This weekend is our first WFTDA-sanctioned bout of the season. In mentally preparing for this bout, I reflected on some of the derby rituals I have developed over the years. Luckily, I don’t have any rituals that involve wearing stinky socks or dirty clothing (so far). However, there are few things I do before bouts…most involve food for some reason:
1. Drinking Kombucha the day before the bout
2. Having some candy in my derby bag for those immense sugar cravings when my anxiety spikes
3. Drinking a Red Bull an hour before the bout (not recommended for everyone)
4. Rubbing Tiger Balm on my quads in the locker room (sorry to the people that hate the smell)
5. Doing a short visualization exercise after I put my gear on
Although I know that rituals don’t actually influence the outcome of a bout, rituals do help you mentally prepare for bout day. In fact, one theory (The Inverted U Theory, aka the Yerkes-Dodson Law) suggests these rituals may help you perform better by controlling your level of arousal before competition. Some athletes have probably seen a diagram similar to the one below that outlines this theory:
Essentially, this theory states that you have a peak point of arousal that will give you maximum performance. Although this theory has a few shortcomings, the basic elements of the theory are generally agreed upon by sports psychologists. Being able to control your level of arousal so it falls into an “optimal zone” is extremely important for your athletic performance.
When I am coaching and my athletes tell me they are nervous, I always say “Good! If you weren’t nervous, I’d be worried.” But as you can see in the diagram, being too nervous can quickly lead to a downhill slope into major anxiety and a decrease in performance. So helping athletes find that sweet spot of being aroused (but not too aroused) is what I strive to do. And yes, I know how inappropriate that sounds.
Here are some signs that you may be too anxious (and past your optimal zone): Nausea, rapid heart rate, shaking, shortness of breath, dizziness, muscle tension, and difficulty concentrating. To be at an optimal level of arousal, you should be nervous but relaxed, your heart should be beating hard but not fast, and you should feel focused. Everyone’s optimal level of arousal is different, so you must learn how to tell if your body and mind are in the right place.
So how do your rituals help? They are essentially tools for an athlete to use to manage levels of arousal. They keep you focused, keep you from getting overwhelmed by nervousness/anxiety, and also get you in “competition mode” if you are not aroused enough. These rituals work so well because they allow the athlete to have control of the situation (and therefore their arousal level).
If you don’t have any rituals but feel you have problems controlling your focus or anxiety levels, start thinking about adding a few in! Listen to the same type of songs before every bout. Eat or drink something that makes you feel good, do a certain stretch or breathing routine to get you in the right mindset. Get into the habit of adding rituals into your routine will help you prepare for the upcoming bout. Similarly, some teams have pre-bout rituals that they perform together.
BUT I must add…
Sometimes things don’t go as planned before a bout. Maybe you are running extremely late or you had a flight delay that caused you to barely make it to the bout. Maybe you are staying in a foreign area and you don’t have access to the things you need for your pre-bout ritual. Because crap happens, you have to learn to be OK when your pre-bout ritual doesn’t fully happen. For me, I have learned that I can control my anxiety even when I can only include one or two elements of my ritual. So if you are someone with a long list of pre-bout rituals, it is good to have a “backup plan” in case your rituals fall through. Staying mentally positive when things don’t go your way is hard, but doable.
So before your next bout, think about how you feel mentally and what rituals you are engaging in to get ready. Have you reached your optimal arousal zone? Do you need a bit more of a pick-me-up? Do you need to take a few deep breaths to calm down? If you’re not sure, talk to your teammates! I’m sure someone would love to help you get aroused.