I recently watched the movie Frozen 2 with my family. Right before a key moment, where Elsa has to face a difficult, epic task, she takes out her braid, and puts her hair in a ponytail.
Then she is able to accomplish what she set out to do.
Was her characteristic braid going to interfere with the challenge ahead of her? I don’t think so.
I think that the act of putting her hair in a ponytail was her ritual, and that gave her strength and reduced her performance anxiety.
This is sounds absurd, and too good to be true.
But time and time again, as researchers looked at these “rituals” and “superstitions” they also found that the people who used them were able to perform better, and with less performance anxiety.
For example, in sports, many famous athletes swear by pre-game rituals to calm their nerves.
David “Big Papi” Ortiz retired in 2016 as one of the best baseball players in Boston Red Sox history. Papi was known for his exceptional at-bats, hitting over 540 home runs in his career. Each time Papi approached the batter’s box, he rested his bat against his legs, spat on his right hand, and clapped.
Did any of this contribute to his skill? Did it give him more power for his home runs? No. But performance anxiety can negatively affect how athletes perform.
So, by developing a ritual to get his head in the game, he was able to get over his performance anxiety and thus able to achieve more as a player.
He isn’t the only sports player to swear by an interesting ritual.
Basketball superstar Michael Jordan wore his North Carolina shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls shorts in every game; Curtis Martin of the New York Jets reads Psalm 91 before every game. And Wade Boggs, former third baseman for the Boston Red Sox, woke up at the same time each day, ate chicken before each game, took exactly 117 ground balls in practice, took batting practice at 5:17, and ran sprints at 7:17. (Boggs also wrote the Hebrew word Chai (“living”) in the dirt before each at bat).
To be clear, none of these activities are magical. They don’t infuse the body with strength, and they aren’t Mario’s invincibility star.
The actions performed actually have no value in and of themselves towards improved athletic ability.
But the mind is a powerful thing, and is also the source of performance anxiety. Our fear, our flight or fight knee jerk reaction, starts when the body detects we are in a stressful situation.
So, to overcome performance anxiety, we first have to overcome this reaction, and we can do that by finding something that we consider calming.
We call it our ritual, or our good luck charm. It is our magic feather, our mockingjay pin, our ruby slippers.
The value is in what we believe the ritual or object is capable of achieving.
Consider one of the research experiments. Before being asked to perform a song in front of their peers, half of the participants were told to do a silly ritual that the researchers had made up.
They drew a picture of how they were feeling, sprinkled salt on it, then, after counting to five, were told to take the picture, crumple it and throw it in the trash. Totally random, with a very superstitious feeling with the salt element.
It shouldn’t have worked.
Logically, there should be no difference between this group and the others without the ritual.
Participants who completed the ritual sang better, had significantly lower heart rates, and reported feeling less anxious than participants who had not performed the ritual.
Notice, not only did it improve their performance anxiety, it also improved their ability to sing, likely because of the fact that anxiety can affect our ability to do whatever it is we are wanting to accomplish.
Interestingly, researchers found that the very name of what participants were told they were doing was significant.
Performing “a ritual” reduced the performance anxiety, while performing “random behaviors” did nothing.
But wait, aren’t they all random behaviors?
Yet when dealing with the mind, you need to believe it yourself, and the very act of calling it a ritual can be significant in reaping the benefits.
Other studies found that “lucky golf balls” or having your “fingers crossed” for someone also worked the effect of a ritual on calming performance anxiety.
It clearly doesn’t matter what ritual, good luck bracelet or soothing mantra you choose, it simply matters that you believe it will benefit you, like these things benefited the participants in the studies.
Even reading this article, and my convincing you of the effects of your own to-be-determined ritual can be a part of helping you overcome performance anxiety.
Rituals are one way to feel back in control of the situation.
Sports games, a presentation at work, or a stage performance all have so many elements of unknown. You can’t predict exactly how they will go ahead of time, and that creates anxiety.
We can’t control the future, and we can’t make sure that every pitch will be right to our sweet spot or that our fellow actors will remember all their lines.
We can only control ourselves.
Rituals give us the illusion we need to feel in control of the upcoming situation.
If for example, every time you have put on that special pair of shoes, you have had a great day at work, they begin to have the same power as a ritual, and you are more likely to have a great day next time because you now feel confident that you will.
Every subsequent day that goes well in those shoes builds up their power in your mind, and will treat the performance anxiety that you may have had in the past. Soon, without even thinking about it, those will be the shoes you grab on your most stressful days, because you know the day will go better in those shoes.
Despite the absence of a direct causal connection between the ritual and the desired outcome, performing rituals with the intention of producing a certain result appears to be sufficient for that result to come true.
So, if you are ready to try it for yourself, it is time to create your own special ritual.
Keep in mind a couple key things as you decide on your personal ritual.
- It needs to be relatively fast, a few minutes at the most.
- It should be easy to perform.
- It should always be under your control.
Most examples that I read involved some sort of physical action, something that is easy to do, and yet symbolically empowering.
Like putting your hair back in a ponytail, and getting your game face on, like Elsa did.
What will your ritual be?