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  • Deniz Kilicgedik Sazak

Routines, Rituals & Superstitions: How to Mentally Prepare for High-Performance in the Flight Deck

Güncelleme tarihi: 11 Tem 2021

Drained in sweat, he nervously but determinedly twitches his ears; first the left one then his nose, and then right ear and nose again. It is exhausting to watch, let alone to even imagine how psychologically draining it must be to be on the court for Rafael Nadal at that moment.

Watching tennis tournaments, the behaviors of high-achieving tennis players astonish me every time. Professional athletes in general are known for their strict rituals and routines that provide them with high-performance, power and keep them focused each match. Tennis players in especially count as one of the most ritual reliant athletes.

Serena Williams for example, ties her shoes the same way, tends to bring her shower sandals to the court with her and bounces the ball five times before the first serve and two times before the second. Rafael Nadal also has a very specific pre-match routine where he places two water bottles right next to each other on the ground, in front and to the left of his chair, facing the court. Tennis is a highly ritual, even superstition packed sport but such behaviors are not limited to athletes, Beethoven for example was rumored to count exactly 60 coffee beans to make his “perfect” morning coffee before he could begin working. This makes me wonder about the influence of routines and rituals on high achieving people, and how these behaviors fit into our daily- or work lives?

Creatures of Habit:

Human beings are innately creatures of habit. The reason we seek routines is that routines are familiar, they make us feel comfortable, provide consistency.

In definition, routines and rituals have different meanings. While routines are actions that we follow regularly, they can improve productivity and comfort us with their familiarity. Routines are systematic and task-oriented thoughts and behaviors. Just as athletes practice their hits before a match, pilots have pre-flight checklists, procedures, and briefings. Despite being knowledgeable in the field, routines provide the necessary structure and preparation to get in the zone or state of flow before starting the work.

Rituals on the other hand, are not really task oriented behaviors, they sometimes even do not make any sense to people watching from outside; like Nadal pulling on his shorts, or an athlete wearing one sweaty hat for the entire season. However, they serve us on more meaningful level. While running every morning before work is a habit or routine, running as a sign to start a fresh day or feel content can count as a ritual. Similarly, having a tradition with your partner like celebrating anniversaries listening to a particular song together is a ritual.

The main difference between routines and rituals is that, rituals are performed with the belief that these behaviors have a specific intention, or power to influence performance. They are personal practices, which hold meaning for the person. We are internally motivated by rituals; they provide a sense of purpose and require conscious effort. Rituals not only reduce anxiety, provide a sense of control, and self-efficacy but they also give us energy and meaning throughout the day.

Superstitions are beliefs about something being lucky or unlucky. They usually have no logical explanation and develop accidently. For instance, people believing black cats are unlucky or having a lucky pen with them during exams is a superstition. Superstitious behavior can be ritualistic, but not all ritualistic behavior is superstitious.

Routines, rituals, and superstitions are intertwined. People usually engage in them during high psychological stress because they provide calmness and consistency in chaotic situations. These actions are more prevalent in areas of our lives where we feel high uncertainty, or anxiety such as before an important presentation, a match or exam. Because these behavior patterns provide confidence in times of uncertainty, they give us a feeling of having something under control.

Aviation’s Routines and Rituals:

Routines and rituals are not limited to sports, they exist anywhere where high-performance is required. Pilots for instance are expected to perform a safe flight on each operation. Therefore, routines like procedures, SOPs, checklists, and trip-checks; as well as rituals in form of unwritten rules govern the lives of pilots just as much as athletes.

Routines or rituals in aviation, can be as simple as listening to the same music or preparing for the flight the same way each time. As with any high-pressure situation, pilots count on familiarity, routine, and consistency to prepare and focus on the flight itself.

