How really anything can lead to better performance – if you believe
In our quest for better performance, many of us rely on odd, sometimes fascinatingly bizarre, psychological rituals and behavioral superstitions. We’ve all seen it: Some exercisers swear by a particular pre-workout snack that “guarantees” a great session; other gym-goers will train only listening to a specific playlist, claiming no other music can quite get them to that “zone”. Athletes, too, may resort to eccentric habits: The soccer goalie in the crease who bobs his head back and forth minutes before game time, seemingly deep in thought or prayer. Or the softball player who, between pitches, conducts an elaborately choreographed routine of touching her bat or adjusting her helmet or fiddling with her batting gloves in very particular ways.
Most of us have fallen victim to it, too: refusing to shave in the middle of our adult softball league playoffs, putting our work clothes on in the same order before a big presentation, or claiming the same seat each Saturday morning at our group spin class.
But do they actually work? Is there evidence that certain rituals “work better” than others? Is there evidence that rituals work at all? The bizarre can, in fact, work: Research has demonstrated some pretty peculiar things that may actually enhance performance. Here is a listing of just a few recent findings:
- Two University of Arizona scientists devised experiments to test whether our subconscious fear of dying would have an effect on athletic performance. They found the theory of terror management – our ability to maintain self-esteem as a buffer of sorts against the anxiety of dying – motivates people enough to perform better on the basketball court, specifically by upping their scoring and effort levels during the experimental task. Turns out the terror management theory holds water: More than 500 studies conducted over the past 25 years confirm that reminding people of their mortality leads them to tend to their self-esteem as a way of dealing with the threat.
- A recent study revealed that harnessing a personal rivalry can motivate runners to train and race harder and faster, contrary to the advice many running experts suggest, which is to focus on your own race and not worry about others. Lead author Gavin Kilduff notes “some people may find it surprising that runners actually pick one and another out at these kind of races but my experiences speaking with them suggests they indeed do.”
- Specific styles of music can influence sports performance in different ways. Jazz music has been shown to enhance golf putting performance more than other genres. Some research has shown that country music improves batting, rap music improves jump shots and running is improved by any up-temp music. Research has even found that Jamaican music and Hip-Hop increases operating speed and surgical instrument manipulation (although another study reported that one in four anesthetists, who are responsible for keeping patients sedated, said music reduced their vigilance).
Is this all true? Will thoughts of dying help improve our jump shot? Will picking out a rival at the local 5K make us run faster? Will listening to Bob Marley quicken every surgeon’s fine motor skills? Ultimately, there’s very little, if anything, that guarantees success for a performer – and that’s a pretty scary bit of knowledge, especially for those of us whose livelihoods are contingent upon successful performance. In an industry where outcomes are determined by milliseconds, inches or single points, and much of the result is largely out of our control, our minds must be clear of doubt. After all, if you don’t believe you can succeed, you’re likely to fail. It’s no wonder we turn to specific genres of music, particular items of “lucky” clothing or pre-match rituals seemingly devoid of reason. These all provide reassurance and add a bit of comfort, thereby eliminating doubt. They grant players the illusion of control over events that realistically often come down to random bounces or sheer luck.
It’s not the superstitions or rituals themselves that make a difference. It’s the passionate belief in them that does, even if the ritual has no lab-tested effects whatsoever. Any belief can have remarkably powerful effects, providing it is held with enough conviction.
To deliver when it really matters, reach for the particular ritual that makes sense to you – prayer, abstinence from shaving, meditation, mental imagery. Take your pick. If your belief is there, so might the results.