The Psychology of Pre-Competition Rituals

Episode Transcript

Julia Landauer 0:04 Hello, everybody, and welcome back to another episode of if I'm honest with Julia Landauer, I hope you are doing well. I've been good, I've been busy, I've been ramping up at work, I've been trying to get enough vitamin D and be outside, it's been really cool, I'm really feeling satisfied with with the amount of stuff that's going on. So that's awesome. Today, I want to talk about pre competition rituals, because they've come up in a few different scenarios. So we were having a brainstorming session as to what kind of content to put out from the NASCAR channels. And we asked the crew members of various teams, what their pre race rituals were, which was super cool, I highly recommend checking out that tick tock, I'll link it in the description. I also hosted a panel with a few racers, and we were talking about pre race traditions. And so I wanted to dive into that a little bit more, because I also definitely had pre race traditions that I did for the entirety of my 21 year racing career. But I never really thought much more about the science or the psychology or why we do that. So that's what I wanted to jump into today. Before I get started on some of the things that I read about and research that I thought were particularly interesting, I did want to note that rituals are considered to be distinct from like traditional preparatory routines and habits, rituals are more rigid and more formal. And there are fixed steps. And I think the key thing is that there's no real direct function or result of doing a ritual, it is something that is personalized, it is something that is kind of separate from the actual activity that you are going into, whereas a preparatory routine or habit is something you do for warming up your muscles or getting in the right mindset. Or we'll see racers who do, you know little activities with their physios before races so that they're priming their body to be ready to make quick decisions. So rituals are distinct from from habits and pre pre competition routines. With that context, I want to first talk about a study from the University of Toronto and how they learned that rituals can actually help performance. And then I want to jump into more of the subjective observations that I've read about from different people and different sources that explain why pre competition rituals might be really beneficial. So from the University of Toronto, as I said, they learned that rituals can help performance, specifically by regulating the brain's response to personal or performance failure. And the way they discovered this was that they conducted a study that observed brain activity and measured brain activity during a series of challenging tasks, where participants sometimes did a ritual before these tasks, and then sometimes they didn't. And the task was intended to be extremely challenging, so that everyone would fail at some point. And what they found was that the people who did the rituals had less brain activity and less brain reactivity after failing, then the people who hadn't done a ritual beforehand. So this supported their hypothesis that having rituals desensitizes the brain's anxiety related reaction to an error. And if you think about how this helps with competition, if you're able to stay calm, cool and collected after making a mistake, you're that much more likely to recover and rebound quickly and get back on track. The racing example would be let's say you get oversteer or you're loose, and so your car turns more than you're expecting it to. If you freak out, you might not be able to get the car back on track quickly. Or if you go off track, or if you spin, the quicker you're able to get back going again, the better your results going to be. And so what they found is that people who did rituals regularly before these tasks, were more likely to be able to recover. I think that's interesting, because that was something we also actively trained for with PitFit in the motorsports training that I was working on. Because they really emphasize when we were training if we dropped a ball during an exercise, or if we somehow made a mistake, or didn't do as well, I remember that I would give commentary or make fun of myself and my trainer was very rigid and like no, just get back into it, get your brain back into it. Don't dwell on what you did wrong, like get back into it. And so I thought it was interesting that this study actually sees that rituals can assist in being able to get your head back into the competition mode after making a mistake. And that recovery is critical regardless of if you're in a sport competition. If you're doing anything performance if you're giving a presentation. If you're in the middle of a really important Ask if you're parenting, I mean, the ability to recover from a mistake or an error is so important. So maybe we can also think about how we can incorporate rituals into our day to day lives, to help us minimize that brain reactivity to making mistakes. The next thing that was really interesting to read about when it came to pre competition rituals was the idea that by having a standard and consistent ritual that you do before an event, it helps promote familiarity, even in different environments in different situations. And if we're focusing on athletes, we compete in very different places, racers go to different racetracks, the culture is different, the environments different, the people are different, the food is different. And so if you're able to find comfort and stability in the familiarity of your routine, and your ritual, that will help you feel more calm, and it'll help you stay more comfortable, which then helps performance. So that's a really interesting thing to think about. Again, in our day to day lives, if we're having to perform at a high level in different environments. Perhaps having a ritual will help center us even if it's on a more subconscious level. The last more subjective thing that I read about in different offices, or that rituals can make you feel lucky. And feeling like you are giving yourself an advantage or feeling like you are making yourself lucky will boost your confidence and it'll make you feel just that extra little bit better. And so that ties in with the familiarity it ties in with the reducing the reactivity to