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Why do athletes have superstitions?

Amazing athletes, strange superstitions
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DENISE VILLATE/THE VARSITY
DENISE VILLATE/THE VARSITY

Everyone has superstitions — those little things you find yourself repeating throughout the day, or incessantly replicating before performing specific tasks. Athletes are no strangers to this practice: to them, executing these ritualistic acts might mean the difference between winning and losing. From homegrown amateurs to world-renowned professionals, almost every athlete has superstitions or rituals that they need to perform in order to perform on game day. 

Some superstitions are simple. For example, Varsity Blues Track and Field team member Paulina Procyk always starts her day with scrambled eggs, avocado toast, and occasionally a smoothie on the morning of a race. She always gets to the race track two hours early in order to “decompress” before her warmup. 

To Procyk, it’s all about repetition. “Having some sort of ritual is comforting and reassuring that as long as you do your pre-race [routine] like normal, everything else will hopefully flow normally as well. It’s the routine of it all that helps ease the mind when pre-race jitters come around.”

While Procyk’s rituals are tame, there are many examples of well-known athletes who have superstitions that verge on absurdity. For example, His Airness — basketball legend Michael Jordan — would wear his old University of North Carolina shorts under his Chicago Bulls shorts. And, clearly, that superstition worked. 

Wayne Gretzky, often touted as the greatest hockey player of all time, had a particularly regimented routine. Gretzky’s uniform had to go on in a specific order, his warm-up shots would have to be aimed wide right, and before a game started, he would always drink a Diet Coke, a glass of ice water, Gatorade, and a second Diet Coke — precisely in that sequence. Lastly, Gretzky would completely douse the end of his stick in baby powder before hitting the ice. 

Tennis legend Serena Williams’ regimen is consistently uniform. During a competition, Williams never fails to use only one specific shower, and she ties her shoes the same specific way. While playing, the tennis superstar always bounces the ball five times prior to her first serve and twice before her second.

Quinn Carlisle, a member of the Varsity Blues Lacrosse team, thinks that it has a lot to do with stoic philosophy. “Stoics focus on their emotions, they prepare for uncertainty by thinking of ways things could go right or wrong so that if said thing happens they won’t shoot up or sink down emotionally, [instead they] remain even-keeled,” wrote Quinn. 

“The same goes for athletes, but their game is a mini version of life and they want to remain calm and focused in the heat of action. Pre- and post-game rituals give athletes one more thing that they can control, and I think that is why the more elite the athlete, the stricter you may find the ritual.”

Quinn has a couple of pre-game quirks himself. Since he’s left-handed, he always puts on the left article of clothing in a pair first. The left glove, the left sock, the left shoe  — you name it. Additionally, he always makes sure to brush his teeth immediately before playing, habitually bringing a toothbrush and tube of toothpaste to every game. 

“I have to brush my teeth and have a clean taste in my mouth,” Quinn explained. “My dad told me about this when I was younger, he said it was easier to breathe when your mouth is all clean, and I thought it made sense and have stuck with it.”

IMG Academy, an organization that describes itself as one of the world’s most advanced training and educational institutions, has a similar theory. It believes that these rituals and superstitions can be helpful for athletes, and even result in better performance. “By reducing anxiety in a high-stress situation, athletes become calmer and more poised, and, as a result, they perform better,” suggests a blog post on its website.

Believing in such superstitions can, of course, go too far. In the 1980s, an umpire had to stop a game between the New York Yankees and the Cleveland Guardians because the Yankees had been taking advantage of Cleveland’s Kevin Rhomberg. 

Rhomberg was possessed with a superstition in which he always had to touch anyone back who touched him. Yankees players had been tapping Rhomberg and running away — causing him to panic and make constant mad dashes around the field towards anyone who came in contact with him. 

Although not all athletes need to go to sleep in the opposing team’s shorts the night before a game like former NBA star Jason Terry, or wear a golden thong to break a slump like former MLB star Jason Giambi, it’s clear that such superstitions in sports can be greatly beneficial to an athlete’s play, so long as they can still function without their rituals.  

Paulina says it best: “Ultimately, I think it’s important for all athletes to always be prepared for the unexpected.”