Anyone who’s ever watched a sports game has probably seen athletes performing their ritual movements before competing, or heard about other rituals in the sporting world, for example a tennis player who has a lucky pair of socks that they wear for every game or the poker player who watches emotional TV shows before every game.
Those who aren’t superstitious might think that this is meaningless, but although they can often seem a bit strange and sometimes downright silly to onlookers, superstitions in sports and competitions could actually be more valuable to the athletes and competitors than we think. Are sporting rituals actually helping athletes to win?
What Are Rituals?
A ritual is a certain action or behaviour which many players believe can somehow influence their performance, usually for the better. Many athletes have these seemingly strange rituals, such as Michael Phelps who listens to Michael Jackson before each race, and poker player Sammy Farha, who always plays with an unlit cigarette in his mouth despite being a non-smoker. Rituals in sports are widely varied, and can range from the clothes that athletes wear to the foods that they eat or the music they listen to. Some rituals are quite common amongst athletes, such as wearing lucky underwear or listening to a certain type of music before a game, whilst others can be a little more outlandish.
How Rituals Develop
When an athlete performs particularly well or badly in a game, they are likely to go over the events running up to their performance to recap and try and establish some sort of cause and effect. This often means that they will notice small things, such as what they ate or wore, or how their hair was styled. Rituals develop when an athlete associates something minor with a big win, for example professional cyclist Laura Trott, who was wearing one wet sock when she won the Junior World Championships, so now makes sure to step on a wet towel before she races.
The Power of Rituals
So, how do rituals actually help athletes to win? Do they even work at all? Researchers have found that athletes who tend to attribute their own success to themselves, rather than external influences, are less likely to use superstition or rituals. Many athletes who stick to rituals may often be more likely to feel that the outcome of a game, competition or race is unpredictable, and use the ritual in order to feel that they are more in control of their own performance. This can often effect the way in which the athlete views and thinks about their whole performance.
Rituals and Mindset
For those of us watching on the outside, an athlete performing a seemingly ridiculous ritual before they compete may be hard to understand. However, these rituals can actually affect the way in which the athlete performs, by motivating them to be more determined, play harder, and give it their all. Because they have performed their ‘lucky’ ritual, the athlete is more likely to go into the game with a winner’s attitude, believing that they can achieve it.
Rituals may seem like just a silly superstition, but they could actually be helping athletes to win by enabling them to be more positive, determined, and confident about being the winner.