Superstition can be a benefit but it’s best to concentrate on things you can control

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During a recent blog on the value of sports psychology a number of interesting associated topics cropped up and among them was the role played by superstition in the psychology of athletes. There is no doubt that athletes are aware that the rituals they adopt – which in many cases are very unusual – have no scientific basis. However, that is not to dismiss their value as these quirks can be crucial to an athlete’s chances of success.

The benefit often comes in terms of relaxation and easing of tension, where athletes can convince themselves that everything is normal, calm and under control. Missing out on the tried and trusted rituals can lead to a sense of ill-ease or panic, and result in the disruption of their psychological well-being which in many cases can make the difference between success and failure.

Routine v Superstition

As with any topic that can help turn an athlete into a winner, the area of superstition has been studied by experts in order to get a better understanding of how if affects performance. Sarah Albert in The Psychology of Superstition provides us with an explanation of the difference between habits and superstition from an athlete’s point of view. She reminds us that Stuart Vyse, PhD, and the author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition points out that not all rituals or beliefs are superstitions.

The dividing line is whether you give some kind of magical significance to the ritual …. a pre-performance ritual may help calm an athlete but is not a superstition. However, if you believe that something like tapping a ball a certain amount of times means you will win the game, then you are entering superstitious territory

The realisation that these superstitions are little more than quirks or habits is not lost on athletes as Ken Dryden explains in his book The Game, most fear changing their routine in case it brings bad luck. Dryden’s blunt analysis of his own rituals is as follows:

I don’t tell anyone about them, I’m not proud I have them, 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.

Meanwhile, Dr Michaéla Schippers sums up the concept of superstition in sport by stating:

Athletes often know that superstitious rituals are ‘not rational,’ but since on a top level the differences are so small, they think they cannot afford to take the risk to abandon the superstition

Expert view on superstition

In Why Superstitions Help Athletes Perform Better, Joe DeLessio reveals that according to a variety of research, the real benefit of superstition is in providing the athlete with reassurance or confidence. He looked at the work of George Gmelch, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of San Francisco who has studied superstition in baseball for decades. His belief is that superstition tends to be more prevalent in areas where there’s a lot of uncertainty — a big test in school, a job interview, or a first date, as well as in sport. According to Gmelch, these rituals provide the belief that you will do well. This view is backed up by Dr. Paul van Lange, a Professor of Psychology at VU University Amsterdam, and co-author of a paper called The Psychological Benefits of Superstitious Rituals in Top Sport: A Study Among Top Sportspersons, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2006. He argues that the rituals are a type of psychological placebo.

They help people cope with uncertain outcomes in the future, especially if these outcomes are important to them

DeLessio also highlights a 2010 article published in Psychological Science that

this perception of increased self-efficacy, as researchers call it, can apparently lead to real-world increased performance. Researchers used a series of experiments to show that activating good-luck superstitions improved performance in tasks like putting a golf ball, and that those performance benefits were, in fact, the result of increased confidence

Michaéla C. Schippers and Paul A.M. van Lange in The Psychological Benefits of Superstitious Rituals in Top Sport conclude that the tension-regulating function of superstitious rituals may more often help than harm a team member to perform well and contribute to team performance, and also that “the enactment of rituals enhance the probability of reaching the ‘Ideal Performance State’”, which is characterized by:-

  • feeling relaxed (both mentally and physically)
  • feeling full of energy
  • experiencing extraordinary awareness
  • being focused on the present
  • feeling in control

As a result, the researchers believe that coaches should acknowledge the potential benefits of superstitious rituals and as a result should not discourage the enactment of rituals by sportsmen.

Concentrate on the things you can control

While we accept that there is some merit in superstition, Mark Bailey in Do sporting superstitions really have any effect? reveals that Brad Busch reminds us that it is much more advantageous to the athlete to concentrate on things they can control in order to give themselves the edge in competition. Busch accepts the power of superstition when he states,

The brain craves control and if it does not have a sense of certainty then superstitions might help to introduce a better sense of control. This is invariably a placebo effect but the feeling can be a powerful one

However, he adds that athletes should not become reliant on them when he states:

The way we operate with athletes is to concentrate on things we know actually work. In moments of big pressure we want players to rely on themselves, their abilities and their training, as opposed to a lucky charm or superstition. In major events it is better for athletes to draw on evidence-based qualities which they know will actually work

he suggests, and without doubt the best way to achieve this is to introduce routines instead of superstitions.

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The Psychology of Superstition: Is ‘magical’ thinking hurting or helping you? by Sarah Albert
Why Superstitions Help Athletes Perform Better by Joe DeLessio
The Psychological Benefits of Superstitious Rituals in Top Sport by Michaéla Schippers, Paul A. M. van Lange
Do sporting superstitions really have any effect? by Mark Bailey
Ken Dryden’s ‘The Game’ still works 30 years later by Neil Best
Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition by Stuart A. Vyse
Can sports psychology give you an edge? | Metrifit