Stashed away in Alex Hess’s kitchen – hidden from the hungry eyes of his fellow family members – is one of the keys to his success as a long distance runner: a box of Honey Nut Cheerios.
Like many athletes, Hess, 17, a senior and a cross country runner for Carroll High School, performs the same routine before every competition, beginning with a big bowl of his favorite cereal. After breakfast, he pops on his headphones and listens to Big Sean’s Finally Famous album, repeating it until it’s time to take his mark.
It’s the same thing, over and over, each week, he says. Some people may call it superstitious, that I’m doing it all for good luck. That’s half of it. I’m also doing it so I can get into the same mindset every week. It helps me remember that I’m about to compete and to perform at the highest level I can.
There is method in his madness, says Jacob Cook, a swimmer for Michigan State University and a member of Homestead’s team last year. As Cook, 18, developed as an athlete, he began to notice he was performing rituals and mental preparations without even realizing it. For instance, every time Cook takes the block before a meet, he pumps his heart two times with his fist. He didn’t notice he was making the gesture until he was a junior in high school, he says.
Eventually you realize you’re doing it mindlessly, he says. Sometimes you’ll see people who will splash water on themselves or jump up and down. Everyone has their own thing. You figure it out through trial and error.
As a high school freshman, Cook tried to heighten his energy before every meet, listening to high-tempo music and thinking about crushing the competition. It didn’t take long for him to realize, getting mentally pumped lessened his performance. Now, Cook prefers to listen to jazz, usually Maynard Ferguson, to stay calm. He also avoids thinking about his fellow swimmers, going so far as to ignore the ranking sheets posted before every meet.
Seeing the names of all these really talented athletes is a good way to get inside your head and psych yourself out, he says. I have to keep my mind off of what I’m about to do. The more I think about it, the more worked up I get. I end up getting really nervous and that limits my performance abilities.
For Hess, safeguarding his pre-competition routine is essential. To avoid straying from his routine, Hess buys multiple boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios before each athletic season so he won’t run out. It may only seem like a bowl of cereal, he says, but it’s actually a shortcut, a sign to his subconscious mind that says, It’s time to focus.
And just in case, I have an extra box in the back of the cabinet, he says. Only I know it’s there.