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Pre-Game Routines: How Elite Basketball Players Prepare for Success

ByQueen Ballers Club|@queenballers| August 16, 2021
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How do you summon your best when your best is needed on the court? What thoughts do you call upon to help get you mentally right when you find yourself in high leverage situations, like your team down a point with only seconds remaining? 

Throughout professional basketball, including the WNBA, players use performance routines to train their minds so they can fall back upon highly refined skills. This training comes in the form of routines, which can be used pre-game, in-game, and post-game.

For example, here’s the Washington Mystics‘ Elena Delle Donne talking about how she developed a simple free-throw routine that has helped her succeed at the line since she was in the 8th grade: 

“For me, I like to keep it very simple. Step up to the line, find the dot with my right foot. Lined up and take three dribbles, and from there I make an L with my arm and lift and flick. So, for me, the biggest thing is simplicity…free throws are so mental that if a little things goes wrong and you feel it, I feel like you’re out of your shot already. It’s all about staying positive, finding that routine, and keeping it simple.”

– Elena Delle Donne

So what are pre-game routines and what can they tell us about how WNBA players prepare to summon their best at a moment’s notice? Read on to learn the different facets of these routines and how a variety of elite basketball players use them. 

So what’s a pre-game routine?

Routines are a series of thoughts and actions related to the task at hand, which help a player systematically get into the right mindset for whatever performance is needed. Mental Performance coach Gladine Frasso, owner of I Am Mentally Tough, calls pre-game routines “anchors,” which help athletes get into the “here and now.” Gladine notes that an athlete’s routine allows them to shift hats from “the non-athlete to the athlete,” as competing in sport is simply a part of their overall lives. 

Using a routine allows an athlete to focus on the task at hand and be dialed into the game. Of course, we know hoopers have been using pre-game routines (see: nap taking) for years. What helps is to consider, with some detail, just what some high level collegiate and professional ballers (and coaches) do to get their minds right. 

Some may not want to share their routines, for personal or competitive reasons. Here’s all-time great Seattle Storm‘s Sue Bird on Courtside with Lyndsey D’Arcangelo being, well, a bit vague about the specifics of her routine:

“You know, I don’t wear the same socks or have a rabbit’s foot or anything like that. But I’m very routine. It puts me in my happy place. So, it’s really nothing of note to tell you, it’s really boring and mundane. It’s pretty much the same every time. Do this then, do that, then, boppity-bop-bop-bop.”

– Sue Bird

How to build a pre-game routine that works for you

But Sue! You “yada-yada’d” the best part! What are some of those specifics that an elite athlete like Sue Bird gets into to put themselves in a ready state to compete? Let’s break down some areas.

1. Rest

Across the board, basketball players report using a mid-day nap as part of their pre-game routines. Bella Alarie of the Dallas Wings told Queen Ballers Club, “If we have an evening game, I’ll take a nap and make sure I’m rested and my mind and body feel ready for the game.”

While some pro hoopers have the luxury of a full 90 minute nap, even 20-30 minutes of shut eye can be hugely valuable for athletic performance, improving your ability to focus, mood, reaction time and, yes, how well you shoot a basketball.

A study that examined the impact of a nap on Stanford University basketball players found an improvement of 9% in both free throws and 3-point shooting by those that used naps. 

2. Music 

Try to find a hooper that doesn’t like listening to music to get ready; you’ll struggle to do so! Music is a great way to modulate your energy up or down as needed to prepare for what lies ahead. Need to relax? Try some smooth jazz or classical. Need to get hype? Get your hip-hop mix together. 

Depending on the energy level you want to arrive at, different playlists featuring songs with different beats per minute can help you do just that. Former overseas pro hooper Milani Malik-Richardson says the right music was essential in her career. “I have to make sure my playlist is right,” says Malik-Richardson. “Just anything that is going to amp me up, get me in the right mood, like tonight it’s on!”

Asked by the WNBA what her go-to music was on game day, Washington Mystics’ shooting guard Shavonte Zellous mentioned a different approach: “When I get in the shower, I listen to gospel before the game. And then it’s all turn-up music after that. It’s all Future, Drake and all of that type of stuff.” 

3. Ritualized action 

Players report doing different activities that are personally meaningful to them that help get them into a performance-ready mindset. These sorts of actions can help a player pre-game or during the game (again, think free-throw routines). Some players like to wipe the bottom of their kicks to “flush” a mistake; others will point up to the sky after a made basket.

Kateri Poole, named Miss New York by the Basketball Coaches Association of New York coming out of high school, has a series of actions she uses every time she laces them up: “Right before games, I cross my heart, kiss my fingers, and tap my shoes five times. It’s like a good luck thing for me.” 

While to some this may seem like a random series of things to do, or even superstition, for Kateri, who uses these actions to honor a cousin who was murdered when Kateri was a Freshman in High School, these actions go way deeper. “I cross my heart and pray, like please protect me. It just makes me remember who I’m playing for.” 

Coach Lindsay Whalen, the head coach of the University of Minnesota’s women’s basketball team and a previous point guard for the Connecticut Sun, also used very specific ritualized behaviors prior to playing:

“I have to get my left ankle taped before my right ankle. I have a piece of gum that I chew before I go on the court, and then when I warm up I throw it out. Before I come to the team huddle, when the five players huddle, I put my feet on the sticky thing (shoe sole cleaner) and my hands on the sticky thing. Then I clap once. I say a prayer before every game during the national anthem. I ask for no major injuries on either side of the ball.”

Specific rituals add meaning and consistency to an athlete’s preparation, providing them with a sense of calm and confidence leading up to the moment of performance. 

