What’s the big deal about a sports uniform number? Most athletes will tell you a lot, actually. In fact, countless athletes over the years have gone to great lengths to secure their favorite number, including some professional athletes actually paying teammates to swap numbers. Interestingly, the desire to secure a favorite number is not limited to pro athletes, as millions of kids each year also prioritize wearing their favorite number. While some people may laugh and suggest “it’s just a number,” for many athletes their personal uniform number is often much more than a digit on their back.
You are the number you wear
As humans, we create our own personal identities through the clothes we wear, our interests and hobbies, and even our careers. As you read this right now, how do you identify yourself? Do you describe yourself as a parent, a coach, a democrat/republican, or an employee of your company? It is through these preferences, choices, and life experiences that we create our own identities, but what separates athletes from the rest of us is that sports provide an identifying number that athletes wear while competing — and herein establishes the value of an athlete’s unique number and personal identity.
The process by which athletes decide upon their favorite number is also an interesting process all to itself. Some athletes choose funny, attention-seeking numbers (i.e. “00” or “99”), others pick the team mascot number (“1”), and still others model their number after famous athletes who played before them (#23 in basketball is Michael Jordan, and hockey fans identify #99 with Wayne Gretzky). Regardless of the number an athlete chooses, one big question remains: Does a number directly impact a player’s level of success?
The confidence factor
Interestingly, the number an athlete chooses can play into the level of success an athlete experiences. But before I explain the relationship between an athlete and his or her level of success, lets be clear that a sports number will not compensate for missing athletic skills and talents, add height to a vertical jump, or cut time off of a 40 yard dash. What having a favorite number can do, however, is give the athlete a level of comfort that helps minimize performance anxiety and increase self-confidence. Why is this important? When athletes control anxiety and increase self-confidence, more synchronized mind-body movement (muscle memory) is achieved, as well as stronger motivation, focus, and resiliency. Simply put, when you feel good you generally play well, and for some athletes this mindset begins with the number they wear when they take the field.
The placebo effect
While there is nothing magical about a favorite number, a placebo effect can occur prompting athletes to think there is more value to a number than meets the eye. When athletes believe they gain in mental strength by the identity that is created wearing their favorite number, often their mental strength improves as a result. The actual number doesn’t do anything, but the thinking that the number is powerful can actually trigger a host of positive thoughts and emotions that directly relate to athletic performance — including greater focus, motivation, and resiliency. To the untrained eye, a sports number is nothing more than a way for fans to identify players, but for athletes a uniform number creates a unique identity that can trigger a number of positive mental thoughts and emotions.
If you are a coach and can give your players choice to selecting their numbers, it’s probably a good idea to do so. While it might seem like a trivial concession, athletes who are proud of the number on their back will often play to their highest abilities as a result of their comfort and confidence provided from the number and identity. Yes, sports numbers can really help athletes with comfort, confidence, and ultimately playing their best.