Sports Superstition Psychology and Origin Stories
Sports rituals have become so common that even those that are really weird don’t seem so strange anymore. Many players and sports fans believe that these customs have an impact on their success in the game. Some sports superstitions are believed to help the player or team play optimally, whereas others are strictly to avoid “bad juju”. For some, it can be as simple as visualization which helps them feel like their performance will be enhanced.
“Superstitions are a coping mechanism to deal with the pressure to succeed. Athletes begin to believe- they, in fact, want to believe- that their routine of choice is enhancing their performance. In reality, it is just practice and confidence that make them perform better.”
Some sports rituals are implemented post-game; based on the performance in the game, the player tries to establish a habit to either continue to achieve that height of performance or avoid poor performance in the future; essentially trying to establish cause and effect and replicate or avoid it in the future.
A more sinister and specific reason sports superstitions start: “The Curse”. By observing specific sports events unfold, people begin to believe that a higher power is jinxing their/their team’s performance.
Other sports routines are based simply on repeated behaviours. Following a specific procedure before a game allows the player to use less mental effort to physically prepare which then allows their brains to focus on mentally preparing for the victory. Schippers and Van Lange wrote about the psychological benefits of sports rituals; what they call “Ritual Commitment”.
BBC’s writer, Tom Stafford, wrote a great article, How psychology experiments on hungry pigeons can explain sports champions' (and our) curious habits and rituals, which explains some of the psychology of sports superstitions, as tested on pigeons!
Let’s check out a few of the more popular sports superstitions and their origin stories…
The Playoff Beard
Many hockey players get on board the “Playoff Beard” superstition by not shaving until they are eliminated from the playoffs. It has become a team bonding exercise and has even started to become popular amongst fans. The start of the “Playoff Beard” is said to be the New York Islanders in the 1980s. However, if you look back to the 1970s, it seems that the superstition may have started with Bjorn Borg, tennis champion, who won five consecutive Wimbledon Tournaments; he gives full credit to his beard.
Taping your Stick
Originally, taping a hockey stick blade would protect the wood from splitting due to water absorption. However, now hockey sticks are made from carbon fibers and graphite so taping the hockey stick to protect it from water is no longer necessary. The reality is that taping a stick nowadays comes down to the tradition being handed down from the generation before. Sidney Crosby is a real “stickler” when it comes to taping his stick. Read more about taping your hockey stick in our recent blog post, I Have Used Stick Tape All My Life, Why Change Now?
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In Major League Baseball, many players are psychologically invested in superstitions – particularly when it comes to breaking a slump. In fact, a study by CBC Sports reported that baseball players are more likely to be more superstitious than athletes in any other sport. Perhaps that’s why the longest (and weirdest) list of sports superstitions belongs to the ball players.
Spitting is a popular ritual in baseball. Spitting on your hand or on the bat is a superstition that is supposed to bring good luck. Also, when a player spits on the ground, he must kick dirt onto it – otherwise, he’ll have bad luck. Who knows where these spit-obsessed traditions come from?
The Curse of the Billy Goat
The Curse of the Billy Goat originated in 1945 and lasted over 70 years, according to Cubs fans. The “curse” was a result of William Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, having been thrown out of Wrigley Field because the aroma of his pet goat was bothering other fans. When leaving the park, Sianis allegedly cursed the Cubs to lose. Before his death in 1970, Sianis attempted to lift the curse. Then, throughout the 1970s – 1990s, Sianis’ family members continued to try to break the curse, to no avail. The “curse” was finally broken in 2016 when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series against the Cleveland Indians, without any curse-lifting intervention.
The Curse of the Bambino
The Curse of the Bambino is probably one of the most famous sports superstitions. The “curse” theory was based on the fact that the Boston Red Sox failed to win the World Series for more than 85 years and is said to be caused by the fact that Babe Ruth (The Bambino) was sold to the New York Yankees. Before the trade, the Red Sox had been one of the most successful teams, having won the World Series 5 times. The Curse of the Bambino was the start of one of the biggest baseball rivalries in history, between the Red Sox and the Yankees.
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Superstitions Used Across Multiple Sports
Some sports superstitions transcend the limitation of one particular sport. Here are just a few:
- Don’t Do Laundry – Although their mothers and wives are probably horrified, there are plenty of athletes who insist on never washing their undershirt, socks, underwear, hat, etc. because they believe it will bring them good luck.
- Lucky Underwear – Some players who have a great game attribute their success to the specific pair of underpants they wore that day; they then vow to always wear those skivvies. In fact, Jason Giambi favoured a metallic gold thong that he felt would help him get out of a slump.
- Putting on Gear/Uniform in Exactly the Same Order, Every Time – Wayne Gretzky practiced this superstition throughout his career.
- Visualization – Applying visualization techniques to imagine achieving success – for example, Patrick Roy would glare at his net to use his mind to shrink it.
No matter what the reason for the sports rituals, research actually shows that the true value is a feeling of being in control and a self-confidence boost, both of which any player needs going into a big game.