Ritual vs. Habit

On the face of it there doesn’t seem like a great deal of difference between “ritual” and “habit.” Yet looking at it in relation to sport’s training and performance the difference is vast and knowing it can make the difference between success and failure.

An accepted definition of habit is of something that is temporary, self generated and done for the purpose of doing the act itself. Ritual is the opposite, it’s something that comes from outside, it’s external and seen as constant. Unlike habits, rituals require more than an automatic act. Rituals require our full attention and presence. This being the case when we train we should look to ritualize our practice and performance if we are to get the most out of ourselves.

You’ve probably heard of people saying it takes 30 days of doing something before it is ingrained or becomes a “habit.” Even if that is correct, which I don’t think it is, you hardly hear of the fact that it only takes one day or one action to break a newly formed habit. Rituals conversely are not so easily broken, indeed, it is the very nature of a ritual to last. I’ll look at why this is so and how we can ritualize what we do.

Rituals contain past, present and future. Something that was done in the past, is done now, and will be done going forward is a ritual and if you take away any part of that trio you don’t have a ritual but only a habit. We can change habits into rituals by understanding how they give us a sense of responsibility to others and by solemnly adhering to what needs to be done in the style of a ceremony, with actions done in a prescribed order.

Performing rituals places us in the world. If our ancestors hadn’t been strong, hadn’t been overcomers, we literally wouldn’t exist now and if we really want to give something to those that will follow us, our actions today are our best gift. If your weekly long run or daily push-ups are done just for the act themselves or for vanity, you are not going to be able to do them and continue them when the going gets tough. Rituals are the foundation of mans greatest achievements because we, us humans, work best when we do what we do for others. That is, we need a higher purpose, a reason to rise above our weak “selfish” selves.

To prepare us for our efforts, we should set up the action we are about to perform. The ways to do this will be, to some extent, dependent on what’s being done but generally rituals give us focus with the use of cleanliness, order and reverence. If you’ve ever wondered how the Samurai of Japan summoned the courage to plunge a knife into their own stomach before calmly accepting a sword from a “friend” that would decapitate them, look at the ritual and ceremonial nature of Seppuku. 

How to ritualize a long run? 

Even beginner runners will have one run per week longer than all the rest. This run should be considered the most important and missing it should not be considered an option. My routine that is now ritualized starts with a shower (cleaning up) and dressing in freshly washed and ironed running gear. A light snack, that never varies, and a 10-minute mini meditation (quiet time). On completion this has me ready. A pre-workout stretching routine can be added just think deeply about what will work for you and take the application very seriously.

From the first time you complete your ritual it will become a permanent part of your life. No need to wait 30 days for a “habit” to kick in. Always keep in mind that you are doing this as a tribute to those that came before you and those that will follow and focus on the act in the present like there was no past or future!