Superstition in sport

The reason behind good luck charms

Superstition in sport

Ever notice when hockey players in the playoffs grow their beards until their team is eliminated? Or how many teams refuse to touch the trophies awarded to the conference champions? Do these kinds of rituals and traditions actually make a difference on game day?

Many of these habits can seem bizarre and even embarrassing. Yet for many players, these  rituals play a large role in their success on the field.              

In sports, a ritual is a certain action that an athlete performs because they believe it has the power to influence their game in a positive way. These behaviours range from wearing certain clothes, to eating certain foods, to listening to particular music during pre-game warm up.

The superstition surrounding rituals arise almost accidentally: an athlete has an exceptional performance and then tries to determine which of their actions could have been the cause of their success.

Often, the things that stick out during these post-game evaluations are the little things; what they wore, what they ate, a song they heard, a conversation they had, or even the order in which they did these things.

Hall of Fame NHL goaltender Ken Dryden opens up about some of his own superstitions in his book The Game. Dryden’s personal rituals range from nodding at a particular Montreal Forum usherette before home games, to shooting a puck off a certain part of the boards at the start of pre-game warm ups.

“I don’t tell anyone about them, I’m not proud I have them. I know I should be strong enough to decide one morning, any morning, no longer to be a prisoner to them. Yet, I seem helpless to do anything about,” Dryden says.

He isn’t the only NHL superstar who engages in specific rituals before a game. Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ two-time MVP, wears one sweat-stained hat per season after games and practices putting his equipment on always in the exact same order (right-to-left).

Corey Perry, the star winger of the Anaheim Ducks, has a specific eight-step ritual he performs before every game, which includes twirling his stick a certain way and tapping the ice before going into the locker room to put his pads on.              

George Gmelch, a professor of anthropology at the University of San Francisco who has studied superstition in baseball for decades, says that superstition is very commonly found in areas where there tends to be a lot of uncertainty, where new competition brings new obstacles to overcome.

Gmelch says, “What they’re really doing is giving themselves confidence. If I do these little rituals, then I’m gonna feel confident going into this activity, and I can succeed and do well.”

This notion of self-efficacy — a person’s belief in one’s ability to succeed in specific situations — has been found to result in real world increased performance. A 2010 article published in Psychological Science discusses a number of experiments that researchers used to prove how good-luck rituals improved performance in sports. The performance benefits gained from the good-luck rituals were found to be a result of increased confidence.              

Although athletes understand that wearing a sweaty hat or growing a beard doesn’t actually affect the outcome of a game, the idea that these rituals could possibly affect their performance, or give them some good luck, is enough to convince them to do it anyway.

When it comes down to it, athletes have nothing to lose by engaging in quirky pre-game rituals, so why take the risk and ditch the old smelly hat?

‘She Talks’ about social change

“Sport is an awesome place for social change”

‘She Talks’ about social change

“We’ve come so far in some ways in the conversations that we’re having, but we haven’t in so may other ways,” said Kristine Drakich, head coach of the Blues women’s volleyball team. “There’s almost like there’s this great distance from where we’re moving ahead, but we’re not picking up from behind.”             

Drakich was one of four women from the U of T community to participate in the third installment of Hart House’s She Talks last week. She Talks rose out of the need for campus-wide conversation about issues women face in sport: sexism, misogyny, and sexualization.                 

Joining Drakich on the panel was national women’s dodgeball team member Savannah Burton, U of T masters student Alexandra Maris, and Blues rugby player Rachel Pham — all of whom have faced or fought against discriminatory and exclusionary practices in the world of sport because they are women.               

For Burton, who is Canada’s first openly trans athlete to compete internationally in a team sport, the support she received from her teammates was enough to help her overcome the fears she had about returning to sport after her transition.

“I was ready to give up on playing sports, like I was ready to give up everything,” said Burton who, after taking a year off, was unsure of her future in sport. After being approached by a friend to join a rowing team, Burton explained that participating in a sport where she was relatively unknown helped her gain the confidence necessary to return to her favourite sport — dodgeball.

