Serena Williams, unquestionably one of the greatest female tennis players of all time, wears the same pair of socks throughout an entire tournament. She ties her shoes a specific way, and she bounces the ball exactly five times before her first serve and twice before her second. Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky always shot his first shot in warm-ups wide to the right of the net. He drank a Diet Coke, a glass of ice water, a Gatorade, and another Diet Coke before every game, in that order. Finally, he would apply baby powder to the end of his stick before stepping on the ice. Many great athletes have a surplus of seemingly outrageous superstitions and pre-game rituals. For some athletes, the rituals are much less extensive, but even so, many of these athletes feel that these rituals and superstitions, if not done, will significantly affect their game.

I spoke to some of our Varsity Blues athletes about their own superstitions and pre-game rituals and came across some practices that would give Gretzky competition.

Second-year Varsity Blues women’s soccer goalkeeper Vanna Staggolis took me through her pre-game routine. She explained that before every match, she puts her right cleat on before her left and repeats the practice for her gloves.

“It’s just the way I’ve always done it ever since I can remember,” Staggolis said. “I feel like I’ll suffer the consequences if I were to rearrange the order.”

She continued to explain that before the first whistle is blown, she will jump and touch the crossbar of her net. “This just gets me fired up and ready to face whatever I’m up against,” she said.

Laura Krkachovski, fifth-year defender and captain of the women’s soccer team, explained that she unties and then re-ties her shoes three or four times throughout the game. This happens once before warm-up, a second time before she steps out for the starting lineup, a third before the huddle, and finally at half time. When asked what might happen if she forgot any one of the ties, her eyes widened. Laughing, she said, “It’s in my head… I have to.”

Why mess with a good thing? Those are exactly the sentiments of men’s soccer players Devon Bowyer and Nikola Stakic. With the team currently in second place and with only one loss, we can safely say that this is a talented group of athletes — but is there something more to this team’s’ success?

Fifth-year defender and co-captain Bowyer described what he feels has contributed to some of his success. Before the start of each game, he has a special handshake that he does with his teammate and fellow defender David Colelli. After the handshake, he says a prayer that he explained started in his first year playing with the Blues.

His teammate and second-year centre back Stakic explained that, before each game, he eats two pieces of toast with breaded chicken, salad with tomatoes, and feta cheese and always one red gala apple. Stakic also said that he showers before every game, saying, “I feel like if you feel good and you look good, than you play good.”

We asked Stakic what he thinks would happen if he were to miss or forget one of these rituals. He said, “It just gets into my head and I feel like I’m not in the right mindset to play because I’ve been doing it for so long, so I have to do it.” Finally, before the start of the game, he sprints from his centre back position to the top of the 18-yard box and jumps for a header. He then does three hops on the goal-line before he is ready to play.

According to a research study from 2010 by Lysann Damisch, Barara Stoberock, and Thomas Mussweiler, superstitions and rituals can actually bolster performance. Even though most superstitions and rituals may seem completely irrational and unconnected to performance, athletes rely on them for a sense of control over the outcomes of the competition and their own performance.

Athletes condition themselves to believe that objects or behaviours that have no rational influence on their success have a tremendous impact on their performance.

So, back to the question of whether superstitions and pre-game rituals actually do improve performance: some might be surprised to know that evidence shows that superstitions do, in fact, enhance performance by increasing confidence and self-efficacy.

Having a lucky charm or superstition results in athletes setting higher goals and increases their belief in their own ability, resulting in improved performance. In more direct terms, it is the psychological benefit of the superstition or ritual that improves performance, not the object or ritual itself.

So go ahead  and carry a rabbit’s foot, wear your lucky headband, and never wash your winning jersey because, in the end, it may just work.

Stay up to date. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, sent straight to your inbox:

* indicates required