The power of ritual
“Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become your character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”
In order to facilitate my improvement as a pitcher and, ultimately, shape a destiny of my choosing, I use the power of ritual. The word ‘ritual’ is usually associated with religious or spiritual practices, but I like to use it to describe daily routines and processes. We all have rituals in our lives and even if they are of a secular nature, they can still be based in piety toward a cause greater than yourself (though I’ll save the Me vs. We conversation for another time). My rituals provide me with repeatable processes that develop the habits and character required to unleash my potential as a pitcher and to inspire others to unleash their potential in their own passions.
Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a shared trait between elite performers in every field: rituals. Whether it’s exceptional business leaders, athletes, public speakers, or writers, a commonality between them all seems to be daily habits and processes. Max Scherzer is one example of a pitcher who is extremely dedicated to his routines. My father sent me a Washington Post article a few months ago that went into some detail about his pre-start preparations. The Nationals pitching coach, Mike Maddux, even said, “his mental commitment to what he does is superior to a lot of people,” (1). No matter where he is, he will play a game of catch at least twice a week. No ‘if’s, ‘and’s, or ‘but’s. Scherzer also does a funky thing where he hums the national anthem or has someone play it during his bullpen sessions between starts (2). He wants them to simulate what happens on gameday as closely as possible. I talked about another strange bullpen ritual of his in a pilgrimage to a pitching myelination mecca that contributes to his success. Man, he has a laser focus on achieving greatness on the mound. It’s inspirational.
Many other pitchers at the major league level have strict rituals they abide by too:
- Derek Holland, former pitcher for the Texas Rangers used to have a ritual of spending at least $30 at Taco Bell or another similarly despicable fast food establishment the night before a start (3). Here’s a major league pitcher who has displayed moments of brilliance (Game 4 of the 2011 World Series) and major inconsistency (partial seasons due to injury and poor performance the past three years). Maybe there’s a reason why Derek Holland has been an extremely inconsistent major league pitcher. I’d put my money on it having to do with his daily rituals. I’m not surprised the one ritual I could find online was one involving fast food. At the highest levels, you can’t expect to be exceptional if you’re putting garbage in your body (Usain Bolt in 2008 being a notable exception). Hopefully, Holland has some healthier rituals in his life now and a few more successful seasons left in him.
- Jake Arrieta, current beast of a pitcher on the world champion Chicago Cubs, talks about his daily preparations during the season in a 2015 ESPN article. Starting pitchers are usually on a 5-day cycle, performing every 5th day in front of the crowd. He has a plan for each day depending on when the last time he pitched was and when the next time he pitches will be. My favorite nugget of wisdom is in his pre-start mental focus ritual, “I’ll get the headphones in, do some light meditation, sit alone by myself and go through my game plan. Calm my mind before the real work starts about 90 minutes before the game,” (4). Arrieta knows that in order to pitch your best you must be focused. Shout out to meditation!
- Clayton Kershaw, arguably the best pitcher in the game, ruthlessly adheres to his rituals. He tries to control every last thing about his pitching preparations, down to the shirt he wears and the lord-knows-how-old glove he still uses. Olney writes, “during the season, his life operates on five-day cycles, and he has established hard mental lines on what must get done each day. Altering the system is not welcome,” (5). Some may think this is too much, too obsessive, a bit crazy. I believe it’s just the price of greatness. “His sense of control allows him, at the center of all attention, to be free,” (5).
A major league pitcher’s job is to pitch well. They get paid to have these rituals. They have plenty (well not plenty, but definitely enough due to their focus, commitment, and discipline) of time to stick to these rituals too. I feel incredibly fortunate to have the luxury of time to do my morning and bedtime rituals. The morning ritual takes anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half depending on my efficiency. The bedtime ritual doesn’t take as much time, but it takes an OCD level of preoccupation with the kind of light I let into my bedroom haha. Last year at this time, I wouldn’t have even been able to do half of this without severely taking time away from preparing food, working the job I didn’t love, exercising at the gym, and other tasks required for living life out on your own. Regardless, even 5 minutes spent morning and night, pursuing your passion, developing more self-love, confidence, or acquiring knowledge, sets you on the path of self-transformation. You must start somewhere and something is infinitely better than nothing (literally, doing nothing means you make zero progress so even .00000000000001% improvement is infinitely more progress than nothing). A ritual, no matter how small, releases you from the shackles of inertia while bestowing you with the slight momentum required to devote more time to your rituals. It’s the best kind of upward spiral!