“It was a horribly terrifying thing to do and the unknown was just really hard to deal with,” Burton said. “I was so relieved because I was worried about how I was going to be perceived and how people would treat me, and it was a really positive thing and kept me going to dodgeball Canada.”  

She Talks. Nyima Gyalmo/The Varsity

She Talks. Nyima Gyalmo/The Varsity

The acceptance and support Burton received from her team and sport community is a thread that was woven into every panelist’s experiences. For Pham, who has competed in a myriad of sports including field hockey, track and field, and rugby, the team aspect of sport helped her navigate some of the stigma and sexist stereotypes that are all too common for women in sport.

“Really for me what I loved so much… about sport boiled down to… the community. I am very fortunate to be on a team that is very inclusive, we are very tight” Pham said.              

For Pham, the decision to pursue sports at an intercollegiate level meant making the decision between conforming to traditional societal standards of femininity or becoming a successful, competitive athlete. “I had to make the choice of going to be able to be more socially acceptable or have a larger more muscular body, and obviously I chose to be an athlete” she said.

Rounding out the discussion, Maris, who is pursuing a masters degree from the faculty of women and gender studies at U of T, explained that in order to combat sexist practices in sport, we need to start with how women are portrayed in the media. “If there were pictures of women doing sports everywhere, I think there would be a more social acceptance of women being in sport and doing it,” she said.

Drakich followed with a comment that those at U of T need to be critical of gendered practices on campus, so that we can foster a strong and supportive sport community.

“We have to look at what we do, how critical are we of what we do, from you know recreation to intramurals to varsity” Drakich said. “What you need to have is some form of a community that you can go to, where you know your voice gets heard and that change will actually work, action will happen.”

From Varsity Blue to philanthropist

Stephanie Rudnick’s Swish for the Cure event has raised thousands for childhood cancer research

From Varsity Blue to philanthropist

Stephanie Rudnick is a former Varsity Blues basketball player who played for current U of T head coach Michele Belanger during the 1994-1999 seasons. In 1999, Rudnick was intent upon playing out her final year of eligibility wearing blue and white. She had goals to “win a National Championship, become an OUA All Star, an All Canadian, and then play pro in Israel.” Following these achievements, Rudnick planned to return to Canada and start her own basketball camp. 

Playing through several back injuries, Rudnick was named an OUA All Star in her fourth year. Before being able to check another goal off her list, Rudnick’s life took an unexpected turn. In May 1999, her father was diagnosed with stage four cancer, and passed away only two months after his diagnosis. Devastated and injured, Rudnick did not return to the Blues that fall and was forced to revise a plan that she had dedicated years of her life to fulfilling.

No pro contract, no business education, and in the midst of a devastating loss, Rudnick was left without direction. “Feeling self-defeated I cried to him about how my old plan was ruined,” Rudnick explained how she reacted when a friend asked about what she would do next.

It was only after this meeting and some serious thought that Rudnick conceptualized Elite Camps. Born out of pain, Elite Camps is one of the largest and longest running basketball organizations in Canada. Based in the GTA, Elite Camps sees more then 3,000 kids every year and is in its seventeenth year of operation.

To avoid competition with rival clubs, Rudnick explains that her first camp was launched over the holidays: “I found out that Passover was a time with no programming. I decided I would try to run my first camp at that time [to avoid competing with other camps in the GTA].”

Rudnick pursued mentorship from another camp director, joined the Ontario Camping Association, and reached out to her former Varsity Blues teammates to work at her camp. What started as one camp in Toronto soon grew into two, and now Elite Camps runs over 37 sessions in multiple cities.

Next came Swish for the Cure. “A few years after I started my business I really wanted to do something to honour [my father’s] memory,” Rudnick explained, which is how Swish for the Cure — celebrating its tenth anniversary on February 6, started. Swish for the Cure has raised over $135,000 to date for in the name of the Childhood Cancer Foundation. Rudnick explained that the event has evolved in the past ten years from a way to raise money for cancer research, to an opportunity to provide families of children with fighting cancer “a free day of fun, food and time with their family in a safe environment…[including] basketball activities, arts and crafts, carnival activities and many popular local child entertainers.” 