errors. But being able to do anything to get your confidence up is critical for any high performance activity. I would then argue that if you are used to doing a ritual, and for whatever reason you don't do it ahead of time, I would assume that that could also make you feel unlucky or hurt your confidence. And so it's important to make sure that if we are having these effects from rituals that we are being consistent in how we're using them before any competition, as I was reading about rituals, and some of this higher level research that was done on rituals, it also got me thinking about how in any given competitive environment, regardless of what we're doing, if we inadvertently do something that precedes a win or a strong performance, or anything like that. It might make you more inclined to repeat that action every time and it kind of ties into some superstitions that I know a lot of competitive. athletes feel that they have to do something because they just feel superstitious about it. This happened to me very early in my racing career. I clearly remember I had done my first Skip Barber race when I was 13 years old at Lime Rock. I did terribly. I have another episode about it where I explained that I was two laps down at the end of the race. It was awful. But starting the next season when I was 14, I was racing in the Skip Barber series full time and our first race was at Virginia International Raceway, we were racing the full course I had qualified pole. I was so excited. I was also so nervous. I didn't quite know what to do with the incredible turnaround from the first race of my race car driving career being two laps down to them qualifying on pole. So it's just feeling a little uneasy, very nervous. And it turns out that I was a little late getting to the grid to get ready to go out and race and I had to go to the bathroom. So I ended up sprinting to the bathroom, I sprinted to my car. And as I was getting ready and dressed, I realized I felt a little better. I felt a little calmer. I felt a little more optimistic and positive, there was something about that little burst of energy that raised my endorphins and Endorphins make you happy. And I went out and I ended up winning the race. And there was something on a subconscious psychological level that told me that I need to do that little sprint before every single race. I decided to do this partially because it physically made me feel better and it made me feel less anxious. And that was a way to treat my symptoms of fear and nervousness which I learned. But I'm looking back and I definitely also just felt superstitious that by doing the sprint, I won a race and that I had to keep doing that. And in that season in particular I won 12 of 14 races and so clearly worked. haven't won all my races since then, obviously, but it's something that I do and the next time I'm in a car I will also do a little sprint. I don't sprint to the bathroom anymore, but I do sprint down pit road or maybe I'll sprint from the hauler to pit road or something like that something to get that little burst of energy and continuing on this topic of my rituals. I don't feel like I do anything particularly crazy. But I do have things that I have to do very specifically before any competition or any any on track competition. The first is that sprint I feel like I have to do that. That's brand and might be short and might be sweet. It doesn't matter, just a nice little sprint. I also have a very specific tightness that I need my racing shoes to be at. And typically it takes several tries before I feel like I've gotten both my shoes where they need to be. So that a little annoying, but it's something that I'm very sensitive to. And then the last set of things that I do as a ritual is have a very specific order and way that I put my gear on as I'm getting into the car. So first, I have to tie my hair back in a low ponytail pretty tightly, it needs three loops on the ponytail holder if y'all know what I'm talking about. So we have that that tied back, I throughout my racing career could never have bangs or angled haircuts so that I couldn't pull back my hair fully. Like I felt like I needed the security of my hair being pulled back in its entirety, with no loose strands. So that was one thing. Then I put my balaclava on while I'm still out of the car, I put my suit up, I zip everything, tighten all the Velcro, and then put my HANS device, my neck, my neck HANS device on, I get into the car, and then I loosely put on all of my seat belts, there's no particular order to this. But then while I still have my helmet off, I tighten my right lap belt pretty tight, I tighten my left lap belt pretty tight. I then loosely put on each of my shoulder belts, and so they are locked in but pretty loose. And then I make sure that the center unit of the seatbelt system like where everything comes together is very centered on my body. Then I give a final tug on the right belt and a tug on the left lap belt. And then I put my helmet on I secure it right away, I put my HANS device on. And then I make sure that the shoulder belts are back over the horns were how they have to be. And then I mostly tighten the right shoulder belt and then I mostly tighten the left shoulder belt. And then I have to put my left glove on first and I have to hold my sleeve of my suit in a certain way to make sure it gets that overlap, I have to do the same thing on my right glove. I then take a second while my shoulder belts are still somewhat loose to take a deep breath in and a deep breath out. And then I tighten my shoulder belts like there is no tomorrow. And I try to feel like I cannot breathe. Because the seat belts do loosen up a little bit when you're in the car just from all the vibrations. So that's what I have to do before every race. Sometimes it feels a little tedious, but it definitely also feels wrong if I don't do it. So I am committed to those pre race rituals as a special treat for you guys. And because I was curious about what other racers might do during their rituals, I have asked several people to send me what they do before every race as their ritual. And this is who they are and what they had to say. Katherine Legge 13:05 I am Katherine Legge. My rituals before races are vary, but they vary on the same theme, which is always visualization. I always have just a routine that has