In the moments prior to their final performance at the Olympic Games, Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue, the most decorated figure skaters of all time, lingered rink-side, hugging. Their closed-eye, tight embrace lasted for what seemed like minutes. They appeared to be in a serene state, totally connected, and protected from the prying gaze of the spectators and cameras.
It was their pre-performance ritual. Most top athletes have them.
In fact, just a few moments earlier, the ice dance silver medallists from France stood staring into each other’s eyes for a long period prior to their own performance.
These pre-competition rituals often come in the form of handshakes, chants, huddles, and dances. When looked upon from the perspective of a spectator they may seem mysterious or even a little goofy, but they serve a vital purpose.
They are all-important acts of human connection in moments that are rife with emotional, mental, physical and environmental distractions. Through these points of connection, the individual athlete looks away from the scoreboard, pushes away a wave of nerves, and checks in with their teammates. This practice is as crucial to the eventual performance on the field of play as any other aspect of the preparation.
My 2000 Olympic Games Synchronized Swimming team had its own pragmatic ritual. After we completed our planned warm up, we would gather together in a tight huddle to review our areas of focus for our routine performance. We stared one another in the eyes to ensure everyone was fully “checked in.” These were moments of mental calm, and a reassuring reminder that we were in it together.
Pre-performance rituals are practiced widely and intentionally in the sport world. They could be explored more purposefully in the business world and other venues in order to better connect, reduce distraction and focus more effectively on performance.
For teams eager to venture down the path of establishing pre-performance practices, here are a couple of suggestions:
Make it your own. Someone else’s secret handshake might not feel right for your team. Find a connection point that works for the unique nature of your group. It’s possible that it will feel awkward the first few times you try it, but keep honing it and making it work for you.
Keep it fresh. “1,2,3…Team!” mumbled half-heartedly while glancing at an iPhone is a waste of time. Avoid getting to the point where your team simply goes through the motions. These practices only work when individuals are invested in them, meaningfully connect with each other, and buy into the act’s pragmatic purpose. Change it up and reinforce its purpose and importance from time to time.
The bottom line is that the best teams in the sport world engage in these acts of connection before every game or performance. If your team members take that extra moment before the big presentation or pitch, to stop, look one another in the face and see each-other as human, as being in this together (whatever this may be), your team may be more likely to reach Olympic heights.