At the time of the first Swish for the Cure, Elite Camps was not the expansive chain of basketball camps that it is today. While Rudnick isn’t one to consider herself a philanthropist out of modesty, she would concede that philanthropy is a lot like playing basketball. Effective philanthropy fills a void in society in the same way that an effective player meets the needs of their team. It can be something small, like rebounding, or something more pronounced like accepting a leadership role.

Don’t be a dope

Part two of a series explaining the significance of doping and drug testing in sport

Don’t be a dope

For many North American athletes, whether Olympic hopefuls or professionals, collegiate athletics is the first step to a professional contract or gold medal. Shifting from amateur athletes requires an increased amount of time dedicated to more intense training regimes, and it also brings with it stricter rules: especially when it comes to doping.

Any athlete who is a member of either of the two major collegiate sporting bodies in North America, Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) or the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), is required to follow the world anti-doping code, established in 2004 by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

This code covers many different classes of substances, and perhaps most importantly, emphasizes the fact that it is the athletes themselves who are ultimately responsible to ensure that they are not violating any of its policies. If an athlete is found to have violated any part of the code, whether intentionally or not, they may face serious consequences.

So what exactly do the CIS and NCAA do in order to help educate and protect their athletes? The CIS, in conjunction with the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), have created an anti-doping program for all its athletes. The program consists of courses the athletes must take in order to be cleared to play. Each athlete’s CCES account also gives them access to further educational resources, including the Canadian Anti-Doping Program (CADP), a quick reference card on the policies in place, and the ‘prohibited list,’ taken directly from WADA’s website.

Blood doping paraphernalia. Nathan Chan/THE VARSITY

Blood doping paraphernalia. Nathan Chan/THE VARSITY

The NCAA has a similar practice in place. Each athlete must sign a consent form at the beginning of the year indicating that they understand the rules, and that they give their consent to be tested at any time. If they do not sign this form, then they are not able to play. Finally, NCAA athletes must submit a student athlete statement, which provides the NCAA with more drug use information.   

Both organizations also warn against taking any nutritional supplements due to the fact that they are poorly regulated and may contain banned substances, which could lead to violating the code for an athlete. On their websites, the CCES and NCAA provide additional resources which athletes can consult in order to determine whether or not something they are taking is classified as a banned substance or not.

Closer to home, and in addition to completing the online courses through the CCES, many Varsity Blues athletes attend anti-doping seminars during orientation week each year. This seminar is organized and run by members of the David L. MacIntosh Sport Medicine Clinic, and it serves to further inform the athletes about anti-doping policies and the potential dangers of doping. If an athlete is caught, they can face a number of consequences, including but not limited to being suspended, being stripped of their title, or being banned from competition.

In a 2013 TEDx talk at U of T Doug Richards, medical director of the David L. MacIntosh Sport Medicine Clinic, and an assistant professor in the department of kinesiology and physical education, mentioned that the culture of risk that is associated with the ‘winning at all costs’ mentality in sports can lead to using performance enhancing agents. “Look at the behaviour of athletes in respect to doping” said Richards, “they’re willing to take dangerous substances, subject themselves to potential bodily harm, they’re willing to cheat and potentially get caught and kicked out all in the name of increasing their probability that they might win.” Doping is not only a choice an athlete makes in order to increase their chances of winning, but it is also an extreme reaction to the culture within sport where winning has traditionally been the only predicator of success. 

So why do athletes dope in the first place? Well, the short answer is to increase their chances of winning. With over 284 purported doping cases in professional sport in 2014 and the recent state-sponsored Russian doping scandal, it doesn’t look like anti-doping education is as effective as it can be. It is clear that doping is a very complex issue in collegiate-level and professional sport, but the system could potentially benefit from an overhaul by changing the emphasis on the individual to focusing on the sports community to take the pressure off of winning.

Until that point, we will have to rely on information sessions and tests to commit athletes to ‘playing true.’