Sports Superstitions Help Athletes Perform

Jason Terry, a Boston Celtic player stands on the basketball court after a big win over the LA Lakers. The talented NBA player had just swished a three point buzzer beater to win the game and was swarmed with reporters and press asking many questions.

“You’ve been having great games lately Jason, any new pre-game rituals?” questioned a bold press.

Jason was used to the question. He is an extremely superstitious player and has many superstitions that he does before every game.

“Just the normal rival shorts and chicken dinner” Jason laughed.

He has been wearing the opposing teams shorts to bed the night before a game ever since college when him and teammate, Mike Bibby, started the strange tradition.

“We ended up winning those games in college so I just kept doing it. Chicken, on the other hand, is a meal I have to have before every game ever since it brought me so much luck during National Championships” says Jason as he is questioned further on his superstitions.

“Do you truly believe these rituals bring you good luck and what makes you keep doing them?”

“I’ve been doing them for a long time. Its habit now. They make me feel comfortable, boost my confidence, and help me get into a positive mindset before the game.”

“Do you think your game would be affected if you didn’t do these traditions?” questions another reporter.

“I don’t think it would effect my skill but it would definitely affect the mental aspect because it is a routine and I would feel less confident and comfortable.” explains Jason wrapping up his interview with the reporter who is highly interested in his pre-game rituals.

He never really thought about too much before, it was just something that lifted his confidence and reduced his stress for the game.

This story reveals that many athletes have superstitions or rituals that are used to gain comfort and confidence before competing. Almost every athlete has one that they do before a game or competition. The superstitions athletes use become habit and help them feel inside their comfort zone when nerves are high. By doing something familiar or that they feel has brought them good luck in the past helps them feel confident and eases their nerves before competing.

About Superstitions

You may be surprised to find that many athletes are similar to Jason Terry and believe that superstitions or rituals prior to a competition result in comfort, confidence, and good luck. According to the dictionary “A superstition is a widely held but unjustified belief in supernatural causation leading to certain consequences of an action or event, or a practice based on such a belief” (Superstition). Superstitions have been around for many years and are known to bring good or bad luck. These rituals surprisingly have been extremely popular amongst athletes in hopes to improve their luck in a game or competition. So, what exactly are athletes doing to best prepare for competition? And, is there any proof that these superstitions do indeed help?

Some of the most famous athletes have superstitions that can seem foolish to the fans.Michael Jordan, for example, wore his University of North Carolina shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls uniform for every game because he thought they brought him good luck. Serena Williams ties her shoes a certain way before a match and bounces the ball five times before her first serve, and two before her second (Murphy). These are just two of many athletes, pro or not, who use rituals for good luck. It turn out that baseball, hockey, basketball, and tennis have some of the most superstitious athletes. Hockey is one of the sports with the most superstitions. Hockey players superstitions range from growing beards before a playoff game, goalies talking to the goalposts, guzzling a diet coke in between periods, or even making yourself throw up before each game. Furthermore, research also suggests that among athletes, superstitions are even more popular (DeLessio). This is because they regularly engage in performance tasks, like sports competitions which can cause a high amount of stress.

Why Do Athletes Have Superstitions?

Athletes have superstitions because they believe they give them good luck when competing. By doing a certain action or wearing a certain piece of clothing that has brought them success in the past, they believe they will have good luck whenever they do this. Based on different studies “Superstitions can boost athletes confidence and give them more control. By doing something familiar or that they believe gives them luck it can provide a sense of security before competing” (DeLessio). Sports can give athletes a high amount of stress, pressure, and nervousness and that superstition or ritual that they do every game can make them feel calmer if they believe that superstition will make them perform better. “When I was in college I did small superstitions to make me feel better before the game. I also know of athletes I used to train that would use superstitions in the same way, to make sure your doing everything you can to have success in an important game, even if it’s just a silly routine” says Holly Patterson a former athlete and personal trainer.

Researchers believe athletes use superstitions because it calms mental tension. Two professors, Michaela Schippers and Paul Van Lange, at universities in the Netherlands write that “It often has been assumed that the illusion of control tends to play a substantial role. If an athlete is able to control when he or she does a specific action (the superstition) then that athlete feels that they can be in control of the game”(3). This means that overall superstitions are used to calm the overwhelming tension athletes go through.

