How do you keep your cool right before a stressful event? Do you meditate? Prefer eating something that you think works as a lucky charm? Or do you indulge in a superstition like wearing your seemingly ‘lucky’ clothes to the boardroom meeting? Whether you do or not you’ll be quite surprised that this pre-anything-stressful ritual is quite a thing in sports! Apparently, if you haven’t yet noticed, Serena Williams bounces the tennis ball about five times before her first serve and twice before her second serve. Indian cricketer, Rohit Sharma calls his wife before he goes for a team meeting or a game. He prefers to step into the field with his right leg first! Sachin Tendulkar preferred wearing his left pad before the right one before every game. Former Australian cricketer, Steve Waugh, used to carry a red handkerchief in his pocket for good luck. Laurnet Blanc, the famous French footballer and midfielder believed that kissing goalkeeper Fabien Barthez’s bald head immediately before each game brought his team luck!
Some of you may think it’s crazy but that’s how it is. Each one of us has our own set of quirks that help us navigate through stressful situations. And, a study published in the Harvard Business Review confirms it. The premise was to test whether such pre-performance rituals do actually reduce anxiety or not. They conducted four experiments.
Experiment 1: 85 students were asked to sing a song before their peers. About half of them were asked to do random things like ‘draw a picture of how they were feeling, sprinkle salt on the drawing, count to five, crumple the paper, and throw it in the trash’. After all of them sang the song the investigators measured participants’ performance. They found out that people who were asked to perform a pre-performance ritual had lower heart rates and felt less anxious than who didn’t.
As it turns out, this experiment did prove the efficacy of pre-performance ritual. But, the chief investigator, Alison Wood Brooks and fellow investigators thought that “calling a behavior a “ritual” would make it a better performance enhancer than calling it a “series of random behaviors.” To test this hypothesis they went on to do the next three studies.
Experiment 2: They conducted a math test and told half the participants that the test is a difficult IQ test whereas the rest were told that it’s a fun test. Then they were randomly asked to perform a pre-test ritual.
Experiment 3: Participants were then asked to complete a difficult task and some were told to perform a pre-performance behavior while others were told to perform a ritual. As is the case, those who performed a ritual boosted their performance.
Experiment 4: Right before a stressful Math test 89 adults were asked to perform a ritual or a behavior. This was to mainly test whether pre-performance rituals do induce are effective because it gives people a sense of being in control. After the completion of the test, they measured how in-control and anxious participants did feel. The results suggested that although the people who performed rituals didn’t report being in control yet their performance was better than the other lot of participants.
So, it seems performing a ritual right before a demanding and stressful situation can reduce anxiety and improve one’s performance. The next time you have a presentation to give or appear for an interview or write a competitive exam make sure you do something that relaxes you. It may be as meaningless as doing a push-up or drinking a glass of juice. In any case, make sure you don’t let these control your performance. Have enough faith in your caliber. Think of these rituals as tranquilizers that will help you take your mind off the ‘what will happen next’ thoughts.
PS: Do you have a favourite pre-performance ritual? Share with us and your peers because as bizarre as it may seem it’s rather quite ubiquitous!