Winter Olympic Psychology: The Science Behind Pre-Game Rituals

Recent research shows that an athlete’s seemingly obsessive movements prior to competition may actually boost performance.

Shaun White of the United States trains ahead of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on February 9, 2018. | Clive Rose/Getty Images
Shaun White of the United States trains ahead of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on February 9, 2018. | Clive Rose/Getty Images

If you’re watching the Winter Olympics this year, keep an eye out for a competitor’s quirks.

Do they toe the starting line in a specific way? Do they make some repetitive gesture? Do a little dance? It might be a random movement — or it might be part of a specific ritual aimed at boosting performance.

Sports is full of stories about athletes taking up some habit they believe is helpful. Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry sprints up and down the basketball court before a game. Tennis champ Rafael Nadal takes a cold shower and carefully arranges his courtside gear. Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees standout Wade Boggs ate chicken before every game.

“Believe me, I have a few superstitions, and they work,” Boggs said in his Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech in 2005.

Boggs’s performance didn’t seem to suffer from believing in things he didn’t understand. But was there more to it than superstition? The question intrigued psychologist Nick Hobson, who set out to test how rituals might affect performance.

“What’s odd is that they’re highly superfluous and even sort of a waste of effort and time,” Hobson told Seeker. “You could almost imagine a person — whether they’re an athlete or any other sort of high performer — could better spend their time preparing for some sort of focal task, like a game or match, by doing something that makes more sense.”

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So while finishing a Ph.D. at the University of Toronto, Hobson ran an experiment that found people who engaged in a ritual of hand and arm movements and breathing before a computerized test had lower readings of a brainwave pattern that indicates performance anxiety.

The 48 volunteers were recruited from University of Toronto students. Hobson and his colleagues told 22 of them to perform their ritual every day for a week before the test. The rest were told to follow a set of instructions that changed day to day.

On test day, the volunteers were told to identify the colors of a rapid series of images or text that flashed on a computer screen. They were told they’d be paid, and that they’d get more money for correct answers and less for wrong ones. They were hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) to monitor their brain activity during the process, and quizzed about how they thought they did afterward.

The results, published in September in the research journal PeerJ, found that the people who took the test after their ritual had lower readings for what’s known as error-related negativity, or ERN.

“It’s your brain’s very rapid, unconscious voltage shock that says, ‘Holy shit, you need to pay attention to this because you just made a mistake,’ or there’s some sort of uncertainty,” Hobsons said.

The test was designed to produce a strong ERN response in the people who took it. But among the people who performed their rituals beforehand, “We saw this general pattern of a reduced error signal,” he said. Not only that, but the people who showed the greatest reduction in ERN “happened to be the same people who reported the greatest drop in anxiety.”

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But Hobson said some of those results may have occurred because the assigned ritual produced a calming effect, which Hobson said “was something we didn’t think about when we initially designed the study.”

“They had this very contemplative and meditative quality to them,” he said. A follow-up study, still in the works, may find that a more energetic ritual “could have a very different effect.”

So those tuned into the Pyeongchang games might watch for some simple, repetitive behavior, sometimes “quite subtle,” Hobson said.

“It could be something as simple as them stepping up to the line in what looks like a very prescriptive and formalized way,” he said. But if an athlete “is doing something that is sustained, over and over again, and it doesn’t have any direct bearing on the actual sport or their performance, that’s a strong indicator that they’re ritualizing their experience. They’re sort of ritualizing themselves to get into the zone to perform better and sort of quelling any pre-performance anxiety they might have.”