If you look at any sport team, you will likely find many athletes that incorporate superstitions into their pre-game routines. Michael Jordan wore his University of North Carolina shorts under his uniform in every game of his professional career, insisting that they brought him luck. As a five-time MVP and six-time NBA Champion, it seems there may have been some method to his madness. Crossing borders onto the ice rink, Patrick Roy, one of the best goalies in NHL history, would skate backward toward his net and turn around at the last minute before every game. He believed this would “shrink the net”. (If that’s not interesting enough, he would talk to his goal posts and thank them when the puck would ring off them!) New York Mets reliever Turk Wendell would brush his teeth in between every inning and requested a contract of $9,999,999.99 to compliment his uniform number 99. So what is the real story behind superstitions? Why do they develop? And the biggest question: do they help?
How do Superstitions Start?
Superstitions are generally developed in retrospect when athletes begin to correlate performance with unrelated events/actions during the day. When an athlete performs particularly well (or conversely, when they perform poorly) they may look back at their day and point to specific events that could have caused the outlier performance. This can be anything from a song they heard to the type of undergarments they were wearing. It is not unusual to see superstitions that involve something with little, if any, connection to performance. Things like a haircut or shaving ones legs become carefully planned out to either “help” or avoid “hurting” performance. When athletes create this “cause and effect” between events and performance they chalk up their best performances to the events preceding the competition, and try to recreate it before competition. And you guessed it; they avoid any events that happened before terrible performances.
The Downfalls of Superstitions
While many superstitions are harmless, getting too consumed by them may cause problems in preparing. When developed superstitions begin to become all-consuming and athletes “need” them to be mentally prepared it can become stressful and produce fear and anxiety. An athlete may forget to recreate the superstition or not get to it before competition and lead themselves to believe that the way they perform is then out of their control. Giving power to these events/things can be very dangerous. Severe obsessions with superstitions can start to look like OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and can mentally block an athlete’s ability to perform, when in reality the superstition cannot change the outcome of competition. The way an athlete prepares, and later performs, is almost entirely in their control. Outside factors such as weather and time delays may present challenges, but it is the athlete themselves who can work through that adversity and push themselves to reach optimal perform.
The Benefits of Superstitions
When superstitions are simply habits, quirks, or pregame routines they can actually be beneficial for some athletes. Having small things that are incorporated into preparation for competition can give an athlete a sense of control and confidence. Superstitions such as eating a good meal before a game, warming up the same, or listening to a favorite song can get your mind focused and remind your body that you are preparing for competition. You may have heard the phrase that humans are “creatures of habit” and as long as the habits are healthy, who is to say they won’t help you perform better? In fact, psychology has shown over and over that if you believe a specific action or behavior will help you perform better, then you probably will perform better! This is commonly known as the placebo effect. Sport psychology encourages the use of mental preparation strategies such as visualization and imagery to help athletes prepare mentally for competition. NFL quarterback Russell Wilson uses these techniques along with mindfulness to bring his game to the next level. Zack Parise of the Minnesota Wild uses visualization before every NHL game. By imagining yourself in a high competition setting, and performing successfully, you are preparing not only your mind for competition, but your body as well.
So can superstitions really be lucky? Depending on the type of superstition and dependence on it, it seems that things that stimulate mental preparation can increase performance. Outside of that… never washing your lucky socks cannot make or break your performance, unless you believe it can. It certainly will however make for a smelly locker. You need to step back and assess what meaning the superstition has in connection with your performance. And if that meaning can propel you to the top of your game then by all means use it to your advantage. Just remember that Louis Pasteur once said “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” So prepare properly, and you will get predictable performance. Strong mental preparation will provide you the luck you are searching for.