Rituals are as old as humanity itself. They have existed in many shapes: as rites before wars or in the simple act of sharing meals. They prepare us for important events, help control our emotions, and seem to be almost magical in that, somehow, they work.
Rituals are a set of predetermined acts that we perform regularly. Athletes and people in the military make use of them to prepare for games and wars. An athlete might wear a favorite item of clothing, get dressed in a particular sequence, or point up to heaven after every goal. A soldier might kiss a picture of his or her mother before going out to battle.
Why They Work
Recently we have learned more about why rituals work. They have been shown to decrease what would be a natural adverse reaction to failing without a corresponding decrease in performance. These practices help shield us from anxiety. According to Neha Chaudhary, M.D. in a New York Times article, Rituals Keep These Athletes Grounded. They Can Help Parents, Too.:
As a child psychiatrist, I see those rituals as anchors, not only for athletes but for all of us, to help us remember who we are and how to navigate life. By adopting our own rituals, we can bring calm, meaning and connectedness to our lives and families.
Rituals do not only apply to athletes or generals. We all develop these useful actions that help us manage stressful or difficult times. You might already have some, like dinner with your family or a date with your partner once a week. There’s also always room to create more if you feel like you do not have enough. The great thing about rituals is that they are tiny interventions that can have a profound effect.
Another characteristic of rituals is that if they work, they are sticky – they form habits that you perform without thinking. If for some reason, you are tired and would rather skip them, they will pull you back, and you will again have the benefits.
Furthermore, they seem to crop up organically. As humans, we are creatures of habit, and we tend to seek out those practices that work for us.
In my family, we recently started having a weekly family meeting. During the meeting, each person checks in, saying how they are feeling. We share what we liked about the week, what our goals are, and things we would like to change. We have a section for announcements. We also made it special: we open a bag of Doritos (something we never do!) during each meeting and share it as we talk. This meeting is a new ritual, and now my daughters ask for it every week.
Creating Rituals: An Example
We can create rituals to start our day or before meetings or presentations that will help ground us and become more resilient in the face of adversity. They can center your day.
I have a morning ritual that helps get my day started. Every morning, I get up earlier than the rest of my family and work out. Then I sit down at my desk, put on music, drink warm tea, and start to write this blog. Every day, I write 200 words. Writing gets my creativity flowing as I try to communicate a sometimes vague idea to others.
After I write, I journal for 15 minutes straight without stopping. I gain clarity about what I am working on to the point that I am sometimes surprised by what comes out of my pen when I am journaling. Not only does it help me process what is happening in my life, but I am also able to make plans and sketch out goals. When I finish journaling, I start to work on my books.
If I do not start the day in that sequence, I feel thrown off and lost. On the other hand, when I follow the pattern, it generates a sense of peace and optimism in me. I feel anchored and ready to continue with the rest of my day.
Inevitably, my morning does not always go perfectly, so by my lunch break, I need a refresh. I have found that if I meditate after lunch, I can reset and am ready to tackle what the afternoon brings. Finally, I end my day with family dinner, which serves as a closing chapter to all my daily activities.
Rituals come naturally to us, and they work – magically. We can nurture old ones and create new ones that we then sprinkle throughout our day to generate athlete-level performance in the different areas of our lives.
Chaudhary, Nena, M.D. Rituals Keep These Athletes Grounded. They Can Help, Parents, Too. The New York Times, Parenting, July 20, 2020.