Many athletes engage in various sport superstitions, ranging from pre-game rituals to various articles of clothing and undergarments they wear on game days. While some of these superstitions may seem odd and peculiar, the big question from sport psychologists remains: Do they actually work?
The answer to that question is yes, they “work,” at least conditionally. What I mean by that is superstitions “work” in the sense that athletes who believe in the superstition increase their self-confidence by using the superstition – thereby creating an effectiveness to the superstition. For example, if an athlete wears a particular wristband and he believes the wristband gives him greater energy and motivation while competing, he will in all likelihood actually increase his energy and motivation. The catch, however, is that all of this is actually based on his belief in the superstition and not the superstition itself (in this case a wristband that doesn’t actually have any magical powers).
Since belief is such a big part of sport (and life) success, athletes who find superstitions that work for them are probably smart for making these discoveries. Superstitions actually work based on the placebo effect, a theory that posits that innocuous things (like rubber wristbands) can actually have a healing or therapeutic effect if the person using the item believes it will work. It is important to note that the “thing” doesn’t have any true healing or medicinal powers, but instead “works” only because of the belief placed in the object.
Sports superstitions often trigger powerful self-beliefs, which in turn trigger a host of really positive effects, including greater self-confidence, sharper focus, facilitative self-talk, stronger motivation, and greater resiliency. In other words, athletes who believe in a superstition often experience greater overall mental toughness as a result.
The big point of all of this is for athletes to find things to do pre-game to help them with their self-confidence and focus, and if developing a safe and unobtrusive superstition helps in that effort it might be worthwhile to use one. On the other hand, if a non-believing athlete is looking to increase mental toughness based exclusively on the power of a superstition, he or she might be disappointed when nothing happens. Superstitions might serve as catalysts for better confidence and focus, but they are not “short-cuts,” nor do they offer any magical means for athletic success. That, in a nutshell, is the science behind sports superstitions.
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