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Does superstition actually help athletes perform better?

Does superstition actually help athletes perform better?

4 min read
  • Sport psychology

Superstitions are everywhere in sport. Many athletes have a specific routine before every game, or believe that a certain piece of clothing is lucky.

They can take the form of a team ritual, such as all growing beards until their team is eliminated, or individual, where someone has their own set of practices they have to do before or during a game.

But do superstitions actually have an impact on athlete performance? Are they actually a bad thing? Or do they have no effect at all? Let’s have a look…

What are superstitions in sports?

Superstitions are irrational beliefs that link a behaviour to the outcome of an event. In sports, they are based only on past luck. If something worked in the past before a competition, it’s easy to think you will have good luck using it again and again, until it doesn’t work anymore.

Some of the world’s best athletes carry out superstitious behaviours. For example, Serena Williams is known for following her own set of superstitions, which include bringing her shower sandals to the court, bouncing the ball five times before her first serve and twice before her second, and tying her shoelaces a specific way. The three-time Wimbledon champ will even wear the same pair of unwashed socks throughout a tournament.

Are superstitions helpful to performance?

Although they may seem silly, research has found benefits for performers when carrying out their superstitious behaviours – mainly because of the effect they have on an athlete’s own expectations of what is going to happen. Let’s take a look at these surprising results…

Boost self-efficacy and confidence

Research shows that carrying out superstitions can improve performance. Activating a superstition boosts self-efficacy – meaning, it makes you feel confident to master upcoming tasks. The research also found that the increased self-efficacy from superstitions not only improved performance, but also lead to an increase in task persistence.

Reduce stress and anxiety for some athletes

Carrying out superstitious behaviours can reduce anxiety, allowing the performer to become calmer and more poised, and therefore able to perform better.

Gives an illusion of control

When competing, many factors that are out of our control may arise, which can lead to nerves and feeling anxious. For athletes, following a ritual or doing a superstition may help them feel more in control, which can ultimately reduce stress and ease any feelings of helplessness, helping them to perform better.

However, this can also go the opposite way and, instead of the athlete feeling in control, they are actually being controlled by the superstitious behaviour.

So, it does seem as though superstitions can provide useful benefits for athletes. However, it is important to note that research has suggested that these benefits of superstitious behaviours can be put down to the Placebo Effect. Essentially, because athletes believe that carrying out these behaviours will lead to success, it reduces their anxiety and boosts their confidence.

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Can superstitions be detrimental to athletes?

Sometimes, following a superstition or ritual can escalate towards an obsession. This is when they become unhelpful and lead to negative consequences. Rather than helping the performer, it can get in the way, leading to adverse effects.

When a performer believes that they have to carry out their superstitious behaviour otherwise something bad will happen is where it becomes detrimental. The superstition is now controlling them rather than helping them in any sort of way.

How to ensure your superstition doesn’t become detrimental

Superstitions are fine when they are light-hearted and an athlete knows that even if they can’t carry them out, they will still be fine.

To stop it getting out of hand, athletes should try focusing their behaviours on things they can control and that they know are effective for helping their performance.

This is where pre-performance routines come in.

What is a pre-performance routine?

Pre-performance routines can be defined as a pre-arranged sequence of thoughts and/or actions that help the athlete to control their thoughts, emotions and behaviour before a competition. They can include certain behaviours such as practicing your golf swing, or cognitive components such as imagery.

Pre-performance routines are different to superstitious behaviours as the athlete is in control of the pre-performance routine, rather than feeling controlled by the superstition.  Additionally, where being unable to carry out a superstitious behaviour will cause the athlete stress, this isn’t the case for a pre-performance routine.

What can coaches do about superstitions?

Research suggests it is important for coaches who want to limit the impact of superstitions on their athletes to use these five strategies:

  1. Identify whether an athlete is using superstitions or pre-performance routines.
  2. Recognise if the superstition is harmful.
  3. Replace harmful superstitions with pre-performance routines. Evidence has found that replacing superstitious behaviours with pre-performance routines has resulted in at least the same level of performance
  4. Remember that not all superstitious behaviours are detrimental. Research has found very little difference in performance between superstitious behaviours and pre-performance routines.
  5. Educate yourself and seek help from sport psychologists with these things.

It is also important for coaches to pay attention to what athletes attribute their success to: the hard work they have put in, or luck and chance?

Final thoughts

Superstitions are not a bad thing, as long as athletes have them under control. A pre-performance routine may be more helpful than a superstitious behaviour or ritual, particularly if you see your athletes become heavily controlled by superstitions.

It’s also important to remind your athletes to focus on themselves, and the hard work they have put in which will lead them to success, rather than a lucky pair of socks.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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