Serena Williams is known world-wide for her superstitions during competition. Her rituals include using the same shower, bringing her shower sandals to the court, tying her shoelaces a certain way, bouncing the ball five times before her first serve and twice before her second, and wearing the same pair of unwashed socks throughout a tournament. Other professional athletes have certain rituals that they are also known for, such as Tiger Woods who wears a red shirt on Sunday during a tournament, Michael Jordan who wore his UNC Tar Heels shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform, and Wayne Gretzky who applied baby powder to the end of his hockey stick (along with several other tactics).
While superstitions may seem silly from the outside, there are actually significant benefits to following rituals.
Ritual gives an illusion of control.
When competing, whether in junior tennis or any other sport, many factors that are out of our control may arise, leading one to feel rather anxious. Following a ritual gives a sense of control, which can ultimately reduce stress and help ease feelings of helplessness. An athlete who is less anxious and feels more in control is likely to be relaxed and at ease going into a competition.
Superstition can result in improved performance.
By reducing anxiety in a high-stress situation, athletes become calmer and more poised, and, as a result, they perform better. Improved performance can also occur when an athlete believes that there is a “lucky” factor involved, even while understanding that “luck” may not actually be real. By having a perception of increased self-efficacy, athletes have been shown to experience measurable improvements in how they perform.
Superstition helps to boost confidence.
Believing that an object or routine is lucky provides an athlete with confidence and reassurance that they will perform well. It can help a student feel more confident about taking a test, or an interviewee may feel more secure about their upcoming job interview.
But can it go too far?
There is a fine line between superstition being lighthearted and helpful and superstition actually becoming detrimental. Hall of Fame NHL goaltender, Ken Dryden, writes about his superstitions in his book, The Game: “I know I should be strong enough to decide one morning, any morning, no longer to be a prisoner to them. Yet I seem helpless to do anything about it.”
Sometimes, following a ritual can escalate towards obsession. Cleveland Indians left fielder, Kevin Rhomberg, is remembered because of a quirk that often led to adverse effects. He had to touch anyone who touched him, and, when players on opposing teams learned of this, they took advantage of it. A game between the Yankees and the Indians once even had to be stopped because the Yankees players were touching Rhomberg and then running away, which was causing him to panic.
It’s important to keep superstitions lighthearted before they turn into a compulsion that may have a negative effect on our lives. Athletes should focus their rituals on things they can control and that they know are effective for helping their performance. If an athlete becomes too reliant on a superstition, it could have a negative impact when something occurs to prevent that athlete from being able to follow their ritual.
Pursuing a superstitious ritual has even had a disastrous effect in some cases. In 2008, the Zimbabwean soccer team, Midlands Portland Cement, was encouraged by their coaches to bathe in the Zambezi River to cleanse the team of bad spirits. There was a strong current in the spot where they chose to swim as well as a large number of crocodiles and hippos. 16 soccer players waded into the water, but only 15 came back out after one of them ended up drowning in the strong current.
So what’s the verdict on ritual in sports?
Superstition and ritual has a long-standing place in sports, with some athletes’ superstitions being so quirky that they have become famous for them. Even entire teams or fans will participate in superstitious practices, such as hockey teams who won’t touch the Stanley Cup if they have not yet won it or Florida Panthers fans who, during one especially successful season, threw plastic rats onto the ice after every goal their team scored. As long as the superstition doesn’t escalate and become detrimental to the athlete, psychological experts say that there is no harm and even benefits to practicing a superstitious ritual.