What to Steal from 6 Olympians’ Pre-Game Rituals

Casey Patterson of United States dives for the ball during the Men's Beach Volleyball preliminary round Pool F match against Robin Seidl and Alexander Huber of Austria on Day 3 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Beach Volleyball Arena on August 8, 2016.
Casey Patterson hits the gym about three and a half hours before his first match for Olympic lifts like hang cleans and squats. Ezra Shaw / Getty Images

We can’t think of many more pressure-filled moments in sports than being an Olympic athlete on the starting line. To be ready to perform at the highest level, and deal with the inevitable nerves, each athlete has to find his perfect pre-competition routine. Some use meditation or yoga, or wake up a certain amount of hours before they compete, or cue a crafted psych-up playlist.

That tried-and-true routine is what helps athletes ready the mind and the body, says Dr. Steve Graef, sports psychologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “It allows energy to be where it needs to be, and connects with the confidence one has in their particular sport or event.” A set of specific habits also gives an athlete a sense of control, he says, which can make them feel more assured and poised.

But whatever the ritual, there is an important distinction between feeling a sense of control from your routine and being controlled by the routine, Graef says. When routines control your life, that’s when superstition takes over — which isn’t necessarily a good thing. If the weather isn’t right, or you couldn’t find your lucky undershirt, it shouldn’t affect your pre-game plan. Which means instead of building a routine around superstitious acts, you should try to include habits that prime you for performance — they calm nerves, psych you up, and get your muscles loose. You can start by stealing some of the pre-competition rituals from the best of the best.

Casey Patterson: Beach Volleyball

The Routine:

Patterson’s pre-competition routine is harder than most daily workouts. He hits the gym about three and a half hours before his first Olympic match, doing lifts like hang cleans and squats, which he says helps wake him up, make his body alert, and get his muscles firing. He also runs a mile at the beginning of the day and at the end, for an active warm-up and recovery.

The Takeaway:

Like Patterson, the ideal routine to ready your body and mind might mean a long list of specific exercises and drills hours before you compete. The key is knowing what preps your body best. Play around with programs during your training, and find out if longer or shorter pre-game plans work for you.

Jake Gibb: Beach Volleyball

The Routine:

Meditation has always been a part of Gibb’s life, and he brings it into his routine for big competition days. When he is getting introduced on to the court, he’ll do a 10-second meditation to help him focus. He’ll repeat these quick moments of concentration throughout a match.

The Takeaway:

While some athletes have longer rituals, short and sweet can pay off too. You may just need one deep breath before your event to get benefits.

Taylor Phinney: Cycling

The Routine:

To ensure his body is awake and ready, Phinney will wake up five hours before a competition. He’ll do 10 minutes of yoga, and follow that with meditation to set his intention for the day, the race, and the next couple of hours.

The Takeaway:

Creating a dual-purpose routine like Phinney’s — one that clears the mind and primes the body — is an ideal way to prep for competition, Graef says.

Henrik Rummel: U.S. Rowing 4’s

The Routine:

Rummel also tries to wake up five hours before a race. He will shower to help wake up, and then listen to music, get ready, and get his head in the right mindset. He gets to the regatta course an hour and a half before his race to start a warm-up, which consist of 10 minutes on the rowing machine, stretching, and then strokes building up to race pace with his teammates.

The Takeaway:

“Nobody is going to scuff at the idea of warming up,” says Graef. Going through the motions of your sport or activity beforehand won’t only build your confidence to perform, it helps dial in the muscle memory to execute when you need to in a clutch moment.

Nareg Guregian: Rowing Pairs

The Routine:

Guregian wakes up about four to five hours before a race and makes his breakfast. He’ll spend a half hour on Twitter or Facebook to distract himself from any stress. Then on the way to the race, he’ll listen to music to wake his mind up. Once he’s there, he takes in his surroundings, enjoys the moment, and tries to focus on the task at hand. After a 10- to 15-minute warm-up, he’s ready to go.

The Takeaway:

Pre-game routines don’t have to be aggressive psych-up fests. It’s about finding your “sweet spot,” Graef says, where your energy level is right where you need to perform. That can mean pumping yourself up, or calming down. Guregian’s habits — listening to music and focusing on the task — take the latter approach.

Ryan Lochte: Swimming

The Routine:

The only ritual Lochte has is listening to music before he swims. Other than that, he goes with the flow.

The Takeaway:

A routine doesn’t have to be overly involved with multiple steps. Whatever makes you most comfortable and confident — even if that means listening to just one specific song before a race or event — is what you’re striving for.