A preperformance routine may support consistent optimal performance. Preperformance routines’ benefits for closed skills are largely accepted, but effects of time and situational factors are little understood, nor have results of altering movements of preperformance routines been much studied. This observational study investigated preservice routines of 4 elite tennis players. Inconsistent with much prior research, the presence of a routine did not enhance performance in this study: Mean serving percentage measured 66% for players with routines, 69% for others. The findings do support Jackson (2003) and Jackson and Baker (2001), studies of rugby players forced to alter routines during competition. Observation of preservice routines and performance over several months at various tournaments may advance the research on this topic.
An Examination of Preservice Routines of Elite Tennis Players
The development and administration of a preperformance routine has been linked to optimal and consistent performances in many activities. Past research has shown the positive effects of preperformance routines in various sports, including tennis (Moore, 1986), golf (Cohn, Rotella, & Lloyd, 1990), bowling (Kirschenbaum, Ordman, Tomarken, & Holtzbauer, 1982), basketball (Czech & Burke, 2003; Lobmeyer & Wasserman, 1986; Wrisberg & Pein, 1992), and skiing (Orlick, 1986). Preperformance routines seem most beneficial within closed skill and self-paced tasks found in these sports, for example free-throw shooting in basketball, serving in tennis, kicking in football, and putting in golf.
Previous research has shown that preperformance routines can help athletes focus attention, enhance confidence, eliminate distractions, and reduce anxiety (Weinberg & Gould, 1995). Eliminating distractions and focusing attention creates an ideal state of concentration prior to performance; consistently replicating this state of concentration can create consistent performances (Schmidt & Peper, 1998). Focus and concentration allow for other psychological skills (i.e., visualization and relaxation) to be implemented during the preperformance routine, which helps block any external stressors and unwanted environmental stimuli (Schmidt & Peper, 1998). The ability to eliminate distractions before a performance may be the difference between a good athlete and a great one (Orlick, 1997).
Another benefit of preperformance routines is that they structure and organize the time leading up to a desired task, mentally preparing the athlete for the performance (Weinberg & Gould, 1995). For example, Crews and Boutcher (1987) observed the preperformance routines of golfers in the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), measuring the time taken for routines. Results indicated that all the golfers were automatic in their routines, starting and finishing with consistent and purposeful actions and completing their routines in a consistent amount of time. Purposeful behavior is key to consistent and effective performance during a preperformance routine. Foster, Weigand, and Baines (2006) studied free-throw shooters found to have superstitious behaviors and attempted to implement a preperformance routine among the athletes. Surprisingly, the effect of preperformance routines and of superstitious behavior differed little (performance worsened when neither was conducted before shooting). Purposeful behavior, whether based on superstition or on a structured preperformance routine, resulted in consistent and effective performances.
A preperformance routine can also help athletes reactivate appropriate physiological and mental processes before each shot, hit, service, or putt, increasing the chance of a successful performance (Schmidt, 1982). Boutcher and Zinsser (1990) studied the cardiac, respiratory behavior patterns of elite and nonelite golfers during a putting task. Elite golfers’ consistent preperformance routines resulted in slower breathing and heartbeats, indicating relaxation and focus on the task. Nonelite golfers lacked consistent preperformance routines and had higher heart rates. Physiologically, preperformance routines prepare the body for competition and sync mind and body for better control.
Some research argues that consistency of performance as a result of using a preperformance routine involves more than simply keeping the routine to a consistent time period. For example, Southard and Miracle (1993) conducted a study of female basketball players that manipulated how fast their free-throw routines occurred (time for the routine was doubled, was cut in half, etc.). Despite the manipulations of time, the results showed that the relative time to complete the routine did not vary, and that the rhythm of the routine was most important to successful performance.
While there is little argument about the positive effects of preperformance routines on closed skills, external variables make each skill unique, making necessary the investigation of various skills. Lobermeyer and Wasserman (1986), Gayton, Cielinski, Francis-Keniston, and Hearns (1989), and Wrisberg and Pein (1992) have investigated the effects of preshooting routines in basketball extensively, but the literature reflects little research on preservice routines in tennis (Moore, 1986). Additionally, little research is found on the effects of time and situation (i.e., winning or losing) on preperformance routines. Research shows that altering the movements of a preperformance routine can lead to poor or inconsistent performances (Gayton et al., 1989).
The purpose of this study was to investigate the preservice routines of 4 elite tennis players. Observation of the players was expected, ultimately, to yield visual identification of the presence of a preservice routine. Then, correlation would be sought between use of a preservice routine and successful service attempts.
The participants in this study were 4 professional tennis players (2 men and 2 women) who were competitors belonging to the United States Tennis Association or the Women’s Tennis Association.
Videotapes were viewed of 2 male participants playing in the Australian Open and 2 female participants playing in the Olympic Games. Data were collected during several matches in each tournament. To control for external variables, only first services were examined. The Preservice Routine Index (appendix) was developed to record data. Each researcher recorded data independently; then the data were compared and combined to produce a single set of final data to be used in analysis. Data discrepancies were discussed by the researchers until all felt comfortable with the data.
