The Real Power of Superstitions: That Has Nothing to Do with Luck

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Superstitions, such as knocking on wood and saying “God bless you” after someone sneezes, are common in everyday life. But in sports, when superstitions are taken to the extreme, they can seem quite silly. Although superstitions and rituals may seem pointless, they can actually affect a player’s psychological mentality and athletic performance due to increased confidence.

Superstitious rituals are defined as unusual, repetitive, rigid behavior that is perceived to have a positive effect by the actor, whereas in reality there is no causal link between the behavior and the outcome of the event.”

Rituals may include religious acts, the foods one eats, the music one listens to, the clothes one wears, and other random acts. It is common for teams in the National Hockey League to grow beards during playoffs and not shave until they have won or are eliminated. The superstitious Hall of Fame goalie for the Chicago Blackhawks, Glenn Hall, even made himself throw up before every game. Other players use visual imagery to mentally prepare themselves for the task at hand.

Even athletes at Pentucket have superstitions and rituals to help prepare for games. Varsity Captain of the girls’ soccer team, Tia Zanardi, developed most of her superstitions in high school; however, starting in the youth league she has always had the number 19. In addition to pre-game warmups, before every game Zanardi braids her hair, pulls her socks up to the tip of her shin guards, and says a secret saying with a close teammate. By the time Zanardi is on the field, she is physically and mentally prepared to focus on the game and fight for a win.

Common rituals at Pentucket include having home field advantage, players putting their left hand in for cheers, and saying a particular cheer on the ride home from away games. Although there is some honest benefit to home field advantage because the team is used to playing on the field and can select referees, it mainly makes the players feel more comfortable and confident.

Superstitions often occur when there is greater uncertainty or control of an outcome and when both chance and skill play crucial roles. Superstitions are more common for college and professional level sports because the stakes are higher and they are pressured to perform well every game.

It is proven that superstitions can improve athletic performance if the person truly believes in the luck that it may produce and if they have previously seen results or has consistently done the ritual. In a 1986 experiment by Van Lange, the subject athlete performed his ritual directly before taking a free throw during a basketball game and his average points improved, due to having more confidence. Rituals can also calm the athlete’s mind and distract them from excessive stress.

Confidence is affected by the self-efficacy theory of psychology, which can play a large role in how one approaches goals, tasks, and challenges. Self-efficacy is the belief one has the ability to overcome foreseen challenges and succeed, even if they fail on the first attempt. When players lack confidence, it clearly carries over to their playing because they tend to have lower reaction time, be more hesitant to take charge, and make more mistakes.

So are superstitions good or bad? It depends on the player because some athletes feel a sense of more control over the game’s outcome by doing certain “lucky” rituals, but others may say that it distracts from the actual game and players should not have to rely on a silly ritual to feel confident. Also, if a player by chance forgets to do a ritual or does it wrong, this could really mess with their mental state during the game and if the outcome is not as expected, the player could feel great guilt.

Deep down, most athletes know that the actual rituals do not make them perform better, but they continue to do it because it is routine and they believe any extra luck could make or break a game. Superstitions strengthen confidence and can increase athletic performance, so really, athletes have nothing to lose with superstitions.