Sporting Superstitions: Luck or Control?

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We spend hours on the training field, in the gym and trying to get all the physical, nutritional and psychological details right for our performance on game day. Despite all that, a few of the GB girls have some big superstitions which must be stuck to all costs. It seems that if some people don’t wear the correct shirt number, sit in the exact same place in the changing room or put their right shinpad in before their left, we will definitely have absolutely no chance of winning! I don’t see myself as being particularly superstitious (and in fact actively avoid having a a strict routine before a match) but when asking the girls about their own superstitions I realised I do a few of these strange things too. I draw the line somewhere: I wouldn’t force a team mate to have the same hairstyle for a game during a winning streak (this has been enforced in a tournament before!), but if anyone takes my established seat in the changing room…well, trouble is on its way.

Superstition is defined as, “A widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such a belief” (oxforddictionaries.com). Are you superstitious? Would you feel the need to throw salt over your shoulder (at the devil) if you spilt some? Would it stress you out to see somebody put shoes on a table or open an umbrella indoors? Even if you can bring yourself to walk over three drains or see a magpie without saluting it, I reckon most people will cross their fingers if they are hoping for good luck, or touch wood if they don’t want to “jinx” something. The recession is apparently making us think about reeling in our spending, but flights can be up to a third cheaper on Friday 13th and the price of a house at Number 13 can be 4% lower than other properties, because demand is so much lower for anything involving such an unlucky number. As mentioned, superstitions are ‘irrational beliefs’, but all of those described above come from various religious, mythological, pagan and even economic origins. They may not make sense to us now, but there is often a meaningful historical reason behind them. (Incidentally, I still wouldn’t recommend walking under a ladder purely from a health and safety perspective.)

Superstition is a big part of some sportspeople’s routines. You could watch Rafael Nadal at one changeover in a tennis match to figure out pretty quickly that the guy either has some kind of OCD or some major superstitious tendencies. I’m sure his forehand would be just as devastating regardless of whether he had correctly placed his water bottle by the tramlines, but maybe there’s more to it than this. Routine is the key word. One of the phrases commonly bandied about in elite sport is, “Control the controllables.” For many sports people, superstitions are little actions that can help make the situation feel more normal and manageable, regardless of the pressure or the score. Routine can help you feel comfortable and in control, whether you’re on the verge of winning Wimbledon or playing in a Sunday League game.

As sport often comes down to fine margins, a stroke of luck here and there really can affect an outcome. An unfortunate own goal, a freak injury, the weather, an untimely slip… you could play a great game and still lose 1-0. Some studies have suggested that superstitions can improve performance and self-confidence even though the two things don’t have a logical link. This is where Rafa’s bottle placement comes in: it may not actually improve the execution of his forehand, but it may improve his sense of control and self-confidence in his forehand ability. Of course, whether or not our superstitions have any genuine impact on the chances of rain or whether you slip over just as you’re about to score the winning goal is doubtful, but in terms of being an important part of routine and confidence, I’m sure they can have an effect.

Our training, preparation and mindset all have a massive bearing on how things turn out in the end, but there’s no doubt that fortune can still play its part. That’s part of the fun of sport. If it was always the better, more prepared competitor that won, where would we find the drama and the excitement? We love an underdog because we love the idea that on any given day, anyone can win. I strongly doubt that never watching a penalty stroke taken in any game I’m involved in has any impact on the outcome… but I doubt I’ll stop doing it anytime soon.

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