A look at the mental and physical benefits of repetitive actions
April 4, 2017 by Matt Rothstein in Instruction with 5 comments
“Every athlete acquires routines as a way to help control the nerves.” — Hope Solo
This is the first installment in a series on the Art of Routine, in which I hope to explore the benefits of a well-developed routine in every phase of competition. Today we’re looking, in particular, at the pre-shot routine. These are the patterns we develop for those moments leading up to our throw — everything from the way we set our bag down, to the way we execute our mental checklist (shot selection, disc selection, etc.), to the way we step up to our lie.
Everyone’s routine is unique. Some are more distinctive — think Nate Sexton’s signature disc flip, or Paul McBeth digging in his back foot like a sprinter before each putt — while others are more subtle. Sometimes they border on obsessive, or just plain superstitious (tennis great Rafael Nadal’s habit of, as GQ put it gently to him in an interview, “adjusting [his] underwear between points”). But maintaining a deliberate and consistent routine before each and every shot is especially important because, as we will see, the line between where this routine ends and the shot begins is very thin. These are the last moments when we have a chance to determine our success or failure on the course, and, in a very real sense, this is where we win or lose.
Between Technique and Supersitition
We observe athletes employing routines whenever there is a repetitive and predictable initiation of action: baseball players step out of the box to tap the dirt off their cleats between each pitch, basketball players dribble the ball and do a knee bend before each free-throw, etc. Coming up through the junior tennis ranks, my coaches put no small emphasis on developing routines. Before each service point, I would walk slowly back toward the fence, back to the court, head down, straightening the strings on my racket so that each ran in perfect parallel, adjusting the string dampener, and all the while focusing on recovery and controlled breathing. Bounce the ball three times, pick a target in the service box, toss, and serve.
Routines like this reside somewhere in between technique and superstition. Technique, broadly speaking, consists of everything that materially contributes to performance: e.g., hydration is part of the technique of keeping the body fit for exertion, putting dry towels in your bag is part of the technique of gearing up for a round, a relaxed backswing is part of the technique of a backhand drive, etc.
Of course, it isn’t clear that things like making sure the strings on a tennis racket are in perfect parallel, or, for that matter, Nadal’s habit of — as a far less charitable writer put it — “picking the shorts out of [his] Roland Garros-loving derriere,” will, in any material way, contribute to performance. Taken too far in this direction, we risk falling into habits and superstitions that may actually reinforce bad technique and distract from our focus, undermining the very purpose that routines are intended to serve.
“A routine is not a routine if you have to think about it.” — Davis Love Jr.
Rather, a well-balanced routine establishes harmony between these two extremes: It should grow out of necessity and evolve into habit. Straightening your strings to geometric perfection may have no discernible impact on performance, but the underlying motivation — to make sure that there are no serious irregularities that may actually cause a misplay — is well-founded, just as Nadal’s unseemly wardrobe adjustments grows out of a reasonable concern for well-fitted attire. The purpose of routines, and especially the pre-shot routine, is not so much to serve as a checklist for technical prerequisites — although it can contribute to this end — but, rather, to prepare the mind and body to be ready to execute under the pressure of competition. The important principle for any pre-shot routine is that it be purposeful, and that it should not impede our technique or, in any other way, interfere with our performance.
Mental and Physical Benefits of Routine
Pre-shot routines will, as we have said, prepare the mind and body for the moment of execution. It does this, primarily, by bringing comfort and familiarity to situations that are distinctly uncomfortable and unfamiliar. Competition is uncomfortable. Pressure is uncomfortable. Sure, some players thrive under these conditions. But rather than chalking this up to raw natural ability, or marveling at how they have “ice in their veins,” we should instead treat the ability to perform under pressure as an essential skill that can be improved, just like any other, through attentive practice.
The pre-shot routine is particularly useful for maintaining focus and calibrating your level of intensity. It isn’t possible, nor is it necessary, to maintain focus throughout an entire round — especially considering some tournament rounds can last upwards of three or four hours. Rather, we should aim to let ourselves relax in between shots, to enjoy ourselves in the beautiful settings to which disc golf brings us and the company to which we are privileged (of course, this can be taken too far — we probably don’t want to be checking our Facebook feed as we are walking up the fairway). But when it is time to step up for our shot, we want to be able regain our focus and bring ourselves back into the moment. We want to be able to shut out all distractions, including that little voice that sometimes pops up in our own head reminding us of all the things that could go wrong. At this moment, we need to be in the moment, and a thoughtful, consistent routine can help get us there.
The same is true of our intensity level, which can fluctuate wildly throughout a round. But intensity, unlike focus, is not in short supply. Oftentimes what is called for is a reduction in intensity, and a lowering of the blood pressure — like when we are coming off a double-bogey, or just missed a putt that is likely to haunt our dreams. And a high-stakes event, alone, can easily present enough ambient intensity to flood our engine.
The prescription, however, is just the same. By going through the familiar patterns of the pre-shot routine, we get an opportunity to slow down, observe the state of our body and mind, and to make sure that we are as prepared as we can be to focus and execute each and every shot.
We want to hear from you: What does your pre-shot routine look like? Leave us a comment below to keep the discussion going.