How athletes prepare to take the field can be crucial in their success. When a routine becomes superstition, it can boost confidence.
But when the superstition controls the player, it can be detrimental.
Dr. Stephen Graef, a former Buckeye football player and member of the 2002 National Championship team, shares insights on the age-old habit of athlete superstitions — how they help and how they hinder.
Athletes are taught the importance of having pre-performance routines that are ultimately going to help leverage the physical aspect of the performance, the technical aspect of the performance, the tactical or strategic aspect of performance and the mental aspect of the performance.
As a result of these routines, things the athlete is doing to prepare can, at times, move more into a superstition category.
While it may have come from the necessity of having that routine pre-performance, over time we start adding things into that routine that are not really addressing the four elements — physical, technical, tactical, mental aspects — of getting ready for the match that we think they are.
Often times, anxiety becomes a piece of that. In order for them to feel confident, composed and feel as though they’re able to focus themselves for the performance, athletes start doing things that really, if you break it down and identify the purpose, you’ll find that they really don’t hold any particular value in those four elements at all.
For instance, wearing the same shirt or socks or drinking a Gatorade that faces a particular direction in between innings — those types of things are superstitions that the athlete thinks there’s a connection to the performance, when there really is not.
Sometimes a superstition behavior might have just been vicarious to start, but then we make this false correlation between our performance and something that was going on.
If you won the state championship as a high school player and happen to still have the same shirt because it made its way into the freshman dorm and now you’re starting to wear the same shirt underneath the practice jersey because you have this fond memory of it, then that can develop into a superstition.
If the athlete didn’t end up wearing the shirt and started wearing different socks and performed really well during a football spring game, then maybe the socks will start to take the superstition stage instead of the shirt.
It can kind of vary based on what the performance experience was like and even in the moment, some people start adding things to their superstition list because they’re just looking for that “secret sauce.”
They think, “So I didn’t pitch very well when I was wearing this or drinking that, so I’m going to drink some other colored drink.” And if the performance was good, they hang on to that flavor of drink.
The superstitions can become sort of a hodgepodge of things until someone finds something that “works,” but in actuality is just an illusion of correlation.
It’s an interesting gray area, which can be the frustrating aspect of psychology. In some ways, they do work because athletes have the perception that superstition is impacting their behavior. And perception is reality. They feel good if they have the superstitious behavior in line. They feel good if they have that shirt on. They feel good if they’re drinking that Gatorade flavor.
But if you really challenge that reality, it doesn’t have an impact. It’s helping them to feel more confident. However, if you said, “What if you didn’t have that Gatorade, would you still perform well?” If they said, “Yeah,” then you know that this isn’t really truly impacting how they play on the field.
But if it helps help them to feel more confident going into the arena of battle because of it, then it in some ways it is impacting their performance.
I would encourage folks if they have these superstitions, to think about what purpose they serve and what outcome are they hoping to achieve from that particular behavior — to critically question, does it really have the impact I think it does?
If you want to grow your beard during playoff football or drink a particular Gatorade, at the end of the day, it’s not a super big deal. It’s when the superstition controls us instead of us controlling the superstitions that it can become a problem.
It’s fun, but it’s absolutely ridiculous from the fan perspective because the fans do not have any real impact on the outcome, especially when we’re watching from the recliners in our living room.
We don’t want to believe that. But it’s true that growing a playoff beard won’t help your favorite team advance.
However, if you’re a performer and you feel that growing the beard for the playoffs is something that builds team cohesion and builds some confidence in yourself as you head to the postseason, it can have an impact on confidence and remaining motivated.
From a fan perspective, you have team solidarity and that level of affiliation with your team if you also grow a beard like your favorite players. If other people are growing their beards for the postseason, that can build community, too. But you’re not ultimately impacting the score.
If we allow the superstitions to work for us, not against us, then I think they’re fine.
The issue is when superstitions get too out of hand or when we have too many, so we’re spending hours or days having to line up all these things that really don’t have any real impact on performance. From a time perspective, sometimes superstitions can get out of hand or get expensive, depending on what the superstition is.
If we become so reliant on them that we think we’re not going to be able to perform effectively if we go without them, then that can also be problematic. We want to control the superstition; we don’t want the routine to control us.
If we feel as though we can’t perform or aren’t going to have a good performance because we don’t have on the lucky socks, that is the superstition taking control of us.
Instead of realizing, “OK, this is nice; it calms my mind. It makes me feel a little bit more like Superman in his uniform when I am wearing these particular socks. But I also know if I happen to leave them in the washer, it’s not going to be the end of the day. That I can still kick butt.”
If superstitions don’t get to that level, if they aren’t overly costly in time or resources or they’re not controlling us, superstitions can be great.
They can help with our psychical readiness, help us practice good techniques and remind ourselves of proper strategy and help the mental aspect to help us feel more confident and composed and more focused.