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Olympic Habits: Why Humans Crave Rituals

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Every morning for breakfast I have three sandwiches of fried eggs, cheese, lettuce, tomato, fried onions, and mayonnaise, one omelet, a bowl of grits, and three slices of French toast with powdered sugar; I then wash it down with three chocolate chip pancakes with butter, syrup, and whipped cream.

Wait a second. I don't remember Bob Costas ever being in my kitchen, and I don't remember winning any medals. Oh right, that's because it's Michael Phelps's morning, not mine.

My morning goes something like hit snooze, hit snooze, put in my contacts, grab a yogurt from the fridge and head out the door. Although Michael's routine and mine seem to vary greatly, they share one important thing: ritual.

Mankind has forever been a creature of habit and we've created (divinely mandated or not) every type of religion to feed this need--almost all faiths require repetition as part of worship, from the daily reiteration of prayer, to the yearly repetition of holidays, to the once-in-a-lifetime ritual of marriage or funeral. I like to think that rituals are our way of telling the future: we know what to expect when, and we know what to do how.

Science, however, doesn't seem to entirely agree with my theory. Apparently there's a specific part of the brain that doesn't respond well to words but recognizes and reacts strongly to gestures and actions. Rituals enable us to tap into this subconscious in order to achieve pragmatic or spiritual goals. So Phelps's subconscious recognizes the enormous, habitual breakfast as preparation for a day in the pool the same way a Catholic's mind identifies the Eucharist as preparation for an hour of devotion. If our minds are able to recognize the action, they can then predict what has typically followed and perform optimally, because, well, we like repetition, and perfect practice makes perfect.

What's so fascinating about Phelps and the Olympic Games is that they represent the Russian Nesting Doll of rituals; one ritual stacked in another in another and so on. We all know the Games began as a Pagan ritual way back when, but over centuries, that one ancient rite has spawned exponentially. Ritualistic athletes now each have their own talismans, pre-race play lists, minute-by-minute mantras, and post-game meals that if missed, could result in a loss.

Phelps's has his Herculean breakfast and hip-hop songs to get him in the zone, Misty May-Treanor has her deceased mom's ashes in the stands to help her relax, and if you've ever watched a synchronized diving duo, the ritual in those routines can't be missed.

Then there are the smaller habits that still have great affects for athletes-- always bouncing the ball three times at the free-throw line before shooting, or shaking out each limb one by one, left to right before jumping in the pool, or scratching your right ear once before taking your mark for the 100m dash.

I wish the equation was as simple as rituals plus repetition equals Olympic hopeful, but alas, not so. However, when I look at my own daily routine, I see that little rituals have crept in and made themselves at home in my cushy subconscious.

I put my left contact in first, followed by the right. At work, I like the open programs on my bottom menu to go from left to right: Outlook, Gmail, RightClick, RightClick Atlas Reports, then lead into any Excel docs I have open. My mind and body (well, mouse-clicking hand anyway) expect them in that order. And when they're not, my gold medal dreams of a perfectly synchronized switch between Email and Excel are squashed.

I also say a prayer as the plane is speeding down the runway towards take-off; no sooner, no later. Haven't crashed yet. And when I get home from work, I automatically change into t-shirt and shorts. I think that has to do with the ingrained rituals from my youth: come home from school, change into play-clothes for soccer/basketball/lacrosse/softball/tennis. The sports action is no longer there, but my preparation is still going strong.

If the rituals of religion unite heaven and earth, then they also allow our subconscious to take over our bodies and go beyond the limitation of thought. If I could get some chocolate chip pancakes to do that for me every morning, I'd be the happiest, fattest swimmer this side of the Hudson. But I guess I'll let Phelps's handle the swimming; I'll handle the daily grind at work and afterwards -- in my t-shirt and shorts -- I'll enjoy watching the ritualistic games on TV.

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