Serena Williams bounces the ball five times before her first serve and twice before her second. Mitchell Johnson credits at least some of his cricketing success to the growth of that ridiculous handlebar moustache. And who can forget Essendon great Matthew Lloyd’s painstakingly slow goal kicking ritual? Place ball on ground, neatly pull up socks, throw grass, kick for goal.
Sportspeople are well-known for quirky rituals intended to calm the mind and improve performance, and it turns out there’s a lot more to it than superstition. An emerging body of research is beginning to discover that simple rituals can be extremely effective at increasing our psychological health and productivity.
And you needn’t be a sporting superstar to reap the benefits. Having a ritual that you do before you eat, with your family or even in the office, can dramatically improve how you feel and how you perform – every single day.
Do better, be better
According to Assistant Professor Juliana Schroeder from the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkley, research suggests that rituals help us to feel calmer, in control and more engaged.
“Doing simple rituals before a high-anxiety performance like karaoke singing or a hard maths test can make people feel less anxious, and consequently perform better, compared with doing other types of activities like trying to calm down,” she says.
“People who perform rituals versus doing other behaviours may be better able to harness self-control, such as resisting eating chocolate, because doing the ritual makes them feel like they have more willpower. Rituals can also enhance the consumption experience. For example, unwrapping a chocolate bar in a ritualistic way may lead people to enjoy eating the chocolate more.”
Choose your own adventure
So what sorts of rituals yield the most benefits? Scientists don’t yet fully understand what happens in the brain to connect rituals with how we feel and act, but Assistant Professor Schroeder says it’s more about the act of performing the ritual than the ritual itself.
“So far it seems that it’s about simply performing a ritual, because it affects the performer’s mental state, which can lead to the benefits,” she says.
That means your personal rituals can be as simple, silly or strange as you like. You might listen to power ballads before a big presentation at work or set a timer to surf the net for 10 minutes before beginning a task that you’ve been putting off.
At home, rituals can even help you to enjoy healthy food. Research has found that ritualistic gestures performed before eating both chocolate and carrots leads to greater enjoyment of the foods than scoffing them without thinking.
Studies have also found that the quintessential family ritual – eating meals together – is associated with a raft of benefits for children, including better academic results, higher self-esteem and lower rates of obesity.
For the adults, research by American relationships guru Dr John Gottman reveals that couples who create simple farewell and greeting rituals for the morning and evening, including a juicy six-second kiss, enjoy a healthier relationship.
Focus your attention
Importantly, psychologist Dr Nicola Gates says that unlike habits such as cleaning your teeth and drinking coffee in the morning, which are usually performed unconsciously, rituals require focus.
“Rituals are reflective, mindful and appreciative – they take our attention and emotional investment,” she says. “We stop, pause and reflect, paying attention to whatever is at the core of the ceremony.”
Dr Russ Harris, author of bestseller The Happiness Trap, agrees that attention is the most important aspect of a ritual.
“A ritual gets your mind into gear for something and reminds you that you’re about to do some work,” he says. “But if you want to do any task well, you have to keep your attention on the task.
“It doesn’t matter what the ritual is, whether it’s to do with parenting, playing sport or working on a project in the office, if you can’t keep your attention focused on the task your performance will go down.”
Here’s how to introduce health and productivity-boosting rituals into your day-to-day activities.
SWAP: Eating dinner alone on the couch in front of the TV.
FOR: Sharing the evening meal with the whole family at the table.
SWAP: Rushing out the door in the morning without saying goodbye to your partner.
FOR: Taking time to check in with your partner about the day ahead and enjoy that six-second kiss.
SWAP: Scoffing a chocolate bar without thinking.
FOR: Using the same pattern to carefully unwrap the chocolate bar before you start eating.
SWAP: Racing around the office in a panic before an important presentation.
FOR: Doing something that makes you feel calm and confident, like listing to your favourite music or repeating a personal affirmation.