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The Importance of Rafael Nadal's Ritualistic Routine

Rafael Nadal wins the French Open, equaling Roger Federer's feat of 20 Grand Slams.



Congratulations to Rafael Nadal, who claimed victory at Roland Garros on Sunday, defeating Novak Djokovic 6-0 6-2 7-5. This impressive win is worth celebrating for the magnificent display of skill and talent that Nadal possesses, but it’s also worth considering the psychological strength needed to become a champion. Much has been written about Rafa’s pre-match and on-court routines. Fans find his behaviour adorable; others have accused him of time-wasting. But we think this kind of ritualistic behaviour is something to be celebrated and considered sensitively, as something that contributes a great deal to Rafa’s performance.

Nadal discusses his on-court behaviour in his 2011 memoir, writing: 

"And then I put the two bottles down at my feet, in front of my chair to my left, one neatly behind the other, diagonally aimed at the court. Some call it superstition, but it’s not. If it were superstition, why would I keep doing the same thing over and over whether I win or lose? It’s a way of placing myself in a match, ordering my surroundings to match the order I seek in my head."

Rafa is totally correct, of course. These kinds of routines should not be dismissed as simply superstitions or ‘tics’, and they certainly shouldn’t be misdiagnosed as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), as some unqualified critics have done. Although they don’t serve any practical purpose in increasing the athlete’s skill or performance, they can play an important psychological role in allowing their skills (which have been honed by a very different kind of ritual called many years of training) to be unhindered by distraction. Whether it be Rafa adjusting his socks, pulling at his underwear, or arranging his bottles in a diagonal line; or Serena Williams bouncing the ball exactly five times before a 1st serve and twice before her 2nd serve; performing these kinds of small behaviours in a familiar pattern can be a way for an athlete to get in the zone, to block out the nerves and the noise and focus solely on the game.

This kind of behaviour allows the sportsperson to bring some level of control into a situation that is largely beyond their control. No matter how skilled or talented the athlete, there are many factors that determine the outcome of a match. Of course, the skills of the player and their opponent play a huge role, but so does chance - the slip of a foot, the speed of a ball, many unknowns can affect an athlete’s performance. These unknowns can let the anxiety creep in. Having a set of ordered behaviours can help bring that anxiety under control.

Anyone who plays team sports knows the importance of building a strong team spirit, but the more individuals involved also brings a greater number of unknowns and more things left to chance. Perhaps this is why so many teams have mascots and pre-game or post-point rituals; a certain level of familiarity can bring comfort; help ease the anxiety and bring the team together.

A recent study into ritualistic and ’superstitious' behaviours of athletes (including elite, competitive and recreational sportspeople) suggests that these kinds of rituals could have a beneficial effect on an athlete’s performance if coaches, sports psychologists and athletes themselves were more open and accepting of them. A greater understanding of the psychology behind this behaviour might actually help an athlete reach their optimal performance. More research needs to be done on this fascinating subject.

Here at Ultra Sports, our team of experts are not just physiotherapists, biokineticists and osteopaths, many of them also play team sports. Come and talk to us, we can help improve your performance, whether you play sport as an individual or in a team. 

Call us on 0203 893 5100 or book an appointment online.

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