoughts (e.g., focus cues) and actions (e.g. relaxation breaths) that can be logically connected to aiding a performance outcome. In other words, there should be nothing in a PPR that does not in some way connect to the skill being executed. However, superstitions and rituals are in many ways connected to the creation of luck and often contain actions that have no logical connection to performance (e.g., wearing a lucky pair of socks, tapping body parts, avoiding stepping on lines). A simple way to differentiate these terms is with the following statement “superstitions and rituals control you, while you control routines.” However, having said this, when I start working athletes I won’t necessarily try to change or ban superstitions or rituals straight away. Instead, I will work with athletes in a collaborative process to ensure they understand what they are doing before the performance and why they are doing it.

When developing a PPR with an athlete, I start by thinking about the what might influence his or her performance. This idea is supported by Gallucci (2014) who said “pre-performance routines probably should include all aspects that may influences performance” (p.14). In fact, researchers investigating the nature of PPR suggest athletes use a range of psychological strategies depending on the specific requirements and demands of the performance and that each PPR should be individualized (Cotterill, Sander, & Collins, 2010). Furthermore, while, the consistency of a PPR is important it should be the task demands that influence the duration of the PPR (Jackson & Baker, 2001). For example, some golf shots simply need more planning time than others (e.g., bunker shot vs. pitch from the fairway). Therefore, PPR’s should be individualized and focused on what the athletes “do” and “need” as opposed to keeping the PPR a consistent time (Cotterill, 2008; Holder, 2003). However, while task demands and flexibility are important, athletes should develop a generic template for their PPR routine based upon the psychological and performance demands of their sport (Cotterill, 2008). To summarize PPR should be individualized, systematic, flexible, have a generic template, include all aspects that may influence performance and be specific to the demands at that moment of performance.

When we break down performance, there are four skill components: physical, tactical, technical, and mental skills (Wrisberg, 2007). Physical skills involve the body’s readiness to execute a particular movement. Tactical skills involve decision-making aimed at giving athletes an advantage. Technical skills refer to the effective execution of a particular movement. Lastly, mental skills involved the effective mobilization of thoughts and feelings to maximize performance. Given that just about any sporting performance involves these four core components and that the ultimate purpose of a PPR is best prepare the athlete to perform, then a PPR should include and be structured around these four core components. Therefore, I like all my athletes to develop a PPR that ensures they address each one of these components before they try to perform. The order, the behaviors, and time spent on each component don’t necessarily have to be consistent, but rather it is based on the specific demands at that moment. So I like to collaborate with athletes to ensure they have the necessary skills that can be used as part of their PPR “toolbox.” The following are examples of what athletes can do within each component of the PPR:

  • Physical: Body language, stretching, body scan, centering breathing, hydration/nutrition.
  • Tactical: Complete evaluation of the task demands and a decision on the required response.
  • Technical: Grip, body/feet position, swing or throwing motion.
  • Mental: Attentional focus, self-talk, relaxation strategies, imagery, preparatory arousal.

The following is an example of a PPR for a tennis serve. After the point, the player goes to his/her towel, takes some deep breathes and does a quick body scan to check that his/her body is ready to play (Physical). Next, the player slowly walks to the service line and develops a point-plan (Tactical). Once the player arrives at the service line, they set the feet, grip their racket, and check their body is in the right position (Technical). Lastly, the player looks down the court, identifies a clear target in the opponent’s service box, uses a piece of positive self-talk, takes a couple of breaths to relax (mental) and serves.

Athletes must develop a PPR that best addresses their personal and performance needs. Those working with athletes must try to accept existing routines and behaviors (unless maladaptive), seek to understand why they are used, and then implement subtle changes where needed (Cotterill et al., 2010; Cotterill, 2010). Lastly, PPR must be utilized in practice on a consistent basis and reinforced by coaches for the PPR to be most effective in competitions.


About the author
Dr. Duncan Simpson joined IMG academy in January 2017 and provides mental conditioning services for tennis and golf. Dr. Simpson was previously at Barry University in Miami where he served as an Associate Professor in Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology Program. Originally from England, he received his Ph.D in Sport Psychology from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Dr. Simpson is a Certified Consultant with the Association of Applied Sport Psychology (CC-AASP). Since 2005 he has been conducting mental skills training with athletes and coaches from a range of sports and varying in talent and ability from beginners to professional/Olympic athletes, including NCAA D-I, II, & III student-athletes. 



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