Why superstitions help athletes perform better
In his acclaimed book The Game, Hall of Fame NHL goaltender Ken Dryden described some of the various superstitions he picked up over the years, from nodding at a particular Montreal Forum usherette before home games to shooting a puck off a certain part of the boards at the start of pregame warm-ups. "I don't tell anyone about them, I'm not proud I have them, I know I should be strong enough to decide one morning, any morning, no longer to be a prisoner to them," he wrote. "Yet I seem helpless to do anything about it."
Sports are full of superstitions, from athletes who perform a specific routine before every game to ones who consider certain items to be lucky or unlucky. Hockey, especially, is rife with these sorts of baubles and rituals, especially in the playoffs, when players grow beards until their team is eliminated and often refuse to touch the trophies awarded to the conference champions. In addition to these broad, widely agreed-upon rituals, individual players have their own idiosyncratic practices: Corey Perry, the star winger of the Anaheim Ducks, has an eight-step ritual he goes through before every game that includes twirling his stick a certain way and tapping the ice before going into the locker room to put his pads on. Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins' two-time MVP, has a number of superstitions as well, from wearing one sweat-stained hat per season after games and practices to putting his equipment on in the same order (always right-to-left). Hockey history is filled with such things: During the later part of his career, Hall of Fame goalie Glenn Hall made himself throw up before every game (Hall of Fame basketball center Bill Russell did the same thing), and fellow Hall of Fame net-minder Patrick Roy used to talk to the goalposts behind him.
These all may seem like strange, inconsequential beliefs, but research shows that superstitions can actually be linked with improved performance — in short, because they grant players a psychologically important illusion of control over events that often come down to random bounces here and there.
George Gmelch, a professor of anthropology at the University of San Francisco who has studied superstition in baseball for decades, says that superstition indeed tends to be more prevalent in areas where there's a lot of uncertainty — a big test in school, a job interview, or a first date, for example. And so sports — in which every night brings a new competition to be won or lost — are a natural incubator for them. "What they're really doing is giving themselves confidence," says Gmelch. "If I do these little rituals, then I'm gonna feel confident going into this activity, and I can succeed and do well."
Dr. Paul van Lange, a professor of psychology at VU University Amsterdam, is the co-author of a paper called "The Psychological Benefits of Superstitious Rituals in Top Sport: A Study Among Top Sportspersons," published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2006. Among other things, that study found that commitment to rituals is greater for especially important games, like a league's finals or even playoffs in general. Over email, he explained that these rituals serve as a sort of psychological placebo. "They help people cope with uncertain outcomes in the future, especially if these outcomes are important to them," says van Lange. The paper van Lange co-authored contends that this can be beneficial to the athlete. "Our argument is that they strengthen feelings of control and confidence that may otherwise be lacking," says van Lange.
A 2010 article published in Psychological Science found that this perception of increased self-efficacy, as researchers call it, can apparently lead to real-world increased performance. Researchers used a series of experiments to show that activating good-luck superstitions improved performance in tasks like putting a golf ball, and that those performance benefits were, in fact, the result of increased confidence.
Van Lange also points to a 1986 experiment in which rituals carried out just before taking a free throw during a basketball game appeared to have a positive influence on subsequent performance. "Rituals 'work,'" he says, "because the person believes in them and expects this." Indeed, that 1986 study found that there was only an effect if the person believed there would be. In other words, if a random player is told to tug on his or her ear before the shot, it wouldn't have any effect, but to players who consider that action to be good luck, the ritual could really make a difference.
Deep down, athletes generally understand that certain actions don't really affect the outcome of a game. But once the idea that these actions might affect their performance is lodged in their heads, they may choose to do them anyway, because there's little downside. "They often know that superstitious rituals are 'not rational,' but since on a top level the differences are so small, they think they cannot afford to take the risk to abandon the superstition," says Dr. Michaéla Schippers, an associate professor of leadership and management at Erasmus University's Rotterdam School of Management and van Lange's co-author on the paper on sports rituals. "In my research, I found that these rituals have a tension-regulating function," she says over email.
In that regard, Gmelch finds a non-sports parallel. "There's no cost to doing these things," he says. "A lot of people who don't believe in God nonetheless will pray when they're really in a crisis, because there's no cost to doing it. It takes seconds to do it."