We’ve all seen or heard of elite sports people performing ritual movements before competitions, from a 100m runner blessing themselves before a race, to a footballer with his lucky pants or the Golfer with his favourite putter. From the outside looking in it may seem odd and strange; however in all sports, superstitions and rituals are widespread and a very common practice. In fact, for some players these superstitions and rituals may actually have an impact and influence their success during the event.

A ritual in sports can be defined as ‘a certain behaviour or action that a sports performer carries out with the belief that these behaviours have a specific purpose, or power, to influence their performance’ many sports performers believe that performing a specific ritual before a competition improves the outcome of their performance. These rituals can range from the clothes they wear for example Tiger woods wears a red polo shirt on the Sunday at golf tournaments, to the foods a sports person eats or drinks, to the warm up they perform or even the music they listen to pre-game. On the other hand a superstition can be defined as ‘something that is initially developed in hindsight, almost by accident and then becomes required in future events’ a superstition arises when a sports person has a particularly good or bad performance and then tries to establish the “cause and effect” by reviewing the facts of the day. The sports person will look back and notice things like what they ate or wore and they’ll notice anything unusual that happened such as getting a haircut, having a shave or hearing a certain song. If they have a great performance they attribute their success to these unusual circumstances and attempt to recreate them before every competition.

Schippers and Van Lange (2006) researched the psychological benefits of superstitions and rituals in sport. They examined the circumstances at which top-class sports people are most likely to be committed to enacting rituals prior to a game; they called this ‘Ritual Commitment’. Schippers and Van Lange (2006) results suggested that ‘Ritual Commitment’ is greater when uncertainty and the importance of the game are high rather than low. Player’s personalities also have an effect with sports people who have an external locus of control exhibiting greater levels of ‘Ritual Commitment’ than the players with an internal locus of control. This was taken further by Damisch, Stoberock and Mussweiler (2010) who conducted research in to superstitions; they took the suggested assumption that superstitions are typically seen as creations of irrational minds. However they wanted to know why many sports people rely on superstitious thoughts and practices in their daily routines in order to gain ‘good luck’ or optimum performance.  Damisch, Stoberock and Mussweiler (2010) researched the performance benefits of these superstitions and tried identifying their underlying psychological mechanisms. There results suggested that activating good-luck-related superstitions through a common saying or action (for example ‘break a leg’ or ‘fingers crossed’) or by a lucky charm improves the subsequent sports performance in golf, motor dexterity, memory, and anagram games. They also suggest that these performance benefits are produced by changes in the sports people’s perceived self-efficiency, which activates a superstition boost in a sports person’s confidence in successful completion on the upcoming tasks; this in turn improves there individual performance. Finally they suggest that this increased task persistence constitutes self-efficiency and is enhanced by superstition, which improves performance.

In conclusion the real value in superstition or ritual is the boost of confidence and the sense of control that they provide a sports person. If the sports person believes that doing a specific action or behaviour will make them perform better, then they on balance will perform better. Many sports people use different rituals such as visualization or guided imagery, to recreate a particularly successful race, match, putt or free kick to try and recreate that experience and the feelings they had then, as though they are happening now. This recall and visualization prepares them both mentally and physically for a successful competition.

ReferencesShow all

Damisch, L., Stoberock, B., & Mussweiler, T. (2010). Keep your fingers crossed! How superstition improves performance. Psychological Science, 21(7), 1014-1020.

Schippers, M. C., & Van Lange, P. A. (2006). The Psychological Benefits of Superstitious Rituals in Top Sport: A Study Among Top Sportspersons1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36(10), 2532-2553.

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