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Hidden in Plain Sight

 

Ethan Kross Ph.D.

Rafael Nadal is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Although he’s well known for his speed and power on the court, there’s another feature of his performance that defines his play but subtly involves his mind more than his limbs: the quirky rituals he engages in.

Take, for example, Nadal’s behavior during the French Open championship match in 2018. As he left the locker room, he walked towards his bench, gripping a racket. When he arrived, he took off his warmup jacket as he looked at the crowd and bounced energetically back and forth on the balls of his feet. Then, when he was done, he placed his ID card on his bench, making sure his picture was facing up. None of this is that notable—until you consider that he follows this precise sequence of movements before every match.

His rote behaviors don’t, however, end once the match begins. During breaks between play, he drinks from his power drink, then his water. And when he is done, he returns both bottles exactly where they were before he picked them up: to the left of his chair, one in front of the other, aligned diagonally with the court. Nadal’s struggles with what I call chatter our tendency to get stuck experiencing negative thought loops that can undermine our performance, decisions, relationships, and health—aren’t a secret. “What I battle is hardest to do in a tennis match,” he once confessed, “is to quiet the voices in my head.” And the courtside rituals he engages in provide him with a useful tool for doing just that. “It’s a way of placing myself in a match,” he explains “ordering my surrounding to match the order I seek in my head.”

Although it might be tempting to dismiss Nadal’s relationship with rituals as anecdotal, you can find people engaging in similar behaviors under chatter-provoking conditions in countless other contexts. Consider, for example, the prevalence of burial and mourning rituals. When a person dies, their loved ones are often thrust into a grief-filled world of chatter. What will life be like? What will happen to the person who died? Cultures around the world prescribe rituals to help people manage these painful losses. Rituals aren’t simply habits. As Nicholas Hobson and colleagues describe in their superb review of the literature,  they consist of rigid sequences of behaviors that are infused with meaning and don’t have any obvious connection to the reasons why people perform them. Taking your medication before breakfast every day, in contrast, is a habit—there’s a direct connection between the pill and your health. Research shows that engaging in rituals helps people control their emotions, and boosts their sense of control,  just like Nadal suggests. But how do rituals help? Through multiple pathways, it turns out. Rituals are like a chatter-fighting cocktail made of several potent ingredients. Consider three key elements that Hobson and colleagues describe in their review.  First, engaging in a structured sequence of actions is something that is under a person’s control, which in turn leads some people to feel more in control of themselves—the conditions we’re often lacking when we experience chatter.

Second, rituals offer us a distraction. Engaging in a sequence of rigid behaviors helps us block out chatter and home our attention on the task at hand. Go ahead and Google a clip of Nadal positioning his water bottles before a game—it’s not something a person can easily do while ruminating.

Lastly, many rituals are performed with others, often in a spiritual context. Engaging in these kinds of rituals can foster a powerful sense of social connection that insulates us against chatter. We feel less alone. They can also lead us to adopt a broader perspective that helps us break free from focusing narrowly on our problems, a quality that we see in several other effective tools for managing chatter. Like any tool, rituals can be taken to an extreme. In such cases, people rely on them excessively, which interferes with their normal daily functioning. OCD is a prime example. But there’s nothing inherently harmful about performing rituals in moderation during times of stress. On the contrary, research suggests that they are quite useful.

What research on rituals makes clear is that tools for managing the conversations we have with ourselves are often hidden in plain sight, waiting to be called into action. In some cases, we use these tools without even knowing it or being aware of how they work. And the best part is that we can incorporate them into nearly all realms of our life—both on and off the tennis court.

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