Athletics News

Brian Alexander: Using Routines To Find Peak Performance

Nov. 19, 2017

By Brian Alexander

When pressure mounts and the game is on the line, mentally strong athletes rely on specific processes they’ve practiced hundreds of times in order to give themselves the opportunity to perform at their peak. These processes create an optimal state of mind for the movements or skills they are executing. These processes are known primarily as performance routines.

A routine is a pre-planned, step-by-step approach to preparing for the task at hand in a way that allows athletes to mentally and physically find their ideal state of readiness to compete. Routines are used before, during, or even after the making of a play or a game. In water polo, a number of game situations require athletes to make a mental transition from the way they were feeling and thinking during the last play to the next one. Mental routines combine a number of elements, such as concentration, thought processes, and movement strategies that help athletes transition quickly.

The most obvious time to use a routine is while preparing for a practice or game. The routine usually starts informally prior to game day, and then as game day approaches, the routine becomes more structured with specific meals, stretches, warm-up swims, focus strategies, and breathing. When working through a routine, the mind and body work together to find a level of readiness that relates to the ideal energy needed to experience peak performance. If an athlete’s mental and physical energy level exceeds their ideal level of readiness, then they may feel overwhelmed with nervousness. It’s important to learn from past best games and the energy level reached before the game, so a target is created with the routine for the next games.

During a water polo game, there are moments when the mind and body need to switch from a dynamic situation such as a counter attack to more of a static situation such as taking a 5-meter penalty shot. Using a routine to calm the mind and body and add clarity of focus helps the execution of the penalty shot. Another situation may be during quarter breaks when athletes must manage their emotions from the last play in order to receive feedback from coaches and teammates. A routine used here helps make the transition. For example, during the swim over, a player can shift attention to something unrelated to the last play by focusing on the strokes of the swim combined with diaphragmatic breathing.

There are three main reasons why mental routines are effective for peak performance:

1. Attention Control: Routines help athletes block out distractions and create and maintain the appropriate focus for the task at hand.
2. Mental and Physical Readiness: During stoppages or transitions of play, athletes may not be warmed up properly. Using a routine will assist in helping the athlete warm-up appropriately again in a timely manner.
3. Automatic Functioning: Most athletes want to limit overthinking during play, which is helped with the use of routines.
Performance routines require ongoing efforts over time by combining mental and physical elements based on experience and feedback from others. Start building your performance and constantly check-in to see if attention, energy, and body language match the needs of your position and role on your team.

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