What does it take to be successful in sports? I have talked a lot about motivation, confidence, and focus and desire. All of these are important, but what about luck? Do you ever wonder why athletes wear the same “lucky shirt” in competition such as Tiger Woods wearing his traditional red shirt on Sunday or athletes who eat the exact same meal for good luck prior to competition? Some teams even go as far as not washing their jerseys until they lose a game.
Superstitions in sports are mainly based on the notion that if you repeat a certain behavior, you will have good luck. As irrational as some superstitions seem, they give athletes a sense of feeling lucky, but is there more to superstitions other than just feeling lucky? For example, some athletes and coaches would say that superstitions give athletes and teams confidence and belief. Yet you could argue that most superstitions are just wacky habits that have no scientific research to back up the claim they actually work.
Let’s first examine the difference between superstitions and a preshot or preperformance routine. Preshot routine are not the same as superstitions. Preshot routines help athletes to prepare, in a meaningful way, for the execution of a motor skill such as a basketball free throw. A preshot routine can be called by many names. Pre-shot, at-bat, pre-serve, and pre-race routines are just a few examples of pre-performance or pre-shot routines. A golf shot, basketball free throw, field goal, pitch, race motto, dive or any other sports task are all examples of sports specific tasks.
The preparatory behaviors in routines are excellent methods to help you focus on one shot; one pitch; or one sports specific act at a time and are extremely useful tools to refocus attention when distracted as I discussed in the January 2005 newsletter. The pre-performance routine is a merging of mental and physical steps that blend into one long behavior. The preshot routine combines physical actions (such as a practice swing) and specific thoughts or images (visualizing the shot, focusing on the target, and mental cues to trigger the start of your performance such as the image of the target in your mind). Most all high-level athletes use preshot routines to help them prepare for various tasks. You can see routines used by athletes at any basketball, baseball, or football game. Football kickers use very systematic routines right before a field-goal attempt.
On the other hand, athletes also employ superstitions. A superstition is a single behavior an athlete adopts that is based more on luck and generalizations than on reason. Even the most successful athletes swear by the use of superstitions. Superstitions, such as when Tiger Woods wears a red shit for Sunday’s round are no doubt tied to “luck” and past success on Sundays when wearing red. Michael Jordan (who graduated from North Carolina) always wore UNC shorts under his Bulls uniform for good luck. A hockey player might always lace up the left skate before the right prior to a game. Athletes use superstitions because they think it gives them confidence. If a lucky shirt works, some athletes will keep it in play until the first loss when it loses its “magic.” It is hard to argue with Tiger Wood’s success on Sundays.
Superstitions, unlike routines, are not based on fact or reason. If an athlete attributes his success to some consistent superstitious ritual, such as wearing a red shit on Sunday or eating a certain food prior to each game, the athlete will think it “works” and keep repeating the behavior, until he thinks otherwise and discards it. The person believes the ritual brings success and that has an effect on his confidence level. Former baseball player Wade Boggs was called the "Chicken Man," because he had to eat chicken before every game. Ted Williams spent many hours each year picking out the perfect piece of wood that he thought would make the best bat. These are all superstitions and not routines.
Some superstitions are used to avoid bad luck too. Babe Ruth swatted butterflies on the diamond because he thought they were unlucky. In golf, balls with the number 4 or higher are seen as bad luck. Wearing the number 13 can be viewed as bringing bad luck for superstitious athletes. In hockey, it’s is bad luck for hockey sticks to lie crossed. Some tennis players would tell you to never serve holding more than two balls at once.
Superstitions are not necessarily bad. In fact, they can build confidence and help boost morale for some athletes and teams. We have a saying in sports psychology and sports, “if it works, use it.” If you use a superstition before competition, have faith in it, and it works, great – use it. Anything that increases your faith or belief in performance is a bonus. I would give you one caution here: Do not use superstitions as the only reason for your success and think that they will help you be successful no matter how well you prepare before game time.
My recommendation would be to develop sounds mental preparation skills to apply before competition such as a warm up routine, mental imagery, and setting game plans or strategies to perform your best. You should use proven mental preparation strategies to help you perform in combination with wearing that lucky shirt or some other superstition.
About The Author
Dr. Patrick J. Cohn is a master mental game coach who works with athletes of all levels including amateur and professionals. Visit Peaksports.com to gain access to over 500 exclusive mental game articles, audio programs, and interviews with athletes and coaches to enhance your athletic potential: www.peaksports.com/membership or call 888-742-7225.