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Pre-Game Routines in Sports

Pre-Game Routines in Sports

People often think they have a routine, but it’s not always the case. Common questions regarding routines are:

What’s the difference between a routine and a superstition? What should I be thinking? How do I know it’s not a superstition? What behaviours or actions should I be doing? Will it really help me perform better?

Hopefully the following article will help explain these and any other questions around pre-performance routines.

A pre-performance routine is defined as ‘Sequence of task relevant thoughts and actions which an athlete engages in systematically prior to his or her performance of a specific sport skill.’(Moran, 1996, p177). This definition highlights that a routine needs to be task specific, systematic and engaged with.

Most research has been in closed skills (basketball free throw, golf putting, diving); these are skills which are in a controlled environment like basketball; however if you an athlete or coach an athlete from more open skilled sports, don’t worry some research in rugby and cricket has also proven the use routines. The pre-performance routine is to be used before a skill is executed, like a golf putt, dive or gymnastic performance.

Research has shown that performers who use routines in closed skill sports have enhanced performance in; basketball free throw shooting (Lonsdale & Tam, 2008), golf putting (Bell et al, 2010), diving (Bell et al, 2008), water polo penalty (Marlow et al 2001), rugby goal kicking (Jackson & Baker, 2001) and volleyball serving (Lidor & Mayan, 2005).

The follow section highlights why a routine is different from a superstition. A superstition is an athlete’s belief that certain actions will lead to certain outcomes, often in the form of backward chaining from previous success (Lahey, 1992; Moran, 2004). Superstitions are a restriction on a burden on your performance with no scientific evidence to say they work.

Your routine will need developing over time, as your skill level improves, you will need to make little changes to your routine as you go along. The reason for this is that elite athletes can perform the skill without thinking about it. When we are learning the skill we think about technique, therefore an elite performer’s routine will consist of emotional regulation where a novice will require more technique based routine for example use coaching tips as cue words. Therefore allow your routine to develop over time and don’t get restricted to same routine if you need to adjust it.

So, how do you establish a routine?

There are two sections to an effective pre performance routine actions and thoughts:

• Actions or behaviours which enable your task, for example practice swings in golf before putting or driving the ball (Crews & Boutcher, 1986).

• Use the same number of actions or behaviours before each skill execution (Cohn, 1990).


• Self talk is a common skill used by elite athletes (Cotterill, 2011), tell yourself what you are going to do or feel, for example ‘relax’ as you breath out or ‘smooth’ for the movements

o Be positive

o Be relevant

o Keep it short

• Use imagery to imagine the skill you going to execute from your point of view, for example imagining a line which the ball will travel on from the golf ball to the hole.

• Relax and control you’re breathing, breathing should be slow and rhythmical.

• Final phases you should focus on ‘feeling’ of the skill (this will enable you to not over think the movements).

Next are tips for establishing a routine:

• Routines are very individual; it’s what works for you! (Cotterill, 2010; Singer, 2000).

• Don’t worry about duration of a routine, it doesn’t matter as long as it is right for you (unless rules dictate otherwise), but you should stay consistent with the duration of the routine (Mack, 2001).

• Make sure that the elements of your routine are task specific to the sporting skill being executed (Moran, 1996).

• Be flexible with the routine over time, as your skill develops your routine will need little changes along the way (Fitts & Posner, 1967).

• A routine will take time to establish (Beauchamp et al, 1996).

• If you get distracted during your routine, if possible stop and start again.

• Avoid deviating from the routine by adding in behaviour or action this will result in a decrease in performance.

I hope you find this useful any questions feel free to contact me via twitter @adamkellypsych or my blog

Adam Kelly


  1. Interesting read.

  2. how do they help increase your performance?

    • Mental preparation which increases confidence and trust facilitating the zone.

  3. A Routine is best built around an optimal result that is acceptable to the individual as they improve their skill. The value of a solid routine should not be overlooked. A solid repeatable routine built around correct execution of any skill is more important than the skill itself. A Routine must have a trigger which makes it automatic and will make the skill a reflex action rather than conscious action. Routines are the foundation which makes any skill repeatable. Most people have no clue how to build a routine since they are much to focused on the result. They forget that a routine is a skill as well which needs to precede the intended skill demonstration. All skill demonstration can have few or many prerequisites in order to reproduce a specific predictable result repeatedly. 80% of a skill being executed successfully is your skills routine, 20% is the actual execution after the routine. Think of a routine as a system which unleashes a specific potential result. You can still make errors even after a perfect routine but stick to the routine or forever be the victim of unpredictable results. A solid routine can and will get you through days when your mind is a bit disconnected. It called going through the motions. You achieve your goal even when you are mentally off. The best routine will produce only two outcomes, optimal or close enough. Poor routines can reproduce any type of result. Don’t be a person that has a routine(habit) of not building solid routines for your important skills!

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