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How Performance Rituals Can Help You Achieve your Best

habits rituals routines Jan 06, 2022

This post initiates a three-part series on Performance Rituals and addresses the relationship between habits, routines, and rituals and how they can improve your performance.  The second post addresses the various types of rituals and how you can incorporate them to improve and create more consistency in your performance.  Finally, the third post addresses how coaches, teachers, leaders, and parents can use rituals to improve their “team’s” performance.  


We’ve all seen athletes go through their rituals prior to hitting a golf ball, stepping up to the plate, the free throw line, or the tennis serve.  These rituals serve a vital role in helping the athlete prepare for action mentally, physically, and emotionally. 

World class athletes are not the only ones who use rituals.  Performance rituals, routines, and habits serve a key role in the preparation of military personnel and leaders, business and medical professionals, and others who are serious about their performance and committed to doing their best.  Rituals help the user get in the zone and create a consistent and relaxed sense of preparedness, confidence, and focus.

You are unlikely to find anyone at the top of their game who doesn’t religiously follow a core set of habits and routines, and have a daily ritual they protect at all costs.  There are subtle differences between the three, but all are related, and serve a significant role in helping you perform at your best.  Combined, all can have an exponential, synergistic, and positive effect on your performance, OR, if negatively oriented, can devastate your effort.

Habits vs. Routines vs Rituals

Habits, routines, and rituals are similar, often unnoticeably linked, and mutually supportive.  Anne-Laure Le-Cunff from Ness Labs compares the three using two factors: the physical / mental energy and the level of consciousness necessary to implement.

Habits are somewhat mindless and require little thought, like brushing our teeth or going to the bathroom as soon as we wake up in the morning.  Habits are typically a single / simple act and essentially a reaction to a given response and don’t require much thought or energy.

Routines are slightly more complicated, performed with more intention, and typically involve chained events or activities.  A good example of a routine are the linked series of tasks prior to going to bed that might include turning off the TV, preparing the coffee pot, preparing the bed, visiting the bathroom, reading for a few minutes, and finally turning off the light.  Many of us perform this same, or similar series of steps each night with minimal thought. 

Finally, rituals require more energy and increased consciousness, are more deliberate and intentional in nature, and often have a cathartic effect on those who have and follow them closely. (Le Cunff, 2019)  Common examples of ritual include exercise, meditation, journaling, reading, and others. 

For most, to include my Peak Performance System, the slight differences are irrelevant, and a lengthy discussion is not needed.  Realize there are subtle differences between the three and all are a natural extension of your effort to perform at your best.

What Are Performance Rituals and Why Are They Important?

Rituals are a series of deliberate and intentional activities used by serious performers prior to, during, and after events to help them prepare and perform their best.  (Cole, 2019)  Professionals across countless fields use rituals to prepare mentally, physically, and emotionally to live and thrive in volatile, uncertain, and challenging times.

If you are serious about what you do and you need to perform at your best, you can’t just nonchalantly show up, expect things to fall into place and go your way.  This haphazard approach may work during less demanding situations, but it won’t serve you well during difficult challenges or against serious competitors. 

Physical preparation is the obvious, but not easy task, while mental and emotional preparation is far more challenging, yet equally important.  Rituals that focus on the physical preparation can also help create mental and emotional preparedness as well.  Simply put, well-designed rituals prepare the serious performer for an important event and help:

  • Create familiarity with the unknown.
  • Create consistency and a sense of control to a dynamic situation.
  • Get in the zone for an upcoming event or competition by creating focus.
  • Instill confidence in your preparedness.
  • Rest, relax, and prepare for future events.

Let’s dig a little deeper on each. 

USING RITUALS TO CREATE FOCUS

One of the most effective ways to eliminate or manage distractions is to occupy your mind with productive, or at least neutral thoughts.  How many times have you attempted to perform a challenging task, and suddenly negative self-chatter consumes your thoughts?  You ask yourself:  what if I fail like I did last time I tried this? what if something unexpected happens? what if I lose? and what if (fill in blank).  Often this negative self-chatter becomes your worst enemy and defeats you before you begin.

