How superstition in sports illustrates who we are

Whether you follow football, soccer, basketball, tennis or hockey, superstition plays an important part in sports, as both athletes and supporters attempt to give themselves and their team’s good luck with certain rituals.

In hockey, for instance, growing a beard during the playoffs and shaving it only when the team is eliminated, or tapping the goalie’s shin pads before a game, are two rituals that are supposed to ensure success for the team. In general, these beliefs come from past experiences. During soccer championship games, especially the Champion’s League or the World Cup, the players should not touch the trophy when entering the field as, in the past, the teams whose players touched the trophy prior to the game were not crowned champions.

Oftentimes, these traditions emerge from the local cultures. Rugby players from the New-Zealand national team perform a dance, the haka, before every game. For them, this tribe dance, originally performed during celebrations and before going to war, scares their opponent while giving them good luck.

When watching these rituals, I couldn’t quite understand how they were supposed to work, nor why the athletes and fans stick to them. It turns out that these practices are beneficial regardless of whether or not they bring good luck. First, they give self-confidence to the players. Since players have to deal with constant pressure during games, the rituals can make them feel unbreakable, because they think fate is on their side. Psychologically, this gives them the belief that they can accomplish anything, and motivates them for the game. For the fans, these traditions are rooted in the spirit of the team, and they bring supporters together, forging a larger and more dynamic community. For both athletes and fans, superstitions show an attempt to control what happens in the game, especially how the other team plays. The will for such control, however, goes beyond the world of sports.

Since the beginning of time, humans have wanted to assert their control over nature and events that do not depend on them. At first, the Greeks and Romans created a utilitarian religion in which they revered the gods only because the gods could be in their favor. Nowadays we attempt to control every aspect of our lives, from setting alarm clocks and regulating our sleeping time to building dams to modify the progression of rivers. In fact, the idea of not being in control scares us, as we don’t know what to expect. As a result, some of us will attempt to dominate nature, while others will turn to religion in order counteract this feeling of insecurity.

When you look deeper into it, superstitions in sports are more than just rituals bringing luck. They provide self-confidence through a feeling of control for a player, which in turn allows him to play at his best.

by Alexandre B.