Thoughts on Pre-Performance Rituals

Whether it’s eating a banana or doing a little dance, pre-performance rituals give us something familiar and comforting to do before stepping out onto a stage. Besides setting up your instrument and making sure your shirt is tucked in, a pre-performance ritual serves to give us some comfort that whatever will happen will be okay. While there are many benefits to having a pre-performance ritual such as helping one to achieve a positive mental state and quiet jittery nerves, there are some instances where it could negatively affect your overall performance.

The most public display of pre-performance rituals may be seen in televised sports. You may notice that before taking a free throw, basketball players will bounce the ball two or three times before shooting. Tennis players may do the same before serving, and you’ve probably seen Michael Phelps swinging his arms across his body in a fantastic display of flexibility before every race. These small rituals give athletes the time and space to clear their minds. Seconds before a performance, the most important thing is to have a sense of security in your abilities. The act of bouncing a ball does not in and of itself improve your prospects of making the shot. It is, rather, your own belief that makes the ritual so powerful as to improve your performance.

The belief that a particular action will benefit your performance is precisely the source of the ritual’s strength, and unfortunately, at the same time, its biggest weakness. We may think of it as a sort of placebo effect. The pre-performance ritual serves as the sugar pill; it is neither helpful nor harmful by itself, but we perceive positive effects from it because of the belief that it is helping us. Having said this, it is easy to imagine the devastating effects of having a strong belief attached to a pre-performance ritual and not being able to perform it one way or another. We may find, however, that the benefits outweigh the downsides to having a pre-performance ritual if we find a secure way to integrate them into our routines.

One of the major benefits to having a pre-performance ritual is that it is comforting and may settle jittery nerves. Maybe bananas are one of your favorite fruits, so eating one before a performance would certainly give you some assurance that everything is still right in the world. I used to wash my hands with warm water before every performance. Even if my hands were clean already and I hadn’t touched anything grimy or anything, I would always wash my hands. While this probably wasn’t necessary the majority of the time, it made me feel better about going into the performance, and that’s the most important part of the pre-performance ritual.

Furthermore, the pre-performance ritual can help us reach a more positive mental state. The morning of the performance, or even just 30 minutes before can be filled with a lot of doubt and other negative emotions if we aren’t careful. Whatever preparation we have done to get to this point must be enough for the day of the concert because by then it is too late to change anything with any degree of certainty. We must reassure ourselves that we have done enough for today’s performance and take comfort that the music is secure in our minds and fingers. The only thing left to do before a performance is to get mentally ready. For me, washing my hands was like giving myself a clean slate before a performance. No matter what happened on stage, at least I had good clean hands. Whatever your pre-performance ritual may be, you need to believe that this action will put you in a better mental state in order for it to be effective. Otherwise, athletes and musicians alike would have no need for pre-performance rituals.

In conclusion, it’s really up to us to decide whether or not pre-performance rituals are beneficial or detrimental to our own playing styles. You may decide that you don’t need to do anything special before a performance because you already have a way to control your nerves. On the other hand, you may find that dancing a little jig before a performance relaxes your tense limbs and makes your overall performance stronger. Everyone is different. You need to see what works best for you and just do it*.

*This post was not sponsored by Nike.

Crouse, K. “Avoiding the Deep End When It Comes to Jitters” last modified July 25, 2009.