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A student recently told me of an old Italian tradition among singers, where some would not go on stage to perform until they found a bent nail backstage. Even Pavarotti is said to have engaged in this ritual. Other musicians like Led Zeppelin, John Legend, and Beyoncé have described their own quirky pre-show rituals. And many athletes are known for their unusual game-day or pre-shot rituals as well.

Most of the pre-performance rituals that sport psychologists develop with athletes include strategic elements like breathing, or releasing tension, or visualization of the desired outcome. Actions that are intended to help the athlete get into a more optimal mental or physical state for performing optimally.

But some rituals – like the bent nail – seem totally random. Yet…could even these sorts of rituals enhance performance too?

Don’t Stop Believin’

A team of researchers (Brooks et al., 2016) conducted a series of studies to see if seemingly arbitrary rituals were effective in enhancing performance – and if the reason for this is that rituals of any kind are an effective way to reduce pre-performance anxiety.

In one study, 85 university students were randomly assigned to either a ritual or no ritual group.

When a student arrived for the study, they initially stayed in a waiting room with no idea what they would be doing.

Then, they were taken to a second room, where they were told that they would be singing a Journey song (Don’t Stop Believin’ – which you can listen to here if you’ve forgotten it, or here , if you prefer the Will Ferrell commentary version), in front of an experimenter, and be paid for their performance, according to the accuracy of their singing (the karaoke program they used would calculate a score based on how close the participant matched the original song’s volume, pitch, and note duration).

Ritual vs. no ritual

But before they were escorted to the performance space, students in the ritual group were asked to engage in the following ritual: 

Draw a picture of how you are feeling right now. Sprinkle salt on your drawing. Count up to five out loud. Crinkle up your paper. Throw your paper in the trash.

Those in the no ritual group were simply asked to sit quietly for 1 min.

When the ritual or 1-min wait was complete, the participant was taken to another room to give their performance.

And then they received their singing accuracy score, and were asked a few questions to get a sense of how nervous they were, and what their emotional experience of the situation may have been.

So did this totally random ritual make a difference?

Did it make a difference?

Indeed it did! The participants who engaged in the ritual had higher accuracy scores than those who just sat quietly – with scores of 78.47% vs. 65.70% (on a scale of 0-100%).

In addition, the questionnaire taken afterwards seemed to suggest that a reduction in anxiety may have been a big part of the reason why. Overall, everyone’s anxiety was elevated before singing, with an average anxiety rating of 5.14 out of 7 (1=not at all; 7=very much). But those in the ritual group had lower levels of anxiety (4.15) than those in the no ritual group (5.94).

So while this is pretty intriguing, and self-reported anxiety after the fact is a pretty common way to assess anxiety, wouldn’t it be nice to get a more real-time physiological measure of anxiety too?

Yep, the researchers thought that as well, and is exactly what they did next.

Don’t Stop Believin’, w/HR

In the next study, 167 university students were randomly assigned to either a ritual group, a no ritual group, or a calm down group.

Participants started off by getting their heart rate measured, to establish a baseline of their resting heart rate.

And then they were informed that they would be singing the first verse of the Journey song in front of a group of other participants (😳), after which their heart rate was measured once again.

Ritual vs. no ritual vs. calm down

Those in the ritual group performed the same exact ritual as in the other study. The students in the no ritual group waited quietly for a bit. And the participants in the calm down group were told to “do your best to calm down before you sing.”

And then, before singing, their heart rate was measured one last time.

So did the ritual have any effect on heart rate? Especially when compared to those who were explicitly told to try to calm down?

Did it make a difference?

The average baseline heart rate across all participants was 74.95bpm. And after finding out they’d be singing in front of other participants, their heart rate went up to 80.34bpm.

The heart rate of the participants in the no ritual group who simply sat quietly before singing stayed elevated right up until the moment they sang (81.39bpm). Likewise for the students who were instructed to try to calm down (80.58bpm).

But the heart rate of the participants who engaged in the pre-performance ritual actually dropped to 77.37bpm.

*Note: You might notice that the numbers in the chart are ever so slightly different from those above. I’m assuming it’s just a typo or perhaps one of those weird mysterious Excel things if the chart was generated there.

Brooks, A. W., Schroeder, J., Risen, J. L., Gino, F., Galinsky, A. D., Norton, M. I., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2016). Don’t stop believing: Rituals improve performance by decreasing anxiety. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 137, 71–85.

The importance of calling a ritual a ritual

Why would such random acts like sprinkling salt and counting to five have an impact on participants’ experience of nerves and subsequent performance?

Well, it’s not entirely clear why rituals reduce anxiety, but some think that it’s because performing the ritual is something you have control over. And that this provides a little bit of order or reassurance in what can be an otherwise chaotic moment. Kind of like organizing your desk when you’re stressed out or overwhelmed.

Others have suggested that engaging in a ritual could distract you from thinking negative stress-inducing thoughts.

But either way, the researchers did find that calling the ritual a ritual seems to be an essential factor in whether it has a positive effect or not.

Because when the team conducted additional studies where they referred to the ritual as “a few random behaviors,” the ritual no longer had a calming or performance-enhancing effect.

Takeaways

Since nerves pretty much comes with the territory, if you don’t already have some sort of personal pre-performance ritual for the day of, or for the warmup room, it seems that developing some sort of ritual would be a great first step towards managing audition/performance-day anxiety more effectively.

If nothing else, I feel like this would be kind of a fun thing to think about and experiment with, as you reflect back on some of the quirky things you might have done on some of your best performance days in the past, and sprinkle in new elements that feel like they’d be a good fit – whether they align with a personal superstition or have some kind of meaningful symbolic value.

What’s the quirkiest or most unusual pre-performance ritual you’ve heard of? Would love to hear it if you’re willing to share (might be a fun way for the rest of us to get some new ideas)!


References

Brooks, A. W., Schroeder, J., Risen, J. L., Gino, F., Galinsky, A. D., Norton, M. I., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2016). Don’t stop believing: Rituals improve performance by decreasing anxiety. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 137, 71–85.

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

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