I wore the same pair of underwear for all but one basketball game over my three years of middle school, and you guessed it, that one game when I didn’t wear them, we lost. And though this is way too much information already, I will clarify that yes, I did wash them between every game. This is only one indication of how crazy athletes can get when it comes to their superstitions.
If you asked me now if I really believed that it mattered what underwear I wore to the middle school games, I would say no, and even back then, if pushed, I would have said no. Yet, once it all started and the winning streak was happening I just figured it didn’t hurt. Fortunately, I didn’t continue that superstition into high school and college but I did have little rituals that guided me into game time as do most athletes.
How many times have you seen hockey, baseball or football players let their facial hair grow as they head into the playoffs trying to get that extra edge for the win, even if it means believing in supernatural intervention. Most athletes understand that superstitious actions don’t really affect the outcome of a game (Just like I didn’t really believe I needed to wear my lucky underwear), but once they put a certain ritual into play and the outcome is good, they often choose to continue with the ritual. Dr. Michaéla Schippers a co-author of “The Psychological Benefits of Superstitious Rituals in Top Sport: A Study Among Top Sportspersons* states that athletes often know that superstitious rituals are not rational, but since on a top-level the differences are so small, they think they can’t afford to take the risk to abandon the superstition.
According to Men’s Journal, NBA Basketball star Micheal Jordon, six-time champion/Finals MVP and five-time regular season MVP (one of my favorite players to watch when I was young because there were no professional women’s basketball players), never forgot his basketball roots. It’s said he wore his lucky University of North Carolina shorts (where he won the 1982 NCAA Championship) underneath his Chicago Bulls uniform in every NBA game. According to ESPN’s 13 Sports Superstitions, Serena Williams, one of the best tennis players in the world, always brings her shower sandals to the court, ties her shoes in a specific way and refuses to exchange her sweaty socks for clean ones during a tournament. And when Jason Giambi, who was a Major League first baseman and designated hitter from 1995 to 2015, found himself in a slump he donned a metallic gold G-string (I’m not the only one who put their hope in their underwear). This worked so well that some of his teammates admitted to giving it a try.
I know one college athlete who is superstitious about not relying on rituals before competitions. Almost a reverse psychology superstition I suppose. Still, when it’s time to compete he has to get his body and mind ready, as do all athletes, by warming up, and this is usually done with a routine. As a basketball player you normally do a pregame warm up with your team. Often teams start with some laying lines and at some point have 3 on 2-2 on 1, but whatever drills they chose, they usually have the same schedule each game. There are other routines throughout competitions, for example a good basketball player has a preshot routine before each freethrow shot they take. When I step to the freethrow line, I find the nail in the floor that marks the midpoint and set my feet from it’s location, spin the ball in both hands and then bounce it once, take a breath and shoot.
The actions of opponents, teammates, and fans not to mention location, lighting and weather (if you’re in an outdoor sport) are always changing, so whether you’re a basketball player or a ski racer, routines can help establish a sense of calm and familiarity in an environment that can be unpredictable and changing. In a study by Lobmeyer and Wasserman (1986), subjects were given training in the use of preshot routines and experienced a 7% increase in success when using the routines in practice. A follow-up study found that under competitive stress, this difference was greater and the shooting accuracy was 23% higher with a preshot routine.
Routines can have a big impact on an athlete’s success and so can rituals. But what is the difference between the two? When do an athlete’s routines become rituals? The main difference between a routine and a ritual lies in the attitude behind them; a routine is a series of automatic actions where a ritual refers to a series of meaningful actions.When a person gives meaning to their routines they can become rituals and rituals demand careful focus and presence of mind, which is even more beneficial to an athletes success. Dr. Schippers says that rituals also can have a tension-regulating function. This is always helpful when completion get tough.
Let’s look at free throw shooting again. According to Dr. Paul van Lange, a professor of psychology at VU University Amsterdam and co-author with Dr. Michaéla Schippers*, rituals work because the person believes in them and expects them to work. I believe it is a combination. When you do the same thing, over and over (in the right way), as in with your freethrow preshot routine, your body begins to learn how that shot feels and should be. When you establish a ritual that is comfortable to you, you build an even stronger connection to your body and mind.
So what is all of this telling you? Implement routines as an athlete. If you’re a basketball player develop a preshot routine for your freethrow (or if you’re a coach, have your players do it.) and if not right away, over time it will make a difference. Find focus and meaning in routines to establish rituals into your workouts and competitions that work for you. Should you go the extra step by adding a belief in the supernatural? That’s up to you, but routines and ritual are worth the effort. Develop ones that you believe in, and they can help you to find success. And if they involve your underwear or a metallic gold G-string you’ll have a crazy story to tell someday.
Tell me about some of your superstitions, or a routine or ritual, that has helped you find success.