Athletes Count on Superstition, Rituals

Marah Alindogan

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Lya Hernandez

Athletes at all levels are known for having quirky habits to help their game. A five-time MVP, NBA legend Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to six league championship titles. Surprisingly, he partially attributes his success to game shorts from his alma mater, the University of North Carolina, shorts he wore underneath his uniform during every game.

Likewise, world famous women’s tennis player Serena Williams follows a strict routine of wearing her shower sandals to the court, trying her shoes in a particular way and bouncing the ball five times before her first serve and twice before her second.

Though hard work and ability are huge factors in succeeding in sports, out-of-the-box superstitions and rituals are very much commonplace with athletes. Whitman athletes are no exception.

It is important to note that while most people use the terms superstitions and rituals interchangeably, there are also subtle differences.

“Rituals to me are simple actions that you perform in order to reinforce motor learning, such as bouncing the tennis ball or basketball a certain number of times before the act of serving or shooting a free-throw,” said senior men’s tennis player Andy Riggs. “Superstitions don’t matter very much for me, but they’ve worked at some point, and therefore are easy enough to replicate before a contest.”

While superstition originates as a belief about the significance of an idea or thing without valid knowledge or reasoning, rituals are more about controlled action. However, both provide a sense of familiarity and consistency for athletes.

Riggs, whose ritual is to always bounce the tennis ball nine times before a serve, proves that he is very much a creature of habit.

“The ball bounce was a deliberate attempt to slow down my service motion, which would speed up when I got nervous,” he said.

After winning six matches in a row in a tournament in which he forgot to bring his razor, not shaving became a huge superstition for Riggs.

“I always shave my face the night before a tournament, and then I don’t shave until I lose,” said Riggs.

For senior volleyball player Maddy Bell, watching Nike’s inspirational videos has become an important part of her pre-game routine.

“They are basically emblematic of beast mode for me,” said Bell.

One Nike video, “Rise and Shine,” especially connected with Bell.

“That is the video I always start with, and then I go from there,” she said. “It made me work really, really hard. It was beautiful and inspired me.”

These superstitions and rituals are exactly what some athletes need for that extra mental boost of confidence and power, potentially making or breaking one’s performance.

Senior women’s basketball player Meghan White, whose shoe tying before every game is ingrained in her routine, believes that it switches her mindset into game mode.

“It affects my performance in a positive way and gets me focused,” said White.

Nike’s inspirational videos have the same encouraging impact for Bell.

“They get me pumped for the match and in the right competitive frame of mind,” said Bell.

Riggs, Bell and White all agree that superstitions and rituals are very apparent amongst their teammates in some shape or form.

White observes that most of her teammates are very superstitious and ritualistic because of their obsessive tendencies.

“They are very particular with their routines and beliefs, whether it is eating an apple during the game or wearing a specific pair of socks,” said White of her teammates.

Riggs believes that tennis players as a whole are more ritualistic than superstitious, while Bell thinks that for her teammates, superstitions and rituals are more of a personal thing that everyone does. Different athletes treat superstitions and rituals differently, but they all utilize them to gain an edge.

Though athletes are most successful when they are in control, the sports they play are filled with uncertainty and thus, lack of control. For some athletes, superstitions and rituals are everything.

“It is one aspect you can control. With every game or match, you don’t know what is going to happen,” said White. “It is one piece you can hold onto.”