There is often an extensive process that takes place before an athlete ever attempts his or her performance. While the most common pre-performance routines take place on the basketball court before an athlete takes a free-throw, players also have routines before kicking football field goals, taking rugby shots, stepping into a baseball batter’s box, or even hitting a putt on a golf course. These routines may make athletes feel better, but some wonder whether they have a tangible impact – either negative or positive – on athlete performance. Tremendous amounts of research have been conducted on the topic, looking to draw a link between athlete success rates and either the presence of or the type of pre-performance routine used by the athlete. Those research findings are reflected in the following literature review.

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Haddad and Tremayne (2009) wrote at length about one of the most common pre-performance routines for basketball players. They write that one of the most common pre-performance routines for basketball players is attempting to center themselves on the free-throw line prior to taking their shot. This study showed that among a very small sample of five basketball players between the ages of ten and eleven, including both boys and girls, “centering” improved effectiveness by a marginal amount among the participants. These participants were young, but they were among the most talented players in Australia. This research suggested that the psychological effects of centering may have been as important as the simple physical help from starting the shot centered.

With the previous authors suggested that the findings might be applied in different sports settings, Jackson (2003) has demonstrated that this is the case. He wrote about the effect of pre-performance routines for kicking among rugby players. This study was significantly different in many respects. Rather than dealing with young players, it dealt with older players. Likewise, it dealt with players on a very high level. It took a look at the goal kicking in the Rugby World Cup, finding that among the best and worst kickers in the World Cup, there was no difference in either the physical preparation time or the amount of concentration shown before the kick. The researchers took a hard look at every single kick that took place in the entire World Cup, totaling more than 500 kicks. Over the course of this extensive sample, they did find that kickers did not demonstrate consistency in their pre-performance routine. Rather, they found that kickers tended to spend far more time focusing in the pre-performance routine when the kick was difficult and when the situation in the game lent itself to more stress. In so-called “high leverage” situations, players were more likely to focus, and when the game was not on the line, they were more likely to simply go ahead with their kick.

What this study suggests is that both good and bad athletes have similar routines, and both good and bad athletes tend to alter their routines when the situation calls for it. While one might be tempted to suggest that, from these results, pre-performance routines do not have an impact on performance, that is not really the conclusion that the authors reach. Because they are comparing athletes with different skill levels, the fact that good and bad kickers show no differences in their pre-performance routine does nothing to suggest that routines are either helpful or not helpful. Rather, in order to understand the effect, one would have to control for skill level, looking to see the effect that these routines have among players of similar skill levels.

Lonsdale and Tam (2008) have conducted perhaps the most conclusive study on the effect of pre-performance routine on the success of free throw shooting. While previous studies have looked at how pre-performance routines impact the success rates for young basketball players, these researchers took a look at the effect of these routines on the best players in the world. More than that, the researchers took a look at how pre-performance routines influenced performance in the most difficult and pressure-packed situations. To figure this out, the researchers conducted analysis of fourteen NBA playoff games. They looked at every free throw attempted in these games, which totaled more than 200 by the time the research was through. They determined, by observing both the time that the athletes spent in their routine and the willingness of players to follow their routine, a few critical conclusions. Principally, they filled in one of the holes of the previously-mentioned study on rugby. Rather than comparing good and bad players on the basis of routine, they took a look at those instances when the same players would deviate from their routines.

This is easier done in basketball as compared to football or rugby because a single basketball free-throw is a less meaningful event that a kick in rugby. This lends itself to basketball players choosing to sometimes follow their routine and other times not follow their routine. The study found that there was no difference in effectiveness between long, short, and middling time periods for routines. In short, the longer routines did not provide any additional advantage over a shorter pre-performance routine. However, the study’s most critical and important finding revealed that among these players, those who did follow their pre-performance routine had more success than those who deviated from their previously established routine. While this study did run into the problem of qualitatively establishing just what the routine was, and while it included a personal judgment on whether the athlete had actually followed the routine, the findings are significant. They demonstrate that perhaps the psychological comfort level of athletes is altered when those athletes do not follow the routine that they have established for taking a free throw. The performance gap of nearly ten-percent was large enough to be meaningful in this regard.