Your mind can quickly transition from one thought to another, but it is difficult, if not impossible for you to have two simultaneous thoughts.  Rituals can help you minimize this negative self-chatter and occupy your mind with constructive thoughts before the negative self-talk affects your effort.  Creating a ritual is a proven method to help occupy your mind as you prepare for difficult challenges. 

USING RITUALS  TO GET IN THE ZONE

Getting in and staying in the zone is important when attempting to perform tasks requiring sustained focus and concentration.  You may have heard people say, “you were in the zone, you performed great,” or maybe, “you need to get in the zone so you can focus.”  “The zone” is not some ethereal twilight zone.  “Simply put, the Zone is a mental state in which your thoughts and actions are occurring in complete synchronicity.”  (Lardon & Leadbetter, 2008)

A Harvard based research effort determined that we are distracted 46.9% of the time. (Bradt, 2010)  How can we perform at or near our best when our mind uncontrollably pings from one thought to another?  WE CANT.

Being able to get in the zone is important and improves your ability to concentrate and ultimately your ability to perform.  You don’t consistently get in the zone with haphazard preparation.  Setting the conditions for optimal performance requires intentional effort.

Being able to get in the zone is necessary if you hope to perform at your best, but being in the zone unnecessarily can be physically and mentally taxing.  So, your ability to step out of the zone to rest, recover, and prepare for your next effort becomes equally important.  I refer to this effort as “zone management,” your ability to either get in the zone, or intentionally avoid the zone so you can relax and recover.  Rituals can help with both.

USING RITUALS  TO CREATE CERTAINTY, CONSISTENCY, AND CONFIDENCE

Growth and opportunity always lie outside our comfort zone and require us to operate in complex,  uncertain, volatile, and ambiguous conditions.  If unprepared, these circumstances can rattle our confidence and unhinge our ability to perform.

We must learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable in today’s fast paced environment.  Our habits, routines, and rituals help prepare us for this uncertainty, but more importantly, gives us and those in our charge cause to perform with confidence. 

Our rituals help ground our preparation in what we know and can anticipate, and help prepare us to adapt and adjust to changing circumstances.  This level of preparation requires intentional effort.  Being confident during turbulent circumstances is difficult at best, but achievable.  Well designed and followed rituals can create confidence in what might otherwise result in doubt, fear, or anxiety.

Performance rituals also help eliminate variables in how we prepare and ultimately perform.  Have you ever experienced an awesome day in the gym, school, or at work where you were energized, at your best, but unable to explain why that day was different than others?

“Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits.  Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits.  Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits.  Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits.  Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits.  You get what you repeat.”

James Clear

Atomic Habits.  Tine Changes, Remarkable Results.  An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.

Rituals can help you answer this question and create consistency in how you perform.  James Clear, in Atomic Habits says that “your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits.”  If you are not getting the result you are looking for or need, assess your rituals, and change, as necessary.

Part two of this series addresses the different types of rituals and how you can incorporate them into your various roles to improve your performance.

 Sources: 

  • Bradt, S. (2010, November 11). Wandering mind not a happy mind”. Retrieved from The Harvard Gazette: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/
  • Clear, J. (2016). Atomic Habits. Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results. An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. New York: Avery.
  • Cole, B. (2019). Performance Rituals. Retrieved from The Mental Game: https://www.mentalgamecoach.com/articles/Article2_02.html
  • Elrod, H. (2014). The Miracle Morning. The Not-So-Obvious Secret Guaranteed to Transform Your Life Before 8AM. Hal Elrod.
  • Lardon, M., & Leadbetter, D. (2008). Finding Your Zone. Ten Core Lessons for Achieving Peak Performance in Sports and Life. New York: Perigee Book.
  • Le Cunff, A.-L. (2019). Habits, routines, rituals. Retrieved from Ness Labs: https://nesslabs.com/habits-routines-rituals
  • McRaven, W. H. (2017). Make Your Bed. Little Things That Can Change Your Life, And Maybe The World. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
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