The Power of Routines and Rituals in Cliff Diving

Jonathan Paredes
Cliff divers reveal how repetition, routine and superstition can help or hinder them

Like many other sports, success in cliff diving is founded upon raw talent, years of training and constant refinement. Skill and precision are paramount, especially in a sport that requires participants to put their bodies on the line by leaping from dizzying heights of up to 27m. But cliff diving is also a mental game. For many athletes, routines, rituals and even superstitions can play a major role in their performance, and for some it can be the difference between success and failure.

"Routines are absolutely key to competing well", says David Colturi, a permanent face on the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series for the past eight years. "Aristotle said, 'We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit'. And it's true. You struggle at first tying a shoe or riding a bike when you're young, but as you do it over and over again, you can do it mindlessly and perfectly."

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"I have to have the right music when I'm warming up" - David Colturi. Photo: Dean Treml/Red Bull Content Pool.

Legendary cliff diver, Orlando Duque, has been there and done it all over the last 20 years, and if anyone can explain the power of routine, it's him.

"You've got to be in the pool every day, diving, over and over and over", says the recently retired Colombian. "So when you're on location, you know that you can put all those elements together and do your dive. Even if you're tired, the conditions are tough, if there are waves, anything. You know what to do, because you've done it so many times in the pool."

Sure, everyone knows the saying 'practise makes perfect', but other than endless repetitions from the platform, what else constitutes a successful routine for a cliff diver?

"My pre-competition routine starts the night before the event," says Colturi. "I'll visualise each of my dives for the day to come, in competition setting with the judges, the crowd and all the extra particulars that come with competition. Just putting myself in that setting to work on my breathing and relaxation tools and executing the dive perfectly in my mind."

When Gary Hunt won his first three World Series titles between 2010 and 2012, he only missed the podium twice in 20 competitions. When he secured his latest title in 2019, he won five out of seven events, finishing runner-up in the other two. Clearly, success is routine to him. But, is routine itself something the trailblazing champion utilizes?

"I've always considered habits or routines kind of restrictive," says the Englishman, who recently changed competitive allegiance to France. "I've always tried to stay free and mix things up a bit. That said, I always take one breath in as I raise my arms at the edge of the platform, then one more breath before diving."

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One breath in for Gary Hunt before he leaps away from the platform. Photo: Romina Amato/Red Bull Content Pool.

"Juggling is the other thing that's kind of stuck over the last few years," Hunt continues. "I don't feel lost if I don't have juggling balls with me. But when we're waiting around before competition it is a way of distracting myself from the nerves and keeping my brain busy."

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Athletes have different routines to relax and settle their nerves before competition. Photo: Jason Halayko/Red Bull Content Pool.

Many divers follow their own game plan, things they go through before every dive. Some count, or touch their hands right before they go; others go through the motions of the entire dive or just tie their shammy in a certain way and hold their wristband.

Of course, this is where the line between routine and superstition can often become blurred. Counting to three before a dive is a routine that can have obvious physical and mental benefits, but having a shammy tied in a particular way? That's pure superstition.

Some divers embrace it, like record-breaking women's champion Rhiannan Iffland, who admits to having a special pair of socks she likes to wear on competition day. Others, like Hunt, are more apprehensive:

"I'm not a superstitious person," says the 8-time World Series winner. "I feel if something superstitious happens and you keep thinking about it, it can affect you in a negative way. It's all in your head really, so I prefer to make my own luck. As for seeing a black cat crossing the street, hopefully it will be far away because I'm allergic to cats. I don't want to get close to it otherwise I'll be sneezing in the middle of a dive!"

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Those lucky socks have served Rhiannan Iffland well over the years. Photo: Romina Amato/Red Bull Content Pool.

In this high-risk sport, where the athletes dive from up to 27m – the equivalent of an eight-storey building – just to hit the water less than three seconds later at an average speed of 85km/h, it's understandable that athletes care not to rely on superstition too much.

Colturi, another diver who feels that it can do more harm than good, perhaps sums up the routine/superstition balance best:

"Rituals, habits and routines are very important," says the American. "You need to build those with things that are in your control so you can execute them any place any time. Not to say mistakes won't happen, but you need to keep them in the realm of things you can control.

"The classic black cat crossing in front of you scenario doesn't scare me, and I don't think it has any effect on my champagne-spraying chances."

Ultimately, each diver will do what they feel benefits them most and what they're comfortable with. As cliff diving's very own philosopher, Duque, once wisely said, "cliff diving's a mental game, you gotta do what you gotta do."