Collection of the data was initiated when a server placed his or her feet in their final ready position. For each service the following information was collected: server’s gender, server’s score in the game or match (i.e., leading or trailing the opponent), success of the service, and preservice routine. After several practice trials, racket position (low/high, horizontal/vertical) as well as number of times the player bounced the ball prior to serving were identified as the predominant variables in a preservice routine. These two elements were the most consistent and measurable preservice actions the players displayed. A minimum of 30 services were needed to determine the presence or absence of a preservice routine. A service was counted only if the server was fully visible from the time he or she set his or her feet until the final service motion was initiated.
The first step of data analysis was identification of a preservice routine. Each player’s preservice data was examined to determine whether or not a consistent routine was present. Looking at the data, the researchers established for each player his or her most common racket position and the typical number of bounces used prior to a service. These comprised the player’s preservice routine, which in this study had to precede at least 80% of a player’s services in ordered to be considered a consistent preservice routine. Players who did not follow the identified routine at least 80% of the time were assigned to one of two groups in the study, the nonroutine group.
For each player, the researchers calculated the percentage of services (over all 30 trials) featuring the identified preservice routine. Restricting the calculation to first services only, they also computed the serving percentages for the entire tournament, in an effort to balance effects of emotion across “good” and “bad” matches. The serving percentages were compared by gender and by group (routine, RG, or nonroutine, NRG). Use or omission of a routine by players in the routine group was evaluated in the context of the player’s score (game and match) at the time of each service.
Only one study participant, Player 1, could be assigned to the routine group; the remaining players showed limited consistency of preservice actions. Player 1 used a preservice routine 83% of the time and had an overall serving percentage of 66% over the entire tournament. Player 2’s use of a preservice routine had the second-highest rate of consistency, 67%. Players in the nonroutine group had an overall successful serving percentage of 69%: Player 2 was successful 65% of the time; Player 3, 78% of the time; and Player 4, 63% of the time. Overall for the tournament, the routine group had a mean serving percentage of 66%, while the nonroutine group had a mean serving percentage of 69%.
One of the two men in the sample had a detectable preservice routine, while neither of the women had a detectable routine. Mean serving percentage for the men was 65%; for the women, mean serving percentage was 70%.
Finally, the participant who used a detectable preservice routine seemed to do so more frequently when he trailed, rather than led, his opponent in either the game or match. Player 1 followed his routine 100% of the time when he was losing a game and 82% of the time when he was losing a match. He followed his routine 72% of the time when he was winning a game and 68% of the time when he was winning a match.
In light of the performance benefits research shows to derive from a preperformance routine, the studied elite tennis players’ lack of consistency in using such routines was unexpected. The findings could be explained in three ways. First of all, research suggests that preperformance routines can be cognitive in nature. Imagery and self-talk are two examples of mental skills that could play a very important role in the preperformance routine (Wrisberg & Anshel, 1989). Cognitive preperformance strategies may or may not have constituted significant elements of our participants’ preservice rituals. With videotape observation the sole means of data collection, cognitive routines were undetectable. It is quite possible that the presence or absence of a cognitive strategy influenced effects of the psychomotor aspects of positioning the racket and bouncing the ball. For example, Player 3’s high percentage of successful services could have been supported by focused, consistent use of imagery before each service. Future research on preservice routines definitely should include interviews aimed at understanding players’ preservice cognitive strategies.
A second explanation of our study’s findings is the limited time span of the play we observed. Relatively unchanged situational factors from match to match may have positively or negatively affected the data. For instance, perhaps one of the study participants had an injury affecting performance. In addition, it was unknown whether any players used a specific number of preservice bounces, a number that might have changed during the rest of the tournament. Our findings are interesting, given that traditional research focuses on consistency of the preperformance routine, and they support previous findings reported in Jackson (2003) and Jackson and Baker (2001). Jackson and Baker (2001) studied professional rugby players in a highly competitive environment and found that preperformance routines were often altered during competition due to factors beyond players’ control (i.e., time running out, players out of position, speeding or delaying in response to others, and the like). Future research should include several months of observation of the participants’ services, involving a variety of different tournaments. An expanded time frame would help control such external variables as injuries, skill constraints, and development of the preservice routine.
A final explanation for the discrepancy between participants’ behavior reflected in this study and in earlier research findings on preperformance routines is that in tennis, serving may not be positively affected by a preperformance routine. While earlier researchers have found a positive correlation between free-throw success and preshooting routines, it is entirely possible that environmental, physiological, and psychological aspects of closed skills from basketball and closed skills from tennis differ enough to drastically affect the results of a preperformance routine. But this is unlikely. In our study Player 1, whom we observed to employ a consistent preservice routine, is consistently ranked (by the United States Tennis Association) among the best tennis players and servers in the world. Individual differences must also be taken into account. Preservice routines are as unique as the players who use them, meaning each routine’s benefits are likely to be unique as well.
One strength of our study is that the services were observed in the most elite competitive venues. Player 1 and Player 2 were videotaped competing in a grand slam competition; Player 3 and Player 4 were videotaped contending for Olympic gold. Environmental distractions during each of these tournaments were significant. In addition, it can be assumed that each player tried his or her best to serve successfully in each observed trial. Many consider first-service success an important component of elite competitive tennis. Such anecdotal evidence can certainly be challenged, but it is useful to consider. Future research might also explore the benefits of a preservice routine to second services.
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