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  • Writer's pictureSPRINT project

How pre-performance routines can set you up for success

Updated: Dec 11, 2022

It’s the men’s 100 m butterfly final at the 2012 London Olympic Games. On the deck of the 4th lane, Michael Phelps is gearing up for his attempt to win his 15th Olympic gold medal. With under 20 seconds to go, the other seven swimmers are also on their respective decks. What comes next?

Those world famous three arm swings!

Take a minute to see Phelps’ arm swings and how he went on to win his 15th gold medal here:

Chances are you have become quite familiar with these three arm swings and the accompanying slapping noise of his arms hitting his body. But what exactly is Phelps doing and why is he doing it?

Pre-performance routines

This is what sport psychologists call a pre-performance routine. Put simply, a pre-performance routine is a well-developed sequence of thoughts and actions completed before performing a specific sporting event/skill (i.e. swimming race, 100 m dash).

Once completed, it unlocks the chain of events that lead to the event itself. For Phelps, this would be the ‘starting beep’, jumping into the pool, the race and ideally for him, another gold medal.

Benefits of pre-performance routines

For a professional athlete, pre-performance routines might be used to:

  • Focus on what is most relevant to the performance they are about to do and not on distractions

  • Provide feelings of familiarity and confidence in the moments leading up to a potentially stressful situation

  • Allow for the perception of control in an otherwise uncontrollable event.

Why do pre-performance routines work?

So, we know that there are many benefits to having a routine, but what it is that makes this so effective? Pre-performance routines:

  • Divert attention from task-irrelevant cues to task-relevant cues

  • Create psychological and physical readiness that can be lost during rest periods

  • Prevent performers from consciously controlling specific movements that can inhibit smooth and coordinated skill.

When athletes don’t have a routine, it can lead to:

  • Over-thinking

  • Distractions

  • Loss of confidence

  • Overly elevated emotions.

Now that we’ve looked at why routines are useful and have explored a bit more about how they work, what are the best ways to start implementing a routine?

Research-based tips for effective routines

Here are our TOP TIPS, informed by research, for setting up a routine:

  • Make it consistent

  • Make it flexible to adapt to changing environmental demands

  • Make it meaningful to you

  • Quieten your mind by slowing down distracting thoughts

  • Focus your attention on the task at hand

  • Practise your routine until it becomes automatic.

‘If you look at my routine, it doesn’t change from the time I am on the first tee until the time I am on the 72nd hole of a major championship. It is always the same thing.’

Tiger Woods

It is important for us all to know that it is not just Phelps and other elite athletes who are using pre-performance routines to help with their ‘performance’. These routines can be used by people in all areas of life, as a way to mentally prepare for important tasks that they undertake. Specifically, let’s find out how learning about pre-performance routines has been helpful for the young people we work with.

Pre-performance is not just for athletes

At the SPRINT project, we have incorporated pre-performance routines into learning with young people experiencing homelessness. Pre-performance routines can be used alongside our toolkit of mental skills training resources, to help young people build healthy habits and improve their wellbeing and resilience.

Examples of pre-performance routines that a young person might take up include:

  • Having a specific snack before going for a run

  • Speaking to a specific friend before a job interview

  • Listening to a certain song before an exam.

It is not too important what the actual routine is, but more so that it is something that is done consistently over time, has meaning to you, and is flexible to adapt to changing environmental demands.

While the average person may not need the pre-performance routine to narrow their concentration or to provide feelings of familiarity, comfort or control before a pressurised situation, the pre-performance routine can serve as a powerful tool to overcome barriers to motivation in young people.

What does this look like in practice?

As an example, you’re looking for a job. You’ve had to make a CV, complete lots of applications, and attend interviews. Your motivation is lowering day by day. Your head is full of thoughts. Am I ever going to get a job? Do I even like any of the jobs I am applying for? Is this all worth it?

Perhaps before working on your CV, you listened to a certain funny podcast that you like. Then, before you filled out applications, you did this again. Finally, before your first interview, you did the same.

Something about the podcast lightens the mood, and then gives you that little bit of positivity which allows you to take part in these activities that you may not have otherwise taken part in.

As you continue to go to job interviews, you listen to this podcast on your way there. Before long, you realise that, just like Phelps’ arm circles, your pre-performance routine has gotten you ready for your performance!

Using pre-performance routines to improve motivation in young people

Motivation is an important factor for young people. One of our core principles is that we are informed by self-determination theory, a motivational principle that we all make choices and take responsibility for those choices, rather than having them determined by an external force. In other words, you are responsible for your own motivation.

Our SMART goal-setting tool draws on mental skills to support young people to set goals and work towards them. Motivation is a key factor in setting goals. If we are not motivated, then how likely are we to actually reach our goals? Mental skills training involving pre-performance routines can help to get you motivated and set you up for success.

Take home messages

Pre-performance routines are powerful mental skills tools that we know can help not just athletes, but young people and members of the public more generally to improve their performance and mental wellbeing. Think about your day to day life, and situations or experiences that may come up where you may feel pressure, or a lack of motivation to take part. Maybe incorporating a pre-performance routine can work for you!


Interested in learning more about ways to improve your motivation to help you to achieve your goals? You can download our Mental Skills Training Toolkit and Delivery Guide and check out our free resources.


What are your favourite routines that you use to motivate you? We’d love to hear them in the comments or on Twitter using #MSTtoolkit #MST4Life


Photo credit:

Paola Vargas Aymat & Lesha on Reshot.

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