Whether my Mom was watching an Olympic figure skater, a golfer, or a musician, she would often say to me how interesting it was that they all seemed to pause and take a moment to compose themselves before beginning their routine, hitting the ball, or playing the first note.
I think this was her way of hinting that I did no such thing. And she was right – my approach was to rush right into the performance, with no apparent forethought, as if I was trying to get it over with and leave the stage as fast as possible.
She suggested that I copy their approach. And I reluctantly tried a few times, but kind of felt like an idiot whenever I did, because I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing.
I mean, sure, I could stand there trying to look pensive and thoughtful for a count of five. But in the meantime, my thoughts would be racing and I’d start wondering if I should close my eyes or keep them open. Or if I kept them open, I’d start wondering what I should be looking at. Or I’d wonder if what I was doing looked weird to the audience, or if they might misinterpret my pensiveness as my having forgotten how the piece begins. Then I’d lose count, and wonder if I’ve waited long enough. Or, I’d start to worry that I’ve waited too long, and wonder if the audience is starting to get antsy.
None of which is anywhere near the right mindset for performing effectively, of course. But that brings us to the question of…what the heck should we be thinking about in the last few seconds before we play anyway?
There are a range of things that we could choose to think about in this moment, but a recent tennis study provides some helpful clues on what specific thoughts might be most useful.
A tennis study
A team of French researchers (Robin et al., 2022) conducted a tennis study to see if a pre-serve routine consisting of mental imagery and self-talk would improve first serve performance.
They recruited 33 junior-level tennis players who were all competing regionally or nationally and had them start out with a simple baseline test of 25 first serves, where the goal was to ace their opponent.
10 weeks of practice
Then, the athletes were randomly assigned to one of three different practice groups, and practiced hitting 25 serves in match-like conditions in 20 subsequent practice sessions (two practice sessions per week over the course of 10 weeks).
One group just hit their serves like normal, with no special instructions (control group).
Another group was asked to take a moment before each serve to visualize themselves serving the ball successfully from an external third-person perspective (like they were watching themselves on TV), and to also visualize the trajectory of the ball and the placement of the ball in the service box (mental imagery group).
The last group was asked to do this same visualization routine before each serve, and also include a little bit of motivational self-talk. A short, positive phrase like “You can do it” or “come on” or “I feel good” (mental imagery + self-talk group).
Three measures of serve effectiveness
The researchers looked at a few different aspects of serve performance.
One factor was velocity. Did the athletes’ serves get any faster (or slower) from the first test to the last?
Another factor was accuracy. Did the athletes hit a higher percentage of serves in after the imagery training?
One last factor was efficiency. It wasn’t super clear to me what exactly this meant in the context of the study, but I believe this had to do with technique. As in, how efficient was their service motion, in terms of its mechanics. The athletes’ serve efficiency ratings were determined by two tennis coaches who watched video of the serves and rated their serves.
So…after 20 practice sessions, was there any change in the groups’ first serve performance?
Yes! Both of the mental imagery groups demonstrated a statistically significant improvement in their first serve percentage – with no loss in velocity – while the control group’s first-serve percentage stayed about the same.
Was there any benefit to adding that little bit of motivational self-talk into their routine?
Well, not in terms of accuracy or velocity, but mental imagery + self-talk group did have a greater increase in their serve efficiency scores than either the mental imagery only and control groups.
So what can we take away from all of this?
Well, whether it’s serving in tennis or getting ready to play a really exposed solo in orchestra after a long period of sitting around, it does seem that having some sort of pre-performance routine or ritual involving imagery can help increase the accuracy and consistency of your big moment.
And don’t forget the age of the participants in this study too. The average age was just under 16 years of age, with a range of around 14 to 18, so these were highly skilled, but relatively young athletes. Meaning, if you work with high school-aged students and have wondered if routines could be useful even at that age, the answer is that they probably can. Or at least, it’s worth a try to see how your particular students might respond to a simple routine like visualizing the opening phrase of a piece, and hearing it in their head before starting to play. And I think a simple routine like this could be helpful to even younger students as well, for what it’s worth.
However, the structure of this and previous studies in this area do suggest that pre-performance rituals have to be practiced. Rather than spontaneously making up some imagery routine on the fly, it’d be more beneficial to take a little time well in advance of an audition or performance to see what works for you and practice your routine so that it feels familiar and comfortable.
As far as self-talk goes, it’s not super clear to me from the description how much added value this part of the routine had on athletes’ serving performance in this study. But that said, efficiency is always a good thing, so it certainly wouldn’t hurt to at least experiment with a quick “I got this” or something along those lines when you do your next self-recording run-through, and to see if this could indeed help boost the physical ease and effortlessness of your playing.
Robin, N., Dominique, L., Guillet-Descas, E., & Hue, O. (2022). Beneficial Effects of Motor Imagery and Self-Talk on Service Performance in Skilled Tennis Players. Frontiers in Psychology, 13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.778468