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Very Superstitious: Are Athletes Who Believe More Successful?

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Very Superstitious: Are Athletes Who Believe More Successful?

The power of lucky charms and performance rituals can’t be denied. It seems to work for some of the most successful athletes. But does it actually work?

Does your son listen to the same motivational Spice Girls song before every soccer match (though he’d be embarrassed for life if any of his friends found it on his playlist!)? Does he panic when his beloved stuffed tiger is nowhere to be found in his hockey bag before a crucial game?

Superstition is powerful

Superstition is a powerful force in sports—not only for kids and weekend warriors, but also for the most gifted professional and Olympic athletes. Even a casual observer of any Stanley Cup final hockey game will spot the magic: full facial hair (except on the few follicly challenged players) that makes them look like strangely dressed Neanderthals.

Famously superstitious

Famously superstitious athletes abound: Tiger Woods always wears red on Sundays, the most crucial day of a golf tournament; Serena Williams once wore the same socks throughout an entire Wimbledon tennis tournament; and Michael Jordan always wore the same old blue University of North Carolina shorts underneath his National Basketball Association uniform (which started the trend toward longer basketball shorts).

Superstitious Olympians

According to a New York Daily News report, there are many Olympic athletes sporting their own version of magical thinking and good luck charms. A US gymnast makes sure to pack his pink and blue dinosaur with its scratched-out eye and stitched on tail. Michael Phelps, the swimming phenomenon, removes his headphones and swings his arms exactly three times just before he steps on the starting block. And a British field hockey player insisted that her teammate stop straightening her hair for fear it would jinx their game-winning streak.

Magical thinking helps us take control

Magical thinking, or superstition, plays a role whenever people feel challenged and not in complete control of a particular situation. We tell actors to “break a leg” before a performance. We knock on wood when we want to invoke continued good luck after accidentally spouting off on our current run of good fortune.

Though superstitious thinking may not directly affect outcomes, the rituals and beliefs themselves produce an illusion of control and bolster self-confidence. This, in turn, can improve performance and indirectly affect our fate.

Research and the “lucky ball”

Plenty of research has examined this theory, including a study at the University of Cologne in Germany. Participants on a putting green who were told they were playing with a “lucky ball” sank 6.4 putts out of 10, nearly two more putts, on average, than those who weren’t told the ball was lucky—a 35 percent improvement. In another test by the researchers, subjects performed better on memory and word games when armed with a lucky charm.

Let the Spice Girls do their magic

So if listening to the Spice Girls works for your son, let him rock—and don’t worry! Just remember that Patrick Roy, one of the greatest goaltenders in hockey, talked to his goalposts between periods to thank them for keeping the puck out of the net. “They are my friends,” he said.

Think positive for life

Positive thinking doesn’t just work in athletics. It can also influence our lives in general. Read more about the power we have over our own state of mind in these articles:

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