Wearing the same socks, having to put the right shoe on before the left, and repeating the same phrase before every game are all examples of sports superstitions. The phenomenon behind these superstitions is a psychological concept known as illusory correlation. This is when two different objects, actions, or events are viewed as having a relationship with each other, even though they actually don’t. While this concept is present in almost all areas of life, it is particularly common in athletic settings. Every time an athlete feels the need to put their right shoe on before their left or wear the same socks to every game, they are demonstrating an example of illusory correlation.
“We are primed to look for patterns to simplify our world and to feel a sense of control over our lives,” Midland Area Wellbeing Coalition Coordinator Kathy Snyder said. “Superstitions and good luck charms work to meet those needs, even if they are just a placebo.”
These correlations, or superstitions, are thought to be formed as a result of stress or anxiety. Athletic settings are highly stressful and competitive atmospheres, leading to players feeling pressure to perform well. These persistent feelings of fear can be overwhelming, and athletes can turn to using pre-game rituals or superstitions to attempt to manage them.
“As humans we are engineered to experience anxiety to deal with threat and to deal with discomfort,” Psychology teacher Claire Fries said. “We have our own mechanisms to try to manage that anxiety because it is not a fun thing to feel.”
These superstitions can occur for other reasons besides illusory correlation.
“It provides a sense of control over something related to the game which can strengthen confidence and self-efficacy, belief in their ability to accomplish a goal,” Snyder said. “For example, getting prepared for a race by eating a particular breakfast and drinking a particular amount of water can lead to a feeling of being prepared, and if they do well, they are rewarded for this preparation and are more likely to do it again. This is an operant conditioned response called positive reinforcement.”
Even the most successful athletes have incorporated superstition into their routines as a way to calm their nerves. According to Bleacher Report, when professional basketball player Michael Jordan played for The University of North Carolina basketball team, he thought the shorts he wore during those games were lucky. When he began to play in the NBA, he wore his “lucky shorts” under his uniform for all of his games. Tennis player Serena Williams is another famous athlete who performs superstitions for luck and she talks about her reliance on them in an interview with Evening Standard.
“I have too many superstitious rituals and it’s annoying. It’s like I have to do it and if I don’t then I’ll lose,” Williams said. “And I’m not losing because I didn’t play well, I lost because I didn’t tie my shoe the right way and it’s totally ridiculous because have to use the same shower, I have to use the same sandals, I have to travel with the same bags.”
These superstitions aren’t just common with professional athletes, students have also been known to practice rituals before a game, match, competition, etc. for good luck. Fries has seen examples of this during her time as a swim coach here.
“I’ve seen people kick the backstop two times, or clap, or beat their shoulders,” Fries said. “You see that all the time at swimming events and they do the same mantra every time.”
Sports superstitions aren’t always seen as a sign of good luck. There are times when if a certain action, mantra, or ritual is performed the athlete believes that it will harm their performance. Therefore they try to avoid it at all costs. Senior and varsity pommer Sienna Mattichak has her own superstitions that she tries to avoid before a competition.
“We can’t say we’re going to mess up on something because if we say that then we’re definitely going to,” Mattichak said. “Personally, I don’t like it when my shoes come untied because I kind of find that as bad luck.”
While these superstitions can be useful tools to manage stress, they can also have adverse effects on individuals. If an athlete forgets to perform a ritual, it can increase the stress that they’re feeling as they’re now worried they won’t perform as well because of it.
“I think as a concept it’s harmless,” Fries said. “However, in application, if it’s taken too intensely, I think it’s a lot more harmful than it is beneficial.”