What are Superstitions?
A superstition, according to Websters, is “a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary.” In simpler, sports performance terminology superstitions are those quirky, odd, ritualistic things athletes do in order to play their best (Sports Success 360). Examples of athletic superstitions found in sport psychology literature include wearing the same piece of clothing under a uniform, dressing the same way before every game, eating the same type of food on a game day, or reading a specific inspirational passage. Many athletes are superstitious, but the big question remains: Do superstitions actually help with mental toughness??
Superstitions and the Placebo Effect
The placebo effect is a scientific term that describes what happens when a patient heals from a medical condition not because of the treatment itself, but because of the belief of the treatment. For example, if your doctor told you to rub a piece of tree bark for 2 minutes a day to help with your torn ACL – and your ACL actually started to seemingly heal faster – even though it might seem like the tree bark rubbing caused this healing to occur, its far more likely that your personal belief that rubbing tree bark actually helped in the healing and your improved sports performance, not the tree bark itself. Another example is when a doctor gives a patient a sugar pill but tells the patient the pill is real – many times patients get better a lot faster, but obviously the sugar pill does not cause this healing, but instead the belief that the pill will help is really what causes the change (or the change could have been caused by something entirely different – like the ACL simply healing over time).
So back to sports for a moment – does wearing the same t-shirt under your uniform really help you play better? Actually, if you believe that it does, then it probably does! When you believe a ritual you do helps you play better, what happens is your mind becomes more focused and relaxed, you begin to concentrate on appropriate things, and ultimately your mind and body begin to work together in synchrony – allowing you to play at an optimal level.
Never underestimate the value of belief! Doctors are well aware at how powerful belief is, and how crucial belief is when it comes to healing. If you have certain safe rituals you believe in and do not cause problems to you or any of your teammates, I would encourage you to continue to do them. Comfort and confidence are big pieces when it comes to athletic success, and often superstitions help with both issues.
• Take a close look at the things you do before games – chances are you already have some superstitions. If you feel your current superstitions helps you with focus and confidence then keep doing what you are doing.
• Superstitions can be very simple procedures and do not have to be lengthy or complex. Simply putting your uniform on the same way every time might be enough to help you feel confident before you go out to compete.
• Be flexible with your routines and plan for times where things might not go as planned. For example, there might be a time where you only have a few minutes to get ready before a game, prohibiting you from going through your entire routine. No problem, take a deep breath and remind yourself belief is what you need before you go out there – and you can still believe in yourself even without completing a superstition.