Ray Allen recently wrote a letter to his 13-year-old self in which he discusses what he has learned over the course of his journey as an exceptional NBA 2-time champion. The two most important lessons I took from him are, “I know you want me to let you in on some big secret to greatness. The secret is there is no secret. It’s just boring old habits,” and “in order to achieve your dreams, you will become a different kind of person. You’ll become a bit obsessive about your routine,” (6). At the NBA level, there are dozens of players who have titanic amounts of basketball ability. The ones who rise to the top, win championships, and play at an elite level season after season, are the ones who get their work in every single day. They developed habits that inch them closer and closer to their goals. They stick to them. Sometimes obsessively. And when everything is said and done. They are the champions who stand above the rest.
Well, here goes nothing. My rituals:
- Wake up and get out of bed to ‘Wake Me Up ft. Aloe Blacc’ by Avicii (I’ve also played around with a self-edited version of the Rudy theme song, Sam’s speech from LoTR, and music from Braveheart). ‘Wake Me Up’ is my favorite song though. Every single time I hear it, I feel love. I have it set as the alarm on my iTouch. Technology is wonderful
- Wash face and apply bio-oil to the scar I recently received
- Say 3 things I’m thankful for to myself in the mirror
- Say I love you to myself in the mirror
- Fill up 600ml steel BPA-free water bottle and drink it all. Fill it up again to drink over the next hour or so
- Qigong 8 brocades (originally learned here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BQbfysOBxhI)
- Seated 10 min yoga series
- 10-20 minute vipassana meditation
- Corrective exercises/pitching stretch routine
- Recite the pitching prayer and promise myself I’ll reach my goal of pitching 90mph wherever I want it
- Rub frangipani infused coconut oil from the Cook Islands (My bro is so thoughtful!) on my shoulder and elbow, for a minute each
- Lights off/blinds down
- Corrective exercises/pitching stretch routine
- 100 reps of eyes closed dry mechanics: arm action, feeling the connection
- Hop into bed
- Read a page of the Dhammapada with f.lux light from iTouch
- Acknowledge 4 things I’m grateful for that happened to me over the course of the day
- Acknowledge 2 choices I made that day that I’m grateful for
- Acknowledge 2 choices I’ve made over my life that I’m grateful for
- I am a champion affirmation ->
- I am the truth, my true essence, my true masculine self
- I am the love, the happiness, the warm hunger and lustful passion of a rich and giving life
- I am the liberator of will, the light bringer and fulfiller of dreams
- I am the brave challenger who faces fear to stand and fight, to reap the glory of victory and the heroism and growth of valiant defeat, never at a loss
- I celebrate in the joy, the sweetness, and the divine presence of every living moment in my life.
- I am a champion
- Concentrate on a final intention before falling asleep (Live abundantly)
While all these things are healthy on their own, together, these rituals also help me practice doing an activity whether I feel like it or not. I don’t decide if I’m going to do the actions in these rituals or not. I simply do them. (That’s true 6 days of the week, there’s an exception where I complete a condensed version of the rituals due to my work/coaching schedule one particular morning/night). That’s how self-discipline develops. That’s how grit develops. That’s how you unleash your potential and realize your dreams. One ritual at a time. It isn’t rocket science. It isn’t a secret. It’s the secret of success! Suerte.
- https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/nationals/max-scherzers-exacting-preparations-ready-him-for-opening-day-start/2016/04/03/cae1df66-f8dc-11e5-8b23-538270a1ca31_story.html?utm_term=.eacfe176aab3, James Wagner
- http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/mar/1/max-scherzer-even-throwing-batting-practice-about-/, Carl Kotala
- http://au.complex.com/sports/2015/04/the-strangest-pre-game-rituals-in-mlb-history/derek-holland-stuffs-himself-with-fast-food, Gavin Evans
- http://www.espn.com/blog/chicago/cubs/post/_/id/30463/getting-in-shape-with-cubs-p-jake-arrieta, Jesse Rogers
- http://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/10619342/creative-control-clayton-kershaw-abides-strict-code, Buster Olney
- http://www.theplayerstribune.com/ray-allen-letter-to-my-younger-self/, Ray Allen