An Olympic gold medal. Dozens of tournament titles. And 14 Grand Slam titles (one of only two male players in history to have won at least two Grand Slam titles on three different surfaces).

With such a rare track record of success, Rafael Nadal is regarded by many to be one of the all-time tennis greats.

But Nadal is also considered to be one of the more eccentric players on the tour, with a whole collection of rituals and quirks that have made him the object of some good-natured teasing at times (like this Australian Open video or this additional bit of fun with the water bottle thing).

At first glance, it can look like superstition gone amok. And sure, perhaps there is some element of that at play. But Nadal is by no means alone in this. Many athletes, across a wide range of sports, engage in some sort of pre-performance routine before executing a skill – from basketball players to golfers to place-kickers in football.

And for most, it’s something they have deliberately choreographed and practiced as part of their mental gameplan. A way to take their mind off of the pressure of the situation, and shift their attention to the task at hand (here is Nadal’s 12-step pre-serve routine, if you’re curious).

We’ve explored the value of such routines before (like here and here), but one question always comes up with regard to these routines.

The question of consistency.

As in, how consistent does a routine have to be for it to be effective?

If we have a routine that takes 17 seconds in the practice room, should it also be exactly 17 seconds on stage?

Will it be disruptive if we suddenly decide to throw in an extra breath? What if we accidentally leave out one of the elements in our routine?

Free throws in the NBA playoffs

A pair of researchers decided to look at this exact question – by analyzing game film of NBA players shooting high-stakes free throws.

Fourteen games from the 2006 NBA playoffs were selected for inclusion in the study. Specifically, the 7-game Western Conference semi-final series between the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Clippers, and the other semi-final series between the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs.

Why these particular games?

Well, during the 2005-06 season, the Suns were among the better free throw shooting teams in the league (80.61%), and the Spurs were among the worst (70.18%), so the researchers figured that these games would feature a nice mix of players of various free throw shooting ability.

Two key measures

Scanning through the games, they identified 15 players who shot at least 10 free throws over the course of each 7-game series.

They then analyzed game footage to come up with two key measures for each free throw.

1. How long did each routine take (i.e. duration)?

Routine duration was defined as the amount of time a player had possession of the ball – from the time he received the ball from the referee, to the moment the ball left his hand as he attempted a shot.

2. What did each routine look like (i.e. behavioral sequence)?

The researchers also recorded the sequence of behaviors the athlete engaged in before each shot. Each (a) dribble, (b) spin of the ball, (c) pause, (d) other movement with the ball – like kissing it or moving it to one side, (e) other movement without the ball – like taking a deep breath or wiping the sweat off one’s forehead, or (f) glance at the basketball hoop was faithfully noted.

Does routine duration matter?

Just for fun, take a moment to make a prediction:

Ensuring that the duration of one’s routine is consistently the same from one free throw to the next will improve performance.

True or False?

<<Click to reveal answer>>

On average, each free throw routine lasted about 6.05 seconds. But sometimes a player would shoot a free throw sooner than they normally would; at other times, they would take longer than usual to get the ball off.

But either way, duration didn’t seem to be a factor in performance. Free throw success rate remained pretty much the same whether a player used a shorter routine (81.59%), their regular-length routine (81.81%), or one that was longer than normal (78.38%).

Does behavioral sequence matter?

One more prediction:

Performing the exact same sequence of actions before each free throw will improve performance.

True or False?

<<Click to reveal answer>>

Researchers watched each player’s free throws to determine their “dominant” pre-performance routine. This was defined as the sequence of actions that they performed before at least half of their free throw attempts (e.g. bounce ball 3 times, spin it backwards in hands, pause, look at the hoop, take a deep breath, bend knees, and shoot).

With a dominant pattern identified for each player, they were then able to categorize each free throw as either “sequence followed” or “sequence not followed,” based on whether the player executed these actions in the same order, or if they added or omitted any actions (e.g. leaving out a bounce, or adding in a shoulder shrug, etc.).

Players used their dominant routine most of the time (81.17% to be exact), but that leaves a fair number of free throws where players either messed up the sequence or added/omitted elements of their routine.

And this absolutely did seem to affect performance.

When players stuck with their dominant sequence, they made 83.77% of their free throws.

But when players deviated from their dominant routine, they made only 71.43% of their free throws.

Ramifications of this (for the Spurs or Clippers fan)

The authors note that in the 14 playoff games examined in this study, each team shot an average of 28.57 free throws per game. And that a difference of 12.43% in free throw percentage would translate into 3.55 points per game. And since four of the 14 games were decided by 4 points or less, and both series went the full seven games, it’s possible (maybe) that the outcome of each series could have been affected by whether a player adhered to their dominant pre-free-throw routine or not.

Food for thought, if you are a Spurs or Clippers fan (or were, back in 2006)…

(BTW, the Mavs and Suns won their series, and the Mavs eventually fell to the Heat in the NBA Finals).

Take action

If you don’t have a pre-performance routine, it’s definitely worth exploring (start here).

But if you already do – especially if you are preparing for an audition (orchestral, summer festival, or collegiate) – it may be worth videotaping yourself starting excerpts and pieces. Not just to add a touch of pressure, but to see how consistently you execute your pre-performance routine from one excerpt/piece to the next.

After all, auditions are short, so it doesn’t hurt to do what you can to maximize the likelihood of making a good first impression!