If you saw a guy throwing chalk into the air before an important board meeting, eating a PB&J before every first date, or donning his lucky shorts for a big exam, you’d think he’d gone off the deep end. But put an NBA player such as LeBron James in the same situation, and you wouldn’t bat an eye. NBA players have rituals and superstitions that they believe can help them keep up their A-game. Taking a look at the science behind their rituals, we tell you what works and what doesn’t, and how to use it to become a pre-game pro.
Science or superstition?
It’s a widely-held belief among athletes of all sports that certain rituals can help them lead their teams to victory. A study published by the Journal of Sport Behaviour in 1997 found that college athletes would “usually” engage in some or all of five rituals before important games, including eating the same food, praying, abstaining from alcohol and drugs, wearing the same clothes and, well, keeping it in their pants the night before.
What we can understand from these studies is that rituals and superstitions—whether mental or purely physical—can strongly influence a player’s performance on the court. Even crazier is that if they work, that means you can identify and recreate certain rituals that can help you perform like a pro on the court yourself.
Tighten up your bed game
After years of play, it’s no secret that the pros have created their own pre-game rituals for success, and for some, what happens before they hit the sack and call it a night is key. One of the most insane quirks we’ve heard of is the Nets’ Jason Terry’s pre-game sleeping ritual. When he was a Dallas Maverick, he’d always wear the opposing team’s shorts to bed to mentally clinch the upper hand in the next game. Famously, he couldn’t get any Miami Heat trunks during the 2006 NBA finals—and the Mavs lost.
More realistically, what matters most is the amount of sleep that you get. When asked, dunkmaster Terrence Ross of the Raptors told us that he goes to sleep around 10 p.m., but teammate Amir Johnson said he’s a bit less regimented. “[I] pretty much just doze off when I get tired, you know I’m always ready for a game,” he says.
Thing is, sleep cycles are strongly tailored to individuals. A 2011 Stanford University study concluded that increasing sleep length for four days prior to a game can increase performance. Stanford’s sleep lab had players who usually slept eight hours a night sleep in an extra 25 per cent, for a total of 10 hours. Their free throw percentages increased by nine per cent and 3-point field goal percentage increased by 9.2 per cent. Reaction time was also shorter, and their sprint times went down dramatically.
If players missed any extra hours, napping until they hit 10 hours worked just fine. If you want to boost your own performance, try taking a cue from Ray Allen, who always takes a 1.5-hour nap before hitting the court.
Put your performance where your mouth is
Few pre-game rituals are as interesting or varied as athletes’ dietary prep work. Back in the day, the ancient Greeks would subject their Olympian athletes to a careful diet during the month of training before the games. According to Greek Athletics and the Genesis of Sport, this was not only to keep their physical performance at its highest, but also to instill taboos—basically, to get them to associate winning with certain foods.
However, the purely mental ritual of Rasual Butler—he drinks exactly five sips of water prior to every game—goes to show how effective eating rituals can be, even without an energy boost.
You can try potentially more effective eating habits before a game, such as Terrence Ross’ avoidance of junk food. “Most of the time they don’t give me energy for the next day,” he told us. “I eat some pasta, something light, something that will sustain me through the game. I had one today, as usual, that’s what I eat before games. With chicken [or] scallops.”
A high-carb meal with some easy proteins comes most recommended, topped with healthy fats that will keep your energy levels soaring. Unhealthy fats and sugars only bog you down. You won’t see Celtics power forward Jeff Green, who also prefers pasta, hanging around fast food, either. “Fried, anything fried, stay away from it,” he says.
2. The PB&J ritual seems to have originated from Kevin Garnett. Now that it’s cemented in the team’s psyche, players reportedly get very heated on what flavour’s better: grape or strawberry. Oh, the problems of the rich and famous.
Seeing (and hearing) is believing
As we were talking to Green about the importance of a pre-game workout, he told us his ideal routine involves visualizing and practising game-winning moves. “I just try to do things that’s similar to the offence, things that I can see myself doing on the floor,” he says.
Visualization is an important ritual for basketball players, who often tie it to ritual acts. In a 1983 edition of the Journal of Sport Psychology, a study showed that basketball players who mentally rehearsed their free throws experienced a dramatic boost to their scoring average (remember Jason Kidd’s kiss?). Phil Jackson, formerly one of the best coaches in the game, was also a huge believer. In Sporting the Right Attitude, he writes that visualization can reduce doubt, decrease nervousness, increase energy, promote relaxation, improve sprints and overall increase performance. Not bad for what amounts to good vibes.
The best visualizations are practised in the hours just before the game during top-up training, because a ritual performed under perfect conditions during drills can teach a player’s body to call up those same feelings of success when performed during crunch time. Amir Johnson told us that he follows a routine consisting of lifting weights, performing pick-n-roll drills and making 10 baskets from hot spots before each game. You can bet that along with those 10 baskets, he performed the same sacred pre-shot ritual he’ll perform again when he gets to take two from the charity stripe. At your most relaxed, create your own simple pre-shot ritual, whether it consists of a few dribbles or rubbing the side of your face like Jeff Hornacek.
Another way to create relaxed and confident conditions on the day of a game can also include auditory input, so you can try relaxing with music like the pros do. In fact, it’s hard to picture them without their earbuds in before a game. A recurring theme we’ve witnessed is the prevalence of guys listening to Drake, apparently the NBA’s favourite rapper. Whether you’re Vander Blue or Terrence Ross, crank up Nothing Was the Same while you visualize that championship ring.
Tackling the no-sex myth
In our quest for the perfect pre-game ritual, we also sat down to see what players don’t do before game time, and that meant talking birds and bees with the ballers. While the subject drew a lot of chuckles, it is still a common myth that players abstain from sex before game day to stay aggressive and perform their best.