become so ingrained in me over the years, which is wiping the bottom of my soles of my feet, like scraping them on the pavement so that I know nothing stuck to the bottom of them. It's like getting in my zen place, which I can do just by telling myself that I've done this 100 times before. And I'm gonna be okay. If I trust my subconscious, so don't overthink it. So then I just kind of let myself go through the motions and visualizations, obviously a big tool and being prepared because if you're prepared, you're confident if you're confident you can let your subconscious deal with everything. And that, my friends is the most effective way of doing it. Julia Landauer 13:57 Thank you, Catherine. Next we have John Edwards 14:02 My name is John Edwards, I spent 11 years as a factory driver for BMW and the GTLM class of the IMSA WeatherTech Sportscar Championship. I think for me the biggest ritual I had was always having a shot of espresso right before I would drive. It's not something I did when I was younger. But in sports cars, I guess the the nature of doing long endurance races, I kind of started drinking a lot more espresso at the racetrack, especially being surrounded by all the Europeans. And that built into kind of a tradition and eventually whether it was a hot summer day at var and I was only going to do one stint or if I was doing an endurance race, you know, 24 hour race at Daytona in January. I would have to have shot of espresso before every stent that I drove. I think in terms of preparing to drive I had to kind of rely on on what I did when I was younger and junior Formula cars. Back then I spent a lot of time on visualization I would associate that with music. And so I would listen to embarrassingly a lot of Eminem. While I would do visualization, and slowly, I could do less and less visualization before a stent, and just listen to music on my way to the grid, and that kind of helped trick my mind into okay, it's it's game time and you know, you gotta get your, your mind ready to go. As I got older, and as I I raced year after year, and especially getting into sports cars, where you don't have the luxury to sit by yourself for 10 minutes or 15 minutes before a stent. Because you don't really know when you're getting in the car, sometimes, whether it's under green flag conditions, or if the yellow comes out at a weird time. And you might be in the middle of eating a sandwich and somebody turns around and tells you to throw a helmet on. So you've got to be ready to switch it on at any time. And so for me those years of, of training and and work that I put in, in the junior Formula car days, is what paid off at that point where I got used to just being able to turn off, turn off my my brain a little bit and just let myself go into the zone and be ready to go. Julia Landauer 16:07 Thanks for sharing that, John. Next we have Zach Herrin 16:11 This is Zach Herrin driver in NASCAR's ARCA Menards series and here are my previous rituals. Before stock cars I used to race professional Superbikes and I would actually roll around on the ground in my leathers to kind of associate the idea that I've already made contact with the track surface so I won't need to during the race. Now my previous rituals are a bit more tame. Typically I just put on some really good music. Sorry, but unfortunately, I mean, it's no country for me. Then also tend to pee a lot. I don't know if that's because I get super nervous or more so likely because I over hydrate myself leading up to race days. But yeah, they're they're my pre-race rituals. Julia Landauer 16:54 I too pee a lot before a race. So right there with you, Zach, thank you. The last race or we're gonna hear from is Rajah Caruth who races in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Rajah Caruth 17:05 In terms of previous rituals, I used to be like pretty antsy, just because I didn't have a lot of experience. And so I just didn't know what to expect. But nowadays, I'm pretty calm, prerace. And usually the day of just because we we practice a lot during the week. I personally practice a lot and look at a lot of film and practice on my simulators and at the go kart track and things of that nature. So it's really not a super nerve wracking environment for myself. In terms of on race days, like I usually always get eggs and pancakes in the morning or a waffle. But always getting like scrambled eggs and stuff and then prerace and stuff. I'll do like a little stretch, just to activate like my lower back and stuff like that and get my body feeling nice. Then I'll juggle and then just pray or listen to music a little bit. And then it's got two intros is really simple. Just because I'm, like I said, I used to be pretty antsy due to my experience. But now that I've got some years under my belt, my belt, it's really just kind of showing up to do do my job and have fun. Julia Landauer 18:12 Definitely important to have fun. And it's so cool to hear my fellow racers, pre race rituals. I didn't know the answers ahead of time. And as you see, some are more wacky, some are more mundane, but provide that familiarity that is so critical to success and performance. So big thank you to Katherine, John, Zach, and Rajah for sharing your previous rituals. And hopefully it adds some color to motorsports fans and viewers when we watch a race to know that there are these complex and inexplicable but still very, very important stages and processes for getting ready to go out and to compete. In summary, pre race or pre competition rituals can be really really beneficial. Clearly a lot of people use them. We know thanks to University of Toronto that they can actually help regulate the brain's response to performance failure. We know that they promote familiarity in new environments and situations that can make us feel lucky and boost our confidence. Not doing it can make us feel unlucky and hurt our confidence. And sometimes some superstitions play into our pre competition rituals as well. Everyone that is our show thank you so much for tuning in. I hope you enjoyed this if you liked it, please share it with a friend someone who might benefit from learning a little bit about rituals. Please leave a review for the podcast rate the podcast follow subscribe to the podcast. As always, thank you for letting me be honest with you and I look forward to seeing you next week.