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The Importance of Rituals for Peak Performance

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Most great athletes have a ritual that helps them focus. An infielder may fiddle with a spot on his glove. An elite tennis player may adjust the racquet strings after a hard shot even though the strings do not need, adjusting. A football kicker or punter may take a deep breath and shake his head right to left before the snap. A batter might swing a heavy bat. A golfer may do trunk twists while holding a club across her shoulders.

The push-up with a clap and the shoulder-tap push-up are two basic activities that are safe and require little time, space and equipment. While doing these exercises, consider the fundamental essence of becoming quicker and developing speed, learning to relax in a situation that normally does not encourage relaxation. Body stress and tension only deplete energy and misdirect focus.

Between each set of jumping rope or push-ups, develop a relaxation ritual. It may be as simple as leaning left and right and stretching the back or leaning forward and backward and performing toe touches and backbends. It may mean pacing back and forth with eyes closed and focusing on the movements just performed. It does not matter what the ritual is; it matters what the ritual does. It should redirect focus and help the athlete relax. When developing a ritual to use between bouts of speed, quickness, and power, consider these four words: relax, recover, recall, and repeat.

Relax

Any ritual should promote relaxation. Control breathing. Increase the amount of air inhaled and exhaled, and reduce breathing speed. Clear the lungs completely instead of just huffing and puffing between sets. Close the eyes and imagine the movement just performed. Or pick an object or spot in space and focus on it. Initially, music may help promote relaxation. Many athletes train with music, but music cannot be reproduced in competition. This is one reason any ritual should come from inside the athlete, not from an outside source. Many athletes talk to themselves or chant. Some athletes hum or sing. It doesn't really matter as long as it creates relaxation.

Recover

Recovering from a bout of explosive activity is partly about relaxation and partly about focusing on a weak link. If that weak link is flexibility, for example, then it's best to pick a few stretches to do between sets, such as calf or quad stretches, upper-back stretches, or entire movement patterns, such as squatting or lunging. If the exercise itself causes anxiety or nervousness, it will develop tension in the muscles.

A good way to gauge tension is to stretch or explore movement patterns before the exercise and then repeat the stretch or movement after the exercise to see whether certain muscle groups became tense or tight. This may be part of the athlete's natural response, so recovery requires more than just breathing and lowering heart rate. It means making sure the musculoskeletal system feels loose, relaxed, and ready for another bout of exercise. Figure out what you need to do to lose the tension.

Someone with left-right differences may want to stretch only the stiff side. Those who are just generally stiff should pick the stiffest movement pattern and work on improving that movement pattern as part of recovery. Relax and continue breathing.

If flexibility is not a problem, stability may be. Those with stability problems tend to get sloppy in technique as fatigue sets in. The problem is not moving too little, it is moving too much. A great stabilizing activity is to stand on one foot and pull the opposite knee all the way to the chest. Most people will think that this stretches the hip and knee in the leg being pulled up, but actually it works the stabilizers in the standing leg. Standing on one leg brings in the trunk muscles. It reinforces proper posture as long as a tall, elongated spine and correct body alignment are maintained.

To achieve additional stability in the upper body, reach as high as possible with the arm on the same side as the standing leg. Do not reach back; raise it straight up. You should almost feel a stretch in the armpit. Note the stability on one leg compared to the other side. Work to make both sides equally stable. Remember to breathe arid relax. This does not require many muscles; it should feel natural. Stay tall, breathe deeply, don't round your back, and don't wobble.

Recall

So far, we have not asked much of the mind. Try to recall the activity just performed, not so much from a technical standpoint but rather from a perspective of feel. What were different body parts doing? Where was the main focus? What minor adjustments should be made now that you know what it felt like? Should you relax more? Should you keep the spine taller or more elongated? Should you move the rope faster or widen the hands in the push-up? Recall the activity. Consider the small changes that need to be made and run through them in your mind while going through your ritual.

Repeat

The final step is to repeat the activity in your mind and visualize how you would do it differently. If you would not do it differently, repeat the previous activity in your mind. If you plan to make a subtle change or adjustment, repeat the activity a few times in your mind before doing it.

That's your ritual. Although rituals may look different on the outside, most champions do the same four things automatically. Some focus more on relaxation or recovery. Some focus completely on the mental imagery of the activity just performed and the one they are going to do next. Most do all four steps; the ratio and the order don't matter much. By incorporating these concepts into your ritual, you will create a home base, a place you can go to recover, a place that you have been many times before in training, a place you can go to during competition.

Recognize that speed and quickness training occur just as powerfully when recovering and relaxing between bouts of exercise as they do when actually executing the moves. It can be helpful to pick other activities not related to your sport. Many athletes use table tennis and racquetball to maintain, quickness and alertness. One-on-one basketball is also an excellent way to learn to manage quickness and speed. These activities can be used to learn to relax under pressure, to be quick without being tense, and to remember to breathe and maintain good posture while performing an activity. A simple cross-training game like table tennis or racquetball can have positive effects when it comes to the way the brain and emotions deal with other situations that require speed and quickness. But don't just play. Use what you have learned and make it work.

The key is to eliminate over-analysis and force yourself to feel things you do not naturally feel. The body wants to relax and recover. The mind has no problem recalling a simple activity that it just did, which is why it is important to pick simple activities. After all, if you can't teach yourself to relax, recover, and repeat a jump rope or push-up activity, how will you find success more complex movements?

Gray Cook is a practicing physical therapist and creator of the Functional Movement Screen. Learn more at GrayCook.com.

Tags: Focus, Relaxation, Planning

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