Is winning just a matter of routine?

On 28 July, the day after the opening ceremony, the Olympic basketball tournament commences at the London Olympic Park.

In basketball, a team’s success rate from free-throws (an unopposed throw from 15ft from the basket) is often the difference between winnng and losing. For instance, it was among the top four factors that differentiated the gold medal winning team (USA) from their opponents in Beijing. 

And the success rate for top shooters is phenomenal, with the top three in the NBA shooting over 90 per cent.

Basketball players and coaches use the acronym BEEF (balance, eyes, elbows and follow-through) as a tool for developing the correct technique for free-throw shooting.

Interestingly, other elements of routines are highly consistent. For example, players invariably bounce the ball and often report using imagery of the flight of the ball and the release angle, all as part of a pre-performance routine. This is an organised sequence of task‐relevant thoughts and actions that an athlete engages in prior to his or her execution of a specific sport skill.

A pre-performance routine may comprise up to seven elements:

  • Technical (e.g. feet placement and grip)
  • Relaxation (controlling breathing)
  • Imagery (imagine the shot)
  • Kinaesthetic awarness (bouncing the ball)
  • Key word (e.g. smooth)
  • Execute (shoot the hoop)
  • Review (how did I do?)

Interestingly, research in basketball has reported that players who followed their own routine had higher success rates than when they deviated from their routine. Unfortunately, we cannot infer cause and effect from this study, and few studies have investigated the role of routines in an experimental context.

Research supports the concept of routines (and their individual components) but further studies with elite participants are required.

One such study was conducted in 2001 by Jackson and Baker, who reported on a case-study with the rugby union player Neil Jenkins. An analysis of the pre-performance routines of this world class placekicker showed that the duration varied and so too did the number of elements in the routines. 

The idiosyncratic nature of routines was a surprise to psychologists; they had predicted consistency in the duration of routines.

The follow-up interview with the player was instructive as he revealed that both task difficulty and the pressure of the kick led to changes in the time for a routine. He explained how he adapted the number of components in his routine to the pressure of the kick; for instance, self-talk would be included usually for pressure kicks.

This is interesting for two reasons. First, routines aren’t as systematic as we thought. Second, athletes and players use them in far more flexible ways that was assumed.

In sum, routines work, but we are only beginning to understand whether this is because they aid attention or act as a buffer to anxiety.

Another key question that remains unanswered is how routines are acquired by young players. As Team GB players step up to the free-throw line in the London Games, their use of pre-performance routines may be the key factor in determining whether they win or lose.

For more news and features in the bulid-up to the Olympics and Paralympics visit our Going for Gold website.