Just as putting the keys or wallet in the same place at home prevents us from losing them. In the cockpit this familiarity or repetition of the same actions helps to put oneself in a state of flow. This can be in form of putting your cell phone in the same spot each time, from following a particular indicator pattern (i.e. keeping the arm-rests up until receiving cabin clearance or being done with preparation) to help keep track of what you have already done to prepare before taxiing.

Tradition or even superstitions in aviation on the other hand include behaviors like setting the final approach course for the destination aerodrome right after departure. This provides a sense of control and a belief that the aircraft will land safe and sound in the planned airport and not divert elsewhere. Another tradition is soaking the student pilot with buckets of water after their first solo flight, while a superstition includes some countries not having the seat number thirteen on their aircrafts.

The Formula for High-Performance:

In general, having routines, and rituals as researchers found enhances performance in stressful and chaotic situations. These are effective because they reduce psychological drain, create a feeling of control and provide mental toughness because they give us confidence in our skills and abilities. It all comes down to the formula that; when you believe in something, you will do anything to make meaning of it and work towards it. Hence, constant regular practices like routines, checklists, or rituals in daily life are the foundation to improve performance and exert control over our lives.

Routines and rituals also keep us prepared for the small things, they increase the sense of familiarity in a new and uncertain environment, help us stay focused on useful behaviors and not to overthink about the situation, and reduce cognitive overload in times of high-stress. Knowing that you have gone through the same routine repeatedly during practice, and what to do next is a calming reminder in times of stress.

Bringing Routine and Rituals Into The Workday:

Bringing routine and rituals into the workday helps to give ourselves a break and switch-off for a moment. Churchill for example took a nap each afternoon to end his morning work and begin with the next part of the day. Stephen King tends to create the same work environment every morning to prepare himself into work mode.

To incorporate useful routines and rituals into the day;

  • Start the day right: Especially in the morning having a healthy routine to follow can signal a fresh start into the day. Research shows that the feeling of accomplishing something as simple as making your bed at the beginning of the day, carries the confidence into the following tasks throughout the day. Likewise, before the flight having a set home preparation routine, that starts each time a certain hour before leaving the house is also an efficient way to prepare the mind for the flight ahead.

  • Integrate small but meaningful actions into the day: Due to rituals being personal, even active resting methods like regularly going out for a coffee break, a quick lunch walk, or listening to music can help disconnecting and signaling our brain that we are done with a particular part of the day and ready to move on to the next part. For instance, going for a swim or walk when arriving home after each flight or the office is a ritual that has purpose in it but is also a good reminder for our brain that work is over and to disconnect into leisure time. Similarly, time to chat and have coffee between flights during “turnaround time” signals the ending of one leg and a new start for the next flight.

  • Give personal meaning: Ritual or routines can be as simply as making the bed, going for a walk, or preparing breakfast and or having family-time. The importance is in the personal meaning we give to it and having time for priorities that will provide a sense of control.

As much as routine provides consistency and excellence. Too much routine or performing without paying much attention can also cause thinking on autopilot and hinder creativity. Hence, every now and then switching up routines like changing the road you drive to work will make you pay more conscious effort and prevent tunnel vision. Additionally, too much of checklists, rituals, and superstitions, can be indicators of obsessive-compulsive actions. The inflexibility of not being able to perform without the personal ritual or the routine can become a serious problem during non-normal events. Therefore, it is always effective to remind ourselves that our rituals do not define our performance but are ways to support it.

To conclude, routines and rituals help to optimize our lives in many domains, they give us a structure on busy days, and they serve as an anchor in stressful times. Hence, having effective routines throughout the day, finding meaningful habits that provide energy and purpose will increase performance but more importantly also power us through and provide more joy in life.

Damisch, L., Stoberock, B., & Mussweiler, T. (2010). Keep your fingers crossed! How superstition improves performance. Psychological Science, 21(7), 1014-1020

Hobson NM, Bonk D, Inzlicht M. (2017). Rituals decrease the neural response to performance failure. PeerJ 5:e3363


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