Sports Superstitions and Rituals

Rituals help, but superstitions can harm. Here's how to tell the difference.

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If you follow pro sports, you've seen sports superstitions—from playoff beards in the National Hockey League to baseball players who never wash their hats or socks. It's no wonder that young athletes follow the pros' lead and develop their own superstitions, like always carrying a particular water bottle or wearing the same t-shirt under their uniform jersey.

Responding to a child's superstition can be tricky.

You want your child to feel confident and relaxed when he competes. If wearing the same socks to every game gives him a mental boost, no harm done, right? But you also want him to be able to believe in his own abilities, and not melt down if, say, those all-important socks accidentally get washed or (oh no!) lost.

Where Sports Superstitions Come From

"Kids often develop superstitions in an effort to create consistency in performances and feel as though there is something they can control each time they compete," says Kacey Oiness, PhD, a sport and performance psychologist with St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis, Indiana. If a game or performance goes well, kids (and certainly, adults too) will look back at what they wore, said, or did that day. They start to believe that if they can recreate the conditions, they will recreate their success.

"A superstition has no connection to outcomes, and superstitious behaviors can do more harm than good if a child ends up believing that it is just luck or chance that leads to their desired outcomes," says Sari Shepphird, PhD, a sports and high performance psychologist based in Calabasas, California.

"That line of thought does very little to increase a sense of competence and efficacy, or reinforce effort."

Encourage Rituals Instead of Superstitions

That's why both Dr. Oiness and Dr. Shepphird say performance rituals and routines are a different, and better, choice for athletes. "Be cautious about allowing an athlete to depend on superstitious behaviors," says Dr. Oiness.

"Flexibility is key: if an athlete is unable to perform an aspect of their performance routine or engage in a superstitious behavior, it is important for them to learn to refocus on things that are within their control moving forward. When an athlete has difficulty moving past the idea that they have to engage in a superstitious behavior, that is when it can become harmful."

In contrast, healthy sports rituals can "increase focus, reduce stress, and help an athlete 'get in the moment,'" says Dr. Shepphird. "They are actually a very important part of the mental side of sports and can help manage sports anxiety and improve sports performance."

Create a Performance Routine

To develop a healthy, helpful pre-game ritual, kids need to "identify things that are within their control that can contribute to success," says Dr. Oiness. She suggests incorporating healthy behaviors, like getting enough sleep and eating healthy foods. It's also useful to include "mental skills that lead to greater levels of confidence and an ability to maintain composure (i.e. positive self-talk, relaxation strategies, visualization)," says Dr. Oiness.

Many athletes use a cue behavior to kick off the performance routine, Dr. Shepphird explains.

"When an athlete is getting set for their task (stepping up to the mound, preparing to take a shot, waiting for the starting gun), it can be very helpful to use a cue behavior to signal the mind that it is time to clear out all other thoughts and focus solely on the task at hand," she says. "For some that might be touching the brim of their cap, or refastening the Velcro of their glove. Those cue behaviors can be the start of a very short but very important chain. For example, take two practice swings, then touch the brim of your cap: This is your signal to get ready and focused; eliminate all other thoughts about mechanics or anxieties about outcome.

Take two deep breaths to relax the muscles and mind and think of nothing else but the ball."

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