Mental X’s and O’s: Why Superstitions are Counterproductive

“Not that I give a fuck about football or about your superstitions, but if it’s me reading the signs, I don’t send the Eagles guy whose personal motto is ‘Excelsior’ to a fucking Giants game, especially when he’s already in a legal situation.” –Tiffany, Silver Linings Playbook

Sports fans are notoriously superstitious. We make sure we have our lucky socks, we rub our rabbit’s foot, and we sit in the same spot on the couch. Deep down we know we are being ridiculous, but we Keep. Doing. Them. Because what if the one time we don’t do them we lose? Knowing that we didn’t do our part for our team is unacceptable. And because they totally work. Totally.

We use superstitions because we are trying to exert some form of control over something that is completely out of our hands. It helps us cope with feeling helpless over something we care deeply about. Dr. Daniel Wann and his colleagues conducted one of the few research studies on fan superstitions and found that fans truly believed their superstitions to influence (at least minimally) the outcome of the competition. We could get into a whole discussion of correlation and causation here, but I’ll save that for a different day.

Athletes do this too. I once worked with a baseball player who told me his batting average would probably go up this week because the team was wearing their blues and he always got good numbers when they wore blue. I said skeptically, “You will hit well because of a color?” He looked at me and said, “Well, it sounds dumb when you put it like that.” We both laughed about it, and it eventually turned into a conversation about feeling confident and being prepared. Because when you boil it down, superstitions are not helpful and can really get in the way of sport performance. It is easy to focus too much on whether or not we laced our shoes in the “correct” order, so much so that we forget to focus on the actual task at hand. Coaches and commentators love to throw out the adage “control the controllables” but we rarely take a look at what that actually means. A player can control what shorts he wears or the order in which he clips his pads, but is that useful?

What is more productive, and something I help my athletes develop all the time, are pre-competition routines. What’s the difference between a superstition and a routine? A superstition is a behavior that is believed to lead to a desired outcome- if I wear the jersey I wore when we won last week, I will increase our chances of winning this week. Routines on the other hand, are a consistent method of preparation to ensure readiness to perform. Routines are directly related to the outcome of a skill and do not have the same “magical” qualities superstitions do (because as much as I don’t want to admit it, the t-shirt I choose to wear in my living room has zero bearing on the outcome at FedEx Field). In other words, routines focus on performance (the thing we have control over), and superstitions focus on outcome (the thing we don’t have control over). It’s not about the destination, it’s the journey.

Often, people associate routines with what are known as “closed sports”- there is an obvious beginning and end to the skills (think golf, diving, running, etc.). Football, like most sports that involve a ball, is an “open sport” meaning it is dynamic and unpredictable and your play is at least in part a response to an opponent. Players must be as prepared as possible to execute their game plans while still being able to adapt and respond to what the defense does. This makes for a challenging environment in which to implement routines, but it can still be done. The trick is to find the small moments to insert them, and if necessary, creating a routine that is flexible enough to respond to different circumstances (like how your ball handling might change with the weather).

Routines in football are often brief, and can be planned for before a play, in between plays, or after the whistle. Some players might need a routine they perform only during commercial time-outs so they can stay focused or manage their energy during the break. Still others might have a more extensive recovery routine for after every practice and game. For example, Matt Ryan has talked previously about his (some would say goofy) pre-game warm up that he does to activate the muscles in his shoulders.

The important thing is that routines must be practiced to be effective, so they don’t work if you only do them during games. For example: a wide receiver might have a pre-play routine to adjust his gloves as he jogs to the line of scrimmage to remind him to have soft hands. When he gets to the line of scrimmage he might say something to himself to regulate his arousal levels or control his emotions (a perfect example is Laurie Hernandez mouthing the words “I got this” right before her beam routine at the Olympics) then when he gets into his stance he repeats the play call and runs the route in his head to re-focus on the appropriate cues. So the routine becomes: gloves, arousal statement, imagine the route, listen for the count. Routines like this are great because they are simple, but not rigid, so they can work for any play. I help athletes work through each part of the routine so it is specific and meaningful to them. It might have different components, or they might imagine different things- athletes can be pretty creative and come up with stuff I would have never have thought of.

Routines help us to be consistent, regardless of the situation. Whenever we are in a situation of increased stress- a playoff game, running a two minute drill, playing a rival- routines can help players stay focused. Routines remind us that we throw the ball the same way every single time, that how we tackle doesn’t change, and we read coverage just like we’ve done before. Routines can help us separate the skill from the situation so we can perform consistently even when the stakes are at their highest.

But just in case, Excelsior.

Leah Washington, PhD, ATC is a certified athletic trainer and a sport psychology consultant. She has worked with athletes of all ages, from youth to professional, on improving their mental game and specializes in working with injured athletes. She is a life-long fan of the Washington Football Team, so if you want to get her anything for Hanukkah, a Doug Williams jersey will do just fine.