4. Visualization

Use of imagery, or visualization as it is commonly known, is a critical component to a serious athlete’s pre-performance routine. Visualization has many benefits, including reducing stress and worry, enhancing confidence, and assisting with the proper execution of sport-specific demands.

When a person imagines themselves succeeding on court, they activate similar areas of the brain that also become active when they are actually engaging in the task. This is known in sport psychology as “functional equivalence,” essentially demonstrating that we can ‘trick’ the lower order dimensions of our mind into feeling that we are completing a task without actually physically doing so.

Of course, like many mental skills, this takes practice! Bella mentions this is a big part of her pre-game routine: 

“I spend time just in my own mind, thinking about what I’m going to do in the game, whether that’s playing great defense, getting rebounds, making my shots, I just go through all that in my head. And try to get myself in the right mindset. I think that’s done wonders for me.”

Former WNBA player Natalie Williams said this practice helping her as well: “I just try to visualize to get mentally prepared for what I need to do each and every night depends on what my team needs.”

5. Setting intentions

One element of a pre-game routine that can easily get overlooked is setting personal intentions for how you want to show up for that performance. By telling yourself you want to be “calm and confident,” or “focused and free,” for examples, you are priming your mind to think and act the way you are intending. This can have a powerful impact.

After all, our thoughts impact our beliefs, which in turn impact our behaviors, and those behaviors are the content of our actions. By intentionally priming ourselves to show up in a particular manner, we are setting the stage for doing so.

Players aren’t the only ones that can benefit from a pre-game routine. Coaches, performers in their own right, also need to customize thoughts, actions and behaviors that will help them be at their best then their team needs them most.

Coach Vickie Johnson of the Dallas Wings mentioned to Queen Ballers Club turning off her phone, listening to motivational speeches, and setting the intention of “Leaving it all out on the floor, giving them everything that I possibly give them, offensively, defensively, encouraging them.” Oh, and Coach Johnson was sure to say she takes a pre-game nap as well!

6. Eating right

The right meal can set you up for success on court. Similarly, eating the wrong food can doom you. If you are wondering why you are fatigued and dragging late in a game, you can often look no further than what you ate (or didn’t eat) for lunch that day. 

“Nothing that you eat should slow you down,” says Milani, who has been a vegan since birth. While not every athlete will be vegan, generally speaking, a mix of carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats, fruits and vegetables and limited dairy is ideal when thinking of how to give your body the right nutrients to make it through a long game. 

Players also need to be mindful of when they are eating as eating too soon prior to tip-off can lead to a feeling of lethargy and being weighed down, whereas eating too long before the game can limit your overall energy level. Your bet is trying to eat 2-3 hours before showtime. 

7. Scouting report 

For the high-level hooper, a review of the scouting report is another element of the pre-game routine that can’t be overlooked. Whether it be a granular breakdown of the opponents tendencies, an overview of a team’s sets, or watching film of the team you’re about to face, learning the nuances of your opponent is a vital component to success in the WNBA. 

8. Releasing distractions

The life of a professional basketball player is full of demands on time. You have appearances, ticket requests, endorsements, friends and family all pulling at the same 24 hours a day that we all have. With all of these demands on your time you are sure to be distracted mentally.

urther, you are bound to have external distractions at the game: unruly fans, fans you want to impress, and calls that don’t go your way, just to name a few. On top of that we all have internal distractions that constantly take us away from the most important moment: the present. Nerves, fear of failure, an internal critic; all of these elements pop up throughout the course of a game. 

By knowing and naming distractions we are more able to release them, and making a point of intentionally doing so is a great way to decide you are going to be free of distractions come performance time. There are several ways to consider doing this, but perhaps none is better than using your breath as a tool to focus (and then refocus) on the present moment. 

9. Physical warm up

Of course, part of any pre-game routine will include a solid physical warm-up. Dynamic stretching, on-court individual skill work and a team warm-up are all part of a physical warm-up that will get your body ready to perform.

Milani points out that when doing your individual skill work you keep it game-specific: “I like to take about 50-100 shots I’m going to actually have in the game. You have to prepare yourself for what you’re actually going to do in the game.” 

10. Do you

No matter what your pre-game routine may be, it is best for you to individualize it so that it is customized to your particular needs. No two hoopers are exactly alike! While one player may need a 90-minute nap, another may only require a 20-minute catnap. Diets vary, stretching routines are body specific, and ritualized actions that are meaningful for you will have no impact on the next player. 

It’s critical for players to find what works for them, apply it, and then continue to tweak it as you see fit. Eventually you will arrive at a routine that fits you, and then you can keep it “the same every time,” as Sue Bird mentioned. 

“Do this then, do that then, boppity-bop-bop-bop.”

Pre-game routines set basketball players up for their best

Pre-game routines are vital to your success! The game is dynamic: venues change; opponents change; how you are feeling on any particular day (physically or mentally) changes as well. By creating a consistent set of thoughts, feelings, actions, and behaviors that are tweaked and catered to your individual needs, you are creating a template for consistent performance every time you are out on the court. 

Up next, learn more about a selfless star with a small-town start, the Mystics’ Ariel Atkins or explore the best ball handling drills at home.

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Written by Danny Ourian, M.A., a Certified Mental Performance Consultant® (CMPC) with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology and the founder of Hoops Minded, a mental performance training service for basketball players and other athletes. In addition, he is an Affiliate Faculty member with Holy Names University’s Sport and Performance Psychology department. He lives in Oakland (CA) with his wife and son. 

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