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Do sports superstitions really work?

October 19th, 2010

My column in today’s Globe and Mail is about sports superstitions — and in particular, about a great study by German researchers showing how well they work (e.g. handing someone a golf ball and telling them that it’s a “lucky ball” makes them hit 33% more putts). I wrote it while I was at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, which allowed me to ask athletes there about their superstitions, some of which appeared in this sidebar accompanying the story:

Athletic superstitions range from the simple to the ridiculous. Here are a few that were on display at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, which wrapped up last week:

David Mathie (lawn bowls): Always plays with the price tag on his right shoe.

Erin Marie Roth (lawn bowls): Carries a poker chip with her when playing internationally.
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Catherine Dion (gymnastics): Always tightens her right grip before her left on the bars.

Then there are the major league superstitions:

Serena Williams (tennis): Doesn’t change socks during a tournament if she’s winning.

Bruce Gardiner (hockey): Dunked the blade of his stick in the Ottawa Senators locker-room toilet before games to end slumps.

Turk Wendell (baseball): Always chewed four pieces of black licorice while pitching, and brushed his teeth between each inning. Also never touched the baselines.

Jason Terry (basketball): Tries to sleep in a pair of uniform shorts belonging to next day’s opponents, wears five pairs of knee-high socks and eats chicken before every game.

Sources: Psychological Science 2010, mentalfloss.com

  1. October 19th, 2010 at 16:52 | #1

    Catherine Dion’s quirk is more of ritual, much like the small actions we all have to prepare us for the day or other events such as driving. When done out of order – combing hair before brushing teeth – something feels ‘off’.

    Bruce Gardiner’s superstition is plain nasty.

    Now about Jason Terry’s superstition: when you write he sleeps in a pair of uniform shorts belonging to the next day’s opponents, are they team shorts ordered through the NBA or shorts having belonged to an actual member of the other team? And if the latter, how did he pull that off?

  2. October 19th, 2010 at 17:03 | #2

    Should have read the article before responding; you know its a ritual. So please disregard that part :) (Or edit it out, and delete this one….)

  3. alex
    October 19th, 2010 at 21:04 | #3

    Hi Chuck — Yeah, the line between superstition and ritual can be a little fuzzy sometimes, but you’re right that Dion’s is more of a ritual (a la bouncing a basketball three times before shooting a foul shot). Superstitions should involve some form of “magical thinking.”

    As for Jason Terry, here’s his quote from Sports Illustrated in May 2006: “I sleep in the game shorts of the opposing team the night before a game. I’ve got buddies on almost every team, so I’ve collected all the shorts. I also eat the same thing before every game: a little tortellini with barbecued chicken, a glass of water and a glass of cranberry juice. Got to have it.”

  4. Phil Koop
    October 20th, 2010 at 14:17 | #4

    As usual, I can’t help sticking in my cycling contribution. Professional cyclists are fairly superstitious lot:

    1. Spill the salt? Quick! Toss some over your left shoulder.

    2. Assigned race number 13? Pin it on upside down, to empty out the bad luck. This is technically against the rules, but the practice is so common that race directors turn a blind eye.

    3. For guys who are so obsessed with weight, to the point of substituting titanium screws for steel (saves a gram or so per screw), heavy gold necklaces sure do seem common in races. These are not just bling, but good-luck charms. Casual viewers may recall Armstrong’s Texas pendant, but it’s usually a St. Christopher’s medal or similar.

    4. Daily massages are mandatory during races! OK, this is contentious, but there is at least a possibility that the benefits of massage are placebo-effect, aka magical thinking.

    5. If you ever see the peloton cross the finish line on a rainy stage, especially if there is a bunch sprint, a good third of them are crossing themselves in thanks for safe arrival. Not that religious beliefs are superstitions, but by definition they are not based in evidence, and therefore “magical” in the broad sense of the term.

    6. At the root of all these others: never talk about crashing. And if you do have to mention crashing, use elliptical language: “touch the floor”, “overcook the turn”, “rubber side down” etc.

  1. January 13th, 2011 at 01:13 | #1