Tips and Tricks to Develop a Killer Pregame Routine
Leaned back in a chair with his hood up and headphones on, this Olympian could not be bothered. The look on his face was one of a man on a mission, completely engulfed in focus and concentration. That was the image the world saw of Michael Phelps before a race in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
It went viral due to the fierce and unwavering expression on his face. This was the way Phelps was mentally preparing for the event ahead of him.
Wouldn’t you like to be able to develop such focus and intensity before a competition? It all lies in preparation; and the best way to do so is with a well thought out pregame routine.
Importance of a Pregame Routine
Being composed and confident at the beginning of a competition seems like a blessed gift bestowed upon a lucky few. However, it is not something only a handful of people can enjoy. By following a pregame routine, you too can develop such composure and confidence from the get-go. Pregame routines or rituals allow you to eliminate distractions, build self-confidence, reduce anxiety, and narrow your focus.
Right before a game begins, there are a wide array of thoughts that can flood through your mind. From how your mechanics feel, whether you have aches and pains, who will be watching, and the competition you’ll be facing. These are all distractions that can keep you from staying in the present moment and performing your best. By implementing a pregame routine, you will keep yourself grounded in the present moment, and shift your focus inward.
Two Phases of Preparation
Within a pregame routine there are two phases, one that is done the day before or maybe a few days before, and the other that is performed directly before competition. The first phase allows you to mentally prepare for your opponent and build confidence in your skills leading up to the competition.
The second phase of preparation involves the day of the event. Here you will be using specific strategies to help you perform your best. This will be done by relaxation techniques, confidence building work, and focus and concentration work to ensure you have done your best to eliminate external and internal distractions.
The Night Before
Here I am going to call this aspect the night before, however, by no means is it limited to just the night before competition. It can be done as frequently as you like.
Some athletes who play once a week, like football does, may just save this routine for the day before. Other athletes, such as baseball players, who play much more often, may use their routine daily. It all depends on what you are wanting to get out of it.
Prepare for your Opponent
The day or so before competition, you want to gain any information you can on your opponent. This will help you be more prepared for what you’ll face in the game to come.
Sometimes it can be difficult to get any data on your opponent, especially in the high-school and lower level collegiate settings, but just work with what you have. Any kind of competitive advantage you can gain from researching your opponent will be beneficial.
Watching film is a really good example of this. You can pick up on tendencies and reveal some weaknesses that can be exposed during competition.
Also, check into their stats. This can be especially helpful for sports like baseball and softball. By knowing what each person in the lineup is hitting, you can tell who your toughest outs will be.
Keeping up with baseball and softball, what kind of pitcher is the other team throwing? Are they a righty or a lefty? What kind of velocity and pitches do they have? All this knowledge is just another way to out prepare your competition and provide yourself with an edge.
Now we move onto the mental rehearsal that can be done the night before a competition. This will be used to gain confidence and trust in your skills. Visualization has been shown to increase skill level and confidence in athletes.
Your brain is unable to tell the difference between something imagined and something happening in real life. So, by going through your performance successfully in your mind, to your brain it’s like you’ve actually accomplished it.
You’ll want to get yourself into a quiet environment, free from distractions. Lie down or sit down in a comfortable position. Begin by closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths in and out. You will start to feel yourself relax and the mind go blank. It is now time to start your mental rehearsal.
For the mental rehearsal, have a strategy about what you want to go over. Maybe it’s a certain play, a movement, or a series. Whatever it is, make sure it is detailed and something that you will encounter in the game.
My mental rehearsal went like this. I would start with batting. I’d be in the on-deck circle getting my timing down. Then I would see myself walking up to bat, full of confidence.
As I stepped into the batter’s box, I would go through my pre at bat routine, tapping the plate and giving my bat three swings to relax, eyeing down the pitcher while I do it.
I would then see myself hitting each pitch I may face the next day. I would put myself into stressful situations, such as an 0-2 count with bases loaded and two outs and see myself succeed. After I finished with hitting, I would move to defense.
It was a similar process to hitting. I would see myself fielding the ball successfully in every possible direction, making crisp throws across the diamond right into the chest of the first basemen.
When I started pitching, I would do the same thing. I took each pitch I threw, a fastball, curveball, and change-up, and saw myself execute them perfectly. I would go through specific counts and situations during the game.
Each time I would really feel the nerves like I was actually standing on the mound, and then I would feel the joy and happiness of success once I finished.
After you have gone through your mental rehearsal sequence, it is time to relax and forget about the game until the next day. Do your best to get a good night’s rest, so you can feel energized and ready to go for game day.
"After you have gone through your mental rehearsal sequence, it is time to relax and forget about the game until the next day. Do your best to get a good night’s rest, so you can feel energized and ready to go for game day."
It is now time to look at the pre-game routine that will be utilized during game day. You’ve gone through all your preparation for your opponent and completed your mental rehearsal the night before.
With the excitement of the upcoming game, this routine needs to be geared towards getting you relaxed and focused. One of the major distractions that can arise during a game is the fear of failure.
You can become consumed by not wanting to mess up so badly that you actually fail because of it. One of the best ways to bring your focus back into the moment and stay task oriented is by defining what success means for you.
Due to the many variables that you can encounter during a game, and all the different factors that go into a win or a loss, winning and losing are not a good measure for you to use in describing a successful day.
As an athlete, you should aim for consistency. One of the best ways to do so is by creating goals for each game. If you accomplish these goals, then for you personally it was a successful day. Seem simple enough?
The problem I often ran into, and I’ve seen others run into is when the game starts, and all the nerves come flooding in, you forget about what your goals were for that game.
I would find myself beginning to think about my stats and performance at large, rather than focusing on my process goals and allowing the results to just happen.
