Mind Games: Superstitions in Sport

What if a game is more than talent? More than the hours upon hours that you sacrificed for training, and more than the effort that you put into every pass? What if you didn’t win that game for those reasons at all? What if it was in fact, because you wore your lucky undies?

From the outside looking in, superstitions may seem odd and strange. The popularity of them in sport, however, proves the significant role they play in the mind of an athlete.

The greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, wore the same blue shorts under his uniform for luck, while Tiger Woods has a lucky red shirt, which he typically wears on the last day of each tournament. Besides wearing one single pair of socks throughout each tournament, Serena Williams also bounces the ball five times before her first serve and twice before her second serve.

There are unstable (i.e., refereeing) and stable (i.e., skill) factors in every sport but superstitious acts develop when an athlete wishes to control the unstable factors. I grew up racing competitively in Surf Life Saving so, for me, luck was everything. In certain conditions, you could be coming dead last by hundreds of metres, but if the perfect wave comes through, you could find yourself in first place. On the other hand, you could be the fastest and fittest person in a race, but if you get hit by a wave, fall off your board or make one wrong move, your race can be over in an instant. In an attempt to control that completely uncontrollable nature of the sport, I used to wear a pink ribbon in my hair. I knew it was utterly useless, and there was no way that a little pink ribbon was going to change what waves come at what time, but there was a sense of comfort in the consistency.

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Everyone knows that there is no logical way superstitions could improve performance, however research shows that these rituals can have a beneficial effect on the mental state of athletes. Superstitious rituals performed consistently do help highly anxious athletes reduce tension and discomfort during competition and strengthen confidence in their abilities. Rituals provide a sense of security for competitors and as a result, athletes’ sense of control and concentration improves, and they can treat unexpected events with more confidence. So, although I didn’t know it, that pink ribbon was actually helping me improve concentration and confidence in my races.

Superstitions can, however, begin to undermine your mental game and attitude when you begin to believe you can’t perform without them. There were days when I forgot to pack the ribbon, and although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was more hesitant in my races without that little pink security blanket.

When a superstition begins to negatively impact an athlete’s mental state and performance, a pregame routine can be used as a substitute to reduce anxiety and stress. A pregame routine is a sequence of thoughts and actions that an athlete engages in before their specific sport skill and has been proven to have similar positive effects to superstitions.

If you have a superstition and it’s working for you - great. But if your superstition is beginning to cause you more stress, or perhaps you don’t have a superstition at all and are feeling anxious about games - this is how you can create a pregame routine:

Effective pre performance routines include two elements: actions and thoughts. It’s likely that you have already been implementing actions into your pregame routine with your team warm up. Examples of pregame routine actions include practice shots on goal or passing drills. The thought process, however, might not come so naturally. Pregame thought practices might involve telling yourself out loud what you are going to do, using imagery to imagine the skill you going to execute from your point of view, or imagining yourself succeeding. Research has shown that water polo players who used pregame routines performed better in their penalty throws and experience less anxiety.

In the mind of an elite athlete, you are facing only two options once you are in the game: to win or to lose. The fact that everyone wants to be among the winners and not on the losing side can justify all means, even the ones that involve little pink ribbons – because at the end of the day, no one will judge the winner.

If you are having trouble with anxiety before a game - talk to the Fours Mentors! We can assess whether your superstition is working for you and if needed, help you create the perfect pregame routine.

Written by Emma Brown

Emma Brown