Photo: Banafsheh Rahnama via Flickr
People who perform at the highest levels put themselves through extreme rituals. Just look at the three-time Olympic gold ice skating duo Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. The two use a ritual hug to sync up their breathing before they skate together. In front of a packed crowd, under huge pressure, they completely focus on a ritual that helps them perform their best.
This type of ritualistic behavior extends to all kinds of athletes and performers. Baseball players, for example, are notorious for using strange and intense rituals to get themselves in the zone.
All of these rituals are developed as part of a quest for expertise.
The type of expertise is irrelevant. You probably aren’t going in front of Olympic judges or 95 mph fastballs anytime soon, but you can still see the benefit of rituals and use them to vastly improve your performance.
Intense rituals distinguish amateurs from professionals
To become an expert at anything, you have to build a routine and stick with it. And as people become better at an activity, their routines tend to become more extreme.
The better an athlete or a performer gets, the less room there is for error. They’re looking for something that will give them an edge—even a tiny one.
For instance, the jazz musician Pat Metheny has been playing for decades. He’s won 18 Grammys already. And after every show, he still writes out a lengthy diary entry detailing what went well, what didn’t, and what he can do better next time.
Or take the South African golfer Bobby Locke, a notoriously slow player. Opponents would complain strenuously about his sluggish pace of play, but he never let it bother him. They probably didn’t realize he’d spent his entire morning preparing to play that way. From the moment he woke up on the day of a tournament, he would perform every task in agonizingly slow motion. Everything from brushing his teeth to putting on his shoes was slowed to a crawl.
Experts do whatever it takes to get the slightest edge, even if it seems bizarre or brings criticism.
Rituals evolve as people strive for greater performance
People don’t necessarily want to come up with a strange or extreme ritual. They do it because they realize they need something to boost their performance.
Their quest for improvement leads them to experiment with something new, change an old routine, or create a new regimen that’s more extreme.
As people change, grow, and get better at their job, they continue to tweak and experiment with their rituals. That’s why many of these rituals are so specific to the individuals using them.
I even noticed this myself. When I first started giving presentations, I would spend hours preparing. I’d be in the conference room an hour early, practicing my points and making sure my voice didn’t crack. As a beginner, I concentrated on fundamental skills. Am I prepared? Is my presentation clear? Is my voice in good shape this morning?
But as my technical knowledge has increased, my rituals have changed. I don’t spend as much time questioning whether or not I know the material. Now, I spend time thinking about how engaging and compelling I am as a speaker. I often listen to stand-up comedy on the way to important presentations because comedians have to be engaging in the toughest of situations. It mentally prepares me for what I have to do an hour later.
It becomes a constant process of trying different things, keeping what works, and getting rid of what doesn’t.
Increasingly intense rituals jumpstart your brain
Try doing everything in slow motion one morning, and see how long you last.
Our brains are great at funneling information in a certain way, getting us into habits and routines that make life easier. The energy needed to get your brain out of its normal thinking and routines is astounding.
But breaking out of your lines of thinking is how you come up with new and creative ideas. It’s how you push yourself to give that extra effort.
Personally, I’m always thinking about how to perform better and get in the best state of mind. That could entail going for a run, getting somewhere half an hour early to prepare, or even taking a cold shower in the morning. I do those things because I’m trying to leave my day-to-day thinking behind. I’m trying to jar my brain into a different state.
Extreme rituals are really about pushing yourself into a different mental state — one that will improve your performance for the task at hand. The more extreme the ritual, the better chance you have of getting into the proper mental state you need to excel.
This post first appeared on Quora.