Plenty of professional athletes have their own sports superstitions. For instance, tennis pro Serena Williams only wears the same pair of socks throughout a single tournament run. Michael Jordan always worse his North Carolina basketball shorts under his Bulls uniform. And of course, entire leagues of players and male fans start growing their playoff beards once their team hits the post season. And never, ever, ever mention the words “not-hitter” to a pitcher that is on a roll. After all, it’s only crazy if it doesn’t work, right?
According to Damon Burton, a sports psychologist at the University of Idaho, most superstitious routines begins after an athlete plays unusually well. “If the athletic performance is unusually great, certain athletes attribute their success to that bizarre circumstance and continue to recreate it prior to each game.” Recent research shows that “superstitions that increase the illusion of control can help people find meaning and psychological comfort—and in some cases, even boost performance.”
Other studies have found that by “activating” good-luck-related superstitions through a common saying like ‘break a leg’ or by a lucky charm, players performance in subsequent sports performance in golf, motor dexterity, memory, and anagram games is actually improved. In fact, a 2010 experiment published in Psychological Science found that golfers sank 35% more putts when playing with a ball they were told was “lucky.” The studies suggest that sports superstitions can trigger powerful self-beliefs in athletes, which in turn trigger a barrage of other positive effects, including greater self-confidence, sharper focus, facilitative self-talk, stronger motivation, and greater resiliency.
However, more and more sports psychologists are trying to push athletes away from superstitions and instead encourage them to develop strategies and mental plans that give them that consistency in their athletic performance. The concern is that, should the ritual/superstition/lucky item get interrupted or fail athletes won’t be able to trust themselves and their own skills on the field, ultimately undermining their performance. Their self-confidence is inherently tied to that superstition which leaves their mental strength in a vulnerable position. As Gregg Swanson mentioned, “Many think that self-confidence is knowing you’ll win. This is not the case. Self-confidence is knowing that no matter the situation, you’ll be handle whatever comes along. It’s doesn’t mean you’ll always win.” Superstitions can help boost self-confidence, but it should not be the only reason an athlete feels confident before a game.
Superstitions and rituals can certainly give athletes a sense of control before they step onto the field, which can have a positive impact on their mental state once the game starts. Athletes need to walk onto the field knowing they can compete, believing they can win, and feeling confident that they can handle whatever happens during the game. However, when that control and positive attitude is inextricably tied to their superstitions and pre-game rituals it could actually backfire should something go awry. There is nothing wrong with using a pre-game ritual to get into a particular mindset, but superstitions should not be used to supplement confidence and belief in an athlete’s own skills!