What you do in the crucial moments while preparing to begin your run-up can have a significant effect on the results, as Bob Lewis explains
In jumping events, where success depends on repeated and accurate execution of complex motor skills often under increasing pressure as the competition goes on, it is not unusual to see a performance breakdown at key points in a competition.
Unless an athlete is a novice and still learning the event or a more experienced athlete coming to grips with a new technical model, what is clear is that technique is not usually the issue. In a lengthy competition, fatigue and a lack of conditioning may be a factor, but a more likely cause can be the inability to maintain that technique under the stress of competitive pressure.
Among lots of theories about how to ensure a strong execution under pressure, one of the things that has been shown to help is to establish an effective “pre- performance” routine. We could describe this as a consistent sequence of preparatory thoughts and actions that an athlete engages in immediately prior to executing a key skill.
In this context, we are talking about the moments immediately prior to the start of the run-up after having stepped on to the runway or high jump fan.
Pre-performance routines are used by top performers in various sports that contain elements of “self-paced skills” (specific motor sequences that are carried out largely at the competitor’s own pace without interference by other competitors). A golfer might adopt a particular “set” stance and take a particular number of practice swings before a putt or a drive. Similarly, a tennis player will typically prepare for a serve with the same sequence of actions.
For a jumper, the time between the start of the run-up is analogous with the golfer and tennis player before they strike the ball. It is critical to what follows! At a recent workshop of all four jumping disciplines, I asked who had an established routine for this period that they could actively recall. Most said they didn’t. However, when pressed to think through in detail the typical sequence of events that they actually followed before a jump, most admitted that they did have a set of actions that they performed more or less subconsciously and were finally able to elaborate in some detail. When asked why they performed their sequences and what contribution those made to the successful execution of their jump, most were again unsure.
Do routines matter?
Sports psychologists have been studying this for a long time, and there is good evidence that pre-performance routines which are consistent and purposeful work to:
» Help stabilise the recall of motor patterns
» Increase performance consistency
» Help you actively focus on things only relevant to your performance
» Increase your feelings of control and confidence
» Help you perform better under pressure
Can a routine be learned?
You can certainly learn how to put a pre-jump routine together. However, there is no pre-set routine that is right for everyone. As a competitive jumper, you need to develop one that works for you.
What research has shown is that just like the technical phases of a jump, there are phases of a pre-performance routine you can combine and sequence to set yourself up optimally for each jump. The specific psychological and physical cues you use within those phases are where you make the routine your own.
Where do I start?
Start by analysing what you currently do. Between the time you step on to the run-up and the first step of your approach, do you have a planned routine? Is it consistent in terms of content, timing and sequence? Have you thought about the elements and why you use each one? Are there things you could adapt, add or even remove?
If you don’t have a routine, or want to develop what you already do, there is a simple four-step model which has been shown to be effective and which you may want to use as a template. You can remember it by using the mnemonic RIFE – Ready, Imaging, Focusing, Execution.
Guidelines for developing RIFE
Readying: Creating physical and emotional readiness. The purpose of this phase is to establish the optimal physical and emotional state for your jump.
At this point it is not about technique. One mistake some jumpers make under pressure is to let their minds race and start focusing on speciﬁfis of technique before they have ever fully settled on the runway. The emphasis should be on establishing a consistent basic position, feeling physically comfortable, controlling arousal levels and establishing mental readiness.
Physical cues might include specific foot placement, establishing your grip on the pole or a cue for body awareness and control, such as a specific breathing pattern or postural alignment. Mental cues might include specific cue words or phrases like “relax”, “ready to go”, “all set”, “feeling good”. The point here is to ensure that you are completely ready and in a stable state of readiness before moving on to the next phase.
Imaging: The purpose of this phase is to mentally prime the key elements of your jump – in effect, rehearse your jump. Engage as many senses as you can – feel the jump as well as seeing it. Take into account the environment you are jumping in. For example, if it’s wet and windy, imagine yourself completing a successful jump in the wind and rain.
Imaging is more than pure visualisation – it adds the kinesthetic element, so as well as seeing the jump, you also feel it. You will often see jumpers physically mimicking certain aspects of their jump in their preparation. You could add instructional cue words to prime one key technical element, such as “plant” or “rhythm”. However, it’s important not to overthink your technique. See the jump as a whole.
Focusing: Narrow the focus and block out distractions. The purpose is to narrow the focus to one relevant external cue, such as the take-off board or the bar, and eliminate everything else. You’ve set yourself up physically and emotionally and established the mental image of the jump and all you need to do is focus on it. If you become distracted, use a blocking self-talk cue, such as “focus” or “stop”! If there is a distraction beyond your control – for example, a starter’s gun going off – start the cycle again.
Execution: Smooth and consistent completion of your jump. The purpose is to perform what you’ve done a thousand times in training. At this point stop thinking! Trust yourself and let the performance flow. Execute with a “quiet” mind and enjoy the performance.
» Bob Lewis is completing an MSc in sport psychology at St Mary’s University College. He competes in the M50 age group from 100m-800m and has medals from the European and world indoor and outdoor masters championships.