How Superstitions Affect Athletes

It turns out superstitions can affect athletes in many ways both mentally and physically. Jane Risen, associate professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business suggests that “Engaging in a ritual in a high-anxiety situation can make people feel less anxious and therefore perform better than others.” When athletes use superstitions the anxiety they are feeling calms down and helps them perform better. These superstitions can make athletes feel less nervous before a big game and give them comfort in a high pressure situation. Superstitions “work” if the self-confidence of the athletes who believe in them increase, creating an effectiveness to the superstition (Brodt 2). Superstitions aren’t magic but if someone believes in them they can increase comfort by easing nerves, increase self-confidence, and making athletes feel less anxious before competing. “I use superstitions for an extra boost of confidence,” says athlete Hayley Swatland. Superstitions make athletes feel more comfortable and calm while boosting their confidence before they compete.

“One such study took place in 2010 at the University of Cologne in Germany where researchers conducted a series of experiments to test and try to explain this phenomenon. In one, 41 university students were instructed to bring a lucky charm. About half the students were asked to leave their lucky charm with the experimenter while they completed a memory task. The other half brought it with them.

Before completing the memory task, all students filled out a survey in which they indicated how confident they were that they would succeed. Psychologists call this “self-efficacy.”Results showed that the students who brought their lucky charm did in fact perform better on the memory task than students who didn’t” (Lebowitz). A subsequent experiment revealed that superstitious behavior, had a self-efficacy boost that comes with it, and led participants to set higher goals and persist longer on tasks, which may in turn have led to greater achievement.

How Superstitions Help Athletes Perform Better

Although many people say superstitions can affect an athlete’s mindset and mental attitude when playing, people also say they don’t help athletes performance and athletes cannot rely on these superstitions to help them succeed. Athletes performance should depend on their own hard work and determination, not a ritual or superstition. Although this can be true a superstition can also improve performance in the game or competition.

If an athlete believes that a certain ritual or superstition will help them perform better, it probably will. An athlete’s mental attitude can affect athletic skill. If a athlete is positive about the game, it will likely have a positive outcome. “There is a psychological factor when it comes to superstitions. In reality, it would seem that superstitions don’t have a real effect on the outcome of a game, but the mental tension that a player can go through before a game can be overwhelming. These pre-game rituals can make or break a player’s performance that day” says researcher Kyle Brodt. The physiological effect superstitions have on athletes can also help their performance when playing sports, not just their mental attitude.

How Does This Relate to Everyday People?

It becomes clear that athletes all over the world use superstitions that develop from different rituals, but overall they all use them for the same reason: to make athletes feel calm and comfortable when nerves are high. Athletes are overly focused on the outcome of a game or competition. They have made this game, match, or race very important in their minds and they may be pressuring themselves to perform at a certain level and/or attain a particular performance outcome. All of this causes athletes to be extremely nervous before competing and superstitions help them ease these nerves. By doing something familiar and that you believe is lucky or makes you play better you can feel a sense a calm and security before competing. You should never judge an athlete on the superstitions they use, they are only trying to make themselves feel better. Remember that athletic superstitions have many positive effects on and help athletes at all different levels. Next time you are feeling nervous before you compete, do something that’s familiar and makes you feel comfortable. This action or behavior can develop into a superstition or ritual you can use whenever you feel nervous. _x005F_x000C_

Works Cited

Brodt, Kyle. “Why Do Athletes Have Superstitions?” The Lance, 29 Oct. 2013, lhslance.org/2013/features/why-do-athletes-have-superstitions/.

DeLessio, Joe. “Very Superstitious: Weird Rituals Help Athletes Perform.” CNN, Cable News Network, 7 July 2015, www.cnn.com/2015/07/07/health/superstitions-help-athletes/index.html.

DeLessio, Joe. “Why Superstitions Help Athletes Perform Better.” The Cut, The Cut, 11 June 2015, www.thecut.com/2015/06/why-superstitions-help-athletes-perform-better.html.

Frustrated Baseball Player. 6 Nov. 2018.

Lizzie and Holly Patterson. “The Effects of Athletic Superstitions.” 14 Oct. 2018

Lebowitz, Shana. “Michael Jordan Wore His North Carolina Shorts underneath His Chicago Bulls Shorts in Every Game – and It May Have Been Key to His Success.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 30 Dec. 2015, www.businessinsider.com/michael-jordan-ritual-how-superstitions-improve-performance-2015-12.

“Minnesota Volleyball Player Celebrating.” Ncaa.com, 5 Nov. 2018.

Murphy, Ryan. “10 Most Superstitious Athletes.” Men’s Journal, 23 Apr. 2018, www.mensjournal.com/sports/10-most-superstitious-athletes/.

Patterson and Swatland. “The Effects of Athletic Superstitions.” 21 Oct. 2018.

“Superstition.” Dictionary.com, Dictionary.com, www.dictionary.com/browse/superstition.

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