Gooding and Gardner (2009) took a hard look at whether the previously mentioned research could be replicated among some of the best college basketball players in the world. While there are certainly some differences between the environments in which NBA games and college basketball games are played, there are some significant similarities that make this sort of analysis a meaningful one. The stakes are very high in college basketball games, and the crowds are extremely loud. Likewise, with television playing a major role, players feel the same amounts of pressure between college and the NBA. This study, which took a look at 17 NCAA basketball players, found that the consistency of pre-performance routines was not predictive of game free throw percentage. This study did confirm previous studies that suggested that the length of a pre-shot routine does not have an impact on the success levels for a player when he steps to the free-throw line.

There were, however, some interesting findings in this study. For one, this study found that the player’s age or level in college was a predictor of the player’s effectiveness at the free-throw line. This suggests that there are factors that weigh upon that player that are outside the bounds of the pre-shot routine. Likewise, the study took a qualitative look at the “mindfulness” levels of players. These players were given certain cognitive tests to assess their mindfulness level. It was demonstrated that those players who scored higher on mindfulness could be expected to have higher free throw success. This suggests that the highly mechanical action of shooting a free-throw can be mastered, and that those individuals who are mindful over their free-throw process may have a better opportunity to succeed at the free throw line. While consistency in free-throw routine was not predictive of success at the line, having a pre-shot routine, which is a result of mindfulness, was helpful to those players when they stepped to the line.

While it is difficult to come up with reasons for the gap in data between high-level college basketball players and NBA players, one may be able to explain these differences by noting that NBA players, by the nature of their work schedule, shoot many more practice free throws per day. This could reveal that they have a greater need for consistency in their routine than college players, who log significantly less practice free-throws and log significantly less game free-throws because the NBA season is significantly longer than the college basketball season.

Czech, Ploszay, and Burke (2004) wanted to assess whether following pre-shot routines among college basketball players would influence free throw success rates. Their study, which looked at more than a dozen athletes, including men and women, in a major conference in college basketball, suggested that among those players, the ones who kept pre-shot routine intact could be expected to perform six-percent higher at the line. They made more of their shots when sticking to the routine that they had developed. The authors of this study note that this is not a statistically significant difference. This may explain why different studies have found different results on the effectiveness of consistency. Simply put, because there are so many factors that go into a free throw, it may be true that the sample sizes in these studies are not large enough to provide any overarching conclusions on whether there is a positive correlation between consistency and effectiveness at the free-throw line.

Generally writing, a number of researchers note that when athletes engage in pre-performance routines, they experience added effectiveness when they perform. These authors noted that there are many benefits associated with having a routine. It could help a player focus, it could relieve stress, and it might calm the player, allowing the player to perform at his or her highest level. Later findings have been largely in agreement with this, noting in different ways that a certain level of mindfulness is necessary for having the most success when one finally has to perform. However, it appears, when looking at the total body of research, that there is some disagreement on whether one has to keep the same routine in order to have success when one performs. Likewise, the results have been demonstrated over a wide range of different levels. From elementary school basketball, when little kids try to line up their shots, to the college and professional ranks, where the pressure is extremely heavy, it has been demonstrated that a pre-shot routine can help to add to effectiveness.

Ultimately, pre-shot routines have been shown to have a positive impact on performance. Especially in basketball, where the shot is very technical and the pressure is very high, players who have a pre-shot routine are known to do much better when they step to the line. While there is some disagreement on whether players need to keep the same routine each time in order to have success, there is little disagreement in the literature today on whether being mindful of the process is a necessary tool for players across a range of different sports. While basketball is the perfect conduit for conducting this research, it is applicable in other settings, as demonstrated in rugby research and other sports research.