From absurd to mundane, rituals help contain nerves

Sophomore Julia Cunningham takes off as teammates watch and prepare for their meets. The swim team, like all sports teams, have their own unique set of pre-game rituals, setting their minds at ease. Photo By: Vassar Athletics
Sophomore Julia Cunningham takes off as teammates watch and prepare for their meets. The swim team, like all sports teams, have their own unique set of pre-game rituals, setting their minds at ease. Photo By: Vassar Athletics
Sophomore Julia Cunningham takes off as teammates watch and prepare for their meets. The swim team, like all sports teams, have their own unique set of pre-game rituals, setting their minds at ease. Photo By: Vassar Athletics

For athletes competing at any level of their sport, many different factors contribute to a victory or a loss. There are the countless hours of physical training and hard work. There is perseverance and dedication along with natural talent. But one of the biggest components that many people often ignore is the impact of mindset or the ‘mental game’ on the athlete. An important method for many Vassar College athletes for controlling and boosting their mental game is the development of pre-game habits and rituals. By the time student athletes at Vassar start their freshman year, they’ve generally been involved with their sport for many years. They’ve been on many teams and competed at different levels. Throughout their time with their respective sports, these athletes have come to develop their own habits and rituals before competition to help get them in the right mindset to win.

Sophomore swimmer Julia Cunningham (full disclosure Julia Cunningham is the Assistant Features Editor for the Miscellany News), who just competed at the NCAA National Championships over spring break, outlined some of her own personal habits during competition. “I tend to get superstitious at meets. I like everything to be the same. I usually eat oatmeal every morning before I race. I try to wear the same clothes throughout the entire meet (even it if its a four day meet…). I don’t shower. If I do well after listening to a specific song on my iPod, I’ll listen to that song again before any race. Before my races, to get out of my head, I [also] like to go around and wish everyone in the lanes next to me good luck. For every meet in general, I like to wear the same goggles the entire meet, and, for multiple day events, I never shower. I’ve been doing that since high school.”

Just like Cunningham, many highly successful athletes even at the pro-level, have come to develop strict pregame rituals. Wayne Gretzky, a Hall of Fame forward who played in the NHL is one such example. Gretzky, known as ‘The Great One’ for his prolific hockey career, was well known for his own rituals and superstitions. Some were about luck. He refused to ever get his hair cut while on the road because he lost once after doing so. But many were specific, competition rituals. He would always take his first shot during warm-ups to the extreme right of the goal. In between warm-up and opening face-off, he’d return to his locker room drink a Diet Coke, glass of ice water, Gatorade and another Diet Coke.

While many individual athletes do have rituals, for others pre-game rituals and habits are not a part of their pre-game preparation. Sophomore field hockey player Lauren Shumate explained in an emailed statement as well that she doesn’t necessarily have pre-game habits or rituals herself. “I [always] just put my hair in a pony tail with a headband [before games]. But many other players like to wear braids. It’s not a conscious decision of mine to wear or do the same things before a game. I just do what I think will best prepare myself for the game and what I will be most comfortable in.”

Another way rituals and habits show up here at Vassar College is within teams as a whole before games. While Shumate explained that she didn’t have her own conscious rituals, her team had pre-game habits that she was a part of and that they replicated before each game. “A lot of the players like to do their own thing individually, which usually consists of listening to music. After our individual pre-games we come together in the locker room and play pump up music on the speakers. We like to dance while we get dressed. When we are all ready our coach comes in to give his pump up speech and show us a motivational video. We then come together, bang our sticks on the locker to get riled up and then come together for a cheer. We all walk out in two uniform lines to the field. “

For senior field hockey captain and women’s lacrosse player, Enya Cunningham, pre-game rituals can take any form. “A lot of teammates use hair as a ritual I think. Others have more to do with activities in the training room—heating, getting wrapped/taped—I think these can be as much a ritual as physically beneficial.” Another place habits and rituals come into play during competition is when specific events occur or an athlete needs to perform a specific skill they don’t necessarily perform all the time. Julia Cunningham explained that the women’s swim team has a different pre-game ritual that she participates in before relays as opposed to individual races. “To get pumped up for relays, we always huddle behind the blocks and give each other motivational speeches.”

For Enya Cunningham, the specific skill she brought up was taking a penalty stroke in field hockey, an event that occurs just a few times each season. “Before taking a stroke in field hockey, I always set my body up the same way, step back, reach out to the ball, look at the corner that I’m not shooting and then count two seconds after the referee blows the whistle to take my shot.”

Despite the fact that many rituals or habits seem odd or unnecessary before competition, Shumate finds that they have positive applications. “I think pre-game rituals/habits are good to have because repeating a habit over and over again gets you into the mindset every time you complete those habits. Some superstitions about habits allow players to gain more confidence.”

Enya Cunnigham agreed with her teammate and felt that rituals helped her and teammates focus and prepare for games. “I like the repetition because it focuses me. If you [repeat] certain activities for days when you know you need to reach a difference level of focus and energy than for a regular practice day, I think rituals like doing a specific hair-do can really help.”

For Julia Cunningham rituals are about providing a different mindset. “There’s just a general mindset that I try to get into at meets that I don’t really need during practice.”

What Julia is talking about is the need for a different sort of mental game in competitions not needed in practice. While practicing and competing do require the same physical skills and components, their mental components are different. Habits and rituals are just some ways successful athletes at Vassar and everywhere have come up with to help warm-up for the necessary mental game needed for competition.

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