The Morning Call (Sunday)
Rituals Keep Athletes Grounded. They Can Help You, Too.
In a life full of unknowns, it can be powerful to know what to expect sometimes.
EACH TIME MY dad, a third-degree black belt in taekwondo, put on his dobok, he would kiss his belt before tying it around his waist. As a kid, I thought it was just a superstition, like tossing a penny into a fountain. But he recently told me kissing the belt was actually to honor it, to set an intention and to say, “I will do my best today while wearing this, no matter what comes my way.”
For him, the belt kiss wasn’t a superstition because it wasn’t about luck or trying to change an outcome. It was simply his special way of reminding himself in the moment to do his best. It was a ritual.
Rituals — or the tasks we perform repeatedly, not for what they accomplish but for what they mean to us — help athletes prepare for the unknowns they’ll face when they perform. As a child psychiatrist, I see rituals as anchors, to help us remember who we are and how to navigate life. By adopting our own rituals, we can bring calm, meaning and connectedness to our lives and families.
“Rituals allow you to create a pathway to connect your mind and body and feel in control during a time where there are a lot of unknowns,” said Caroline Silby, Ph.D., a sports psychology expert for professional athletes, including the United States figure skating team. She said once that connection is made, we are “more empowered to respond and make effective choices.”
Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers said rituals are a support system for the mind. His 90-minute ritual before an N.B.A. game is full of activities that families can try at home, like yoga, stretching and listening to mellow, atmospheric music.
“I named the playlist ‘Airplane Mode’ because it’s a way for me to just shut off,” he said. Families might want to create their own airplane mode ritual on weekend mornings where they play songs they’ve chosen together and do their favorite exercises.
Mr. Love said that the league’s ritual of playing the national anthem and turning the lights off gives him “a sense of calm” going into the start of the game. His own rituals then allow him to settle in during the game.
Before every free throw, he dribbles the ball three times and waits an extra beat before shooting — a ritual he finds to be “super grounding” and a way to find focus.
A 2016 study examined the effect of rituals on people who were about to sing publicly in front of judges or take a difficult math test with money on the line. The people who performed an assigned ritual beforehand — in this case, drawing a picture, sprinkling salt on it, counting to five and throwing it away — had significantly lower levels of anxiety and performed better.
That may be why so many athletes have developed iconic rituals, like Steph Curry’s sinking a shot from the tunnel before each basketball game, Serena Williams’s bouncing a tennis ball five times before her first serve, or Wayne Gretzky’s putting baby powder on his hockey stick before a faceoff.
Dan Reagan, a jazz trombonist who plays with the singer Marc Anthony, said his favorite ritual is spiritual chanting, which he uses to ease his nerves, heighten focus and give him confidence during challenging pieces. “The thing about rituals is this — you believe that it’s helping, so it helps,” he said.
When parents ask me in clinic how to help their kids regulate their emotions, I tell them to squeeze clever rituals into their day, like having kids shake their limbs in a silly dance for a minute before a chaotic morning routine. Research suggests that rituals put the brakes on the parts of our brain responsible for emotions. They play a role in reminding people who they are and giving them a sense of power over their world, which are critical during times of stress.
Bradie Tennell, a 2018 Olympic bronze medalist and U.S. figure skating champion, said her ritual is to lace up her left skate first and always step onto the ice with her left foot first. She said it helps her remember who she is and what she’s there to do.
“When you’re stepping onto the ice, you’ve got 20,000 people, judges, cameras, and lights that are so bright,” Ms. Tennell said. “It can be so overwhelming. The simple practice of stepping on the ice in the same way each time says, ‘This is normal, this is my territory, and nothing else matters around me except for this moment and what I’m doing here.’”
As long as rituals remain nice-to-have and not need-to-have, we can use them proactively as a way to feel in charge of our world. Using them as “bookends” to the day can be especially grounding and create a sense of identity. Whether it’s by listing gratitudes in the morning or reading before bed, the consistency creates something to look forward to and something to feel ownership over.
Sharing rituals can also be powerful in making families feel more connected. They strengthen relationships between family members, increase a sense of identity and values, and even improve marital cohesion.
“Family dinner rituals tend to be quirky and particular — who sits where at the table, when we eat, what foods are on offer, what kinds of stories get told, what games and silliness happens, what emotions are encouraged to express,” said Anne Fishel, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of the Family Dinner Project. “They remind us who we are as a family.”
Whether it’s having Mexican food with your spouse on Fridays, a weekly sibling FaceTime chat or a secret handshake with your toddler before brushing his teeth, creating rituals can help you find meaning in the small moments and make you more resilient through the times of stress.
As Mr. Love put it, “I think you get the best out of yourself by having things like this.”