What I found to be the best tool in keeping myself focused on my own definition of success was a journal. Write down 3 physical goals and 3 mental goals for the game. Then, after the game go back to your journal and write about how you were successful with each goal during the competition.
Not only does defining your success keep you process oriented during the game, but it allows you to slowly build more confidence in yourself. After each game, win or lose, if you stuck to your goals then you were successful.
Also, by staying focused on your own goals you put yourself in a position to be more successful on the field. By focusing on stats, or the score of the game, you become distracted.
This distraction keeps you from attaining peak performance. By sticking to your own definition of success for each game, you keep that focus inward and allow for yourself to stay in the flow state.
It’s now time in the pre-game routine to get you relaxed. This can be done any time before the competition; you just want to make sure you are in a quiet place where you will not be disturbed. For this step and the next one, the same location will be used.
Okay, so now that you are in a quiet place, you want to lie or sit down just like you did for the visualization. Close your eyes and begin to bring your attention to your breath. Breathe in and out slowly, feeling yourself in control.
Next, you want to go through some count breathing, where you inhale for a certain count and then exhale for a certain count. This really helps bring awareness to the body and allows the mind to fully relax.
There are many different breath sequences that you can use, and numerous breath work exercises to help you relax. But for the purpose of this routine I will show you the one I find most beneficial in relaxing the mind.
It is a 1:2 breath ratio. The easiest form is to breath in for a count of 5 and then breath out for a count of 10. Then, if you feel like slowing down further, inhale for a count of 10 and exhale for a count of 20.
It’s not that you are expelling more air than you took in, it’s just a slower release. For the inhalation, you will be breathing in the air more quickly than the exhalation, which is slower and more controlled.
Here is a great video demonstrating this technique. They work with a 4 second inhale and an 8 second exhale.
The point of this exercise is to get you focused and in control of your breath, because if you can do this then you can manage your racing thoughts during a game much better.
Also, don’t limit yourself to only using this technique during your pre-game routine. Implementing it during the game is helpful in keeping your attention inward and allowing yourself to relax under pressure.
After you have yourself in a relaxed state from the breathing exercise above, you want to go right into visualization. This will be very similar to the work you did in The Night Before section.
You want to go through the game, seeing yourself succeeding in vivid detail. If there are any specific areas that you struggle with during the game, then focus on them here. Really go over them until you feel a sense of confidence that you can carry into the competition.
Remember when you are visualizing, you want to feel it as much as see it. Truly feel the emotions of the game, and the excitement and joy of it going exactly the way you want.
"Remember when you are visualizing, you want to feel it as much as see it. Truly feel the emotions of the game, and the excitement and joy of it going exactly the way you want."
The next tip for your pregame routine is to arrive early. This may seem simple and not too important, but it can be really beneficial.
By showing up early, you allow plenty of time to warm-up, get your gear in order, and refocus if there were any distractions between your breath and visualization work and the arrival to the field.
Not only does arriving early show your commitment to the game, but it also gives you an advantage over the competition. Having more time to prepare both physically and mentally at the field of play means you will start the game more focused, confident, and ready to perform.
Once you’ve gone through all your warm-ups, it can be useful to go back over the game plan and research done during the days leading up to the competition.
Another great benefit of arriving to the game early is you have plenty of time to do whatever it is you do to get motivated and ready to play. I really believe that getting yourself into a relaxed state and visualizing yourself succeeding is important to do before every game.
But then after that, everyone is too different for me to sit here and say how you should get motivated and ready to play. Some people listen to music, others prefer silence. Whatever it is you need to do, do it. That is why it is important to allow yourself enough time to get into the mindset you need to succeed that day.
Focus on Being in the Moment
The last tip for creating a killer pregame routine involves staying in the moment. When our thoughts drift into the past or future, we become very susceptible to fear and anxiety.
One of the best ways to combat this is to focus on the present moment. Being present gives you the best chance to play in the flow state and perform at your peak levels of performance.
Mindfulness training helps to build this skill, because yes, it is something we can all learn and improve upon. But before a game is not really an ideal time to sit and meditate, especially if you’re like me and would feel a little embarrassed about doing so.
Then, what is the best way to stay present, especially leading up to a game that causes so many racing thoughts?
One way to stay present is to go back over the goals you have outlined for the day. Remembering the process goals set in place can bring your focus back inward, and off all the external distractions.
Also, you can utilize the breathing technique discussed above. Even while you’re warming up the body, focus on your breath. This will help connect the body and mind, allowing more synchronicity.
Even if you’re the type of player who gets very amped up before a game, focusing on breathing can keep you in the moment, focused on the task at hand.
A final tip on staying in the moment involves the senses. If you find it difficult to keep your focus inward and slow down racing thoughts at the same time, then it is okay to focus on something external. Not coaches, players, or fans, but on non-relevant noises.
I would do this by listening for any birds chirping, or feel the wind blowing on my skin. If you are in an arena, maybe listen for the ac unit, or a fan. It seems cheesy, but trust me, it works wonders on grounding you in the present moment.
All of us need to tailor our pregame routines to ourselves. But, there are certain tools that we all can use to boost confidence and focus going into an event. The days leading up to a competition, including the night before, can be used to prepare for the opponent, and mentally rehearsing how you would like your performance to go.
The day of the game define success and what your process goals are for that day. It is a great time to use breath work and visualization to relax the mind, and once again see yourself succeeding. Then, arriving early provides an edge over the competition, since you are able to get the body and mind fully warmed-up and prepared. Lastly, remembering to stay centered and in the present moment is the best way to reach the flow state going into the game.
I hope these tips and tricks have helped you and can be used to create a killer pregame routine of your own.
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