Why so Many Athletes Have Superstitions and Rituals

The power of the mind helps explain some crazy sports superstitions and rituals

Female luge athlete preparing for race

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We've all seen athletes performing ritual movements before the competition and have heard stories about the baseball player with his lucky socks or the hockey player with his favorite stick. To the onlooker, it may seem silly and strange, but in sports, superstition and ritual are widespread and fairly common practice. In fact, for some players, these patterns may actually influence their success on the field.

The Power of Rituals in Sports

A ritual is a certain behavior or action that an athlete performs with the belief that these behaviors have a specific purpose, or power, to influence their performance. Many athletes believe that performing a specific ritual before competition improves their performance. These rituals range from the clothes they wear to the foods they eat or drink; the warm-up they perform or even the music they listen to.

The Power of Superstition in Sports

Superstition is generally something that is initially developed in hindsight, almost by accident and then required in future events. A superstition arises when an athlete has a particularly good (or bad) performance and then tries to establish "cause and effect" by reviewing the facts of the day. They will notice things like what they ate or wore and they'll notice anything unusual that happened such as getting a haircut, receiving a gift or hearing a certain song. If they have a great performance they attribute their success to that unusual circumstance and attempt to recreate it before every competition.

The Value of Superstition and Ritual in Sports

When you consider what it takes for an athlete to develop the skill and ability to excel at a given sport, it's not hard to see how any ritual or superstition could develop. And really, what's the difference between a ritual and a physical movement pattern? Learning any new skill—whether throwing a baseball, skiing down an icy mountain or learning to ride a bike—requires the development of new neural pathways and new patterns of muscle contraction, agility, and coordination. Because rituals often take on physical movement patterns, some could be created as a part of hours upon hours of physical practice.

Perhaps the major difference between a ritual and a sports skill is that a ritual often happens prior to competition, so it may or may not directly affect the sport as it's being played. Still, the ritual does impact the belief system of the athlete, and this belief stays with the athlete during the game.

One key finding of researchers who study superstition in sports has to do with how an athlete explains their success and failure. Those athletes who have a strong internal locus of control (they believe they are responsible for their performance) have fewer superstitions than athletes who attribute their success and failures to external influences. For athletes who feel the outcome of a competition is unpredictable, superstitions provide a way for an athlete to gain a bit more control.

Perhaps the real value in all athletic superstition and ritual is this boost of confidence and the sense of control that they provide an athlete. If you believe that doing a specific action or behavior will make you perform better, then you probably will perform better. This is the foundation of sports psychology. Many athletes use rituals such as visualization or guided imagery, to recreate a particularly successful race and experience the feelings they had then as though they are happening now. This recall and visualization prepare them both mentally and physically for competition. ​

3 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Williams SE, Cooley SJ, Newell E, Weibull F, Cumming J. Seeing the Difference: Developing Effective Imagery Scripts for AthletesJ Sport Psychol Action. 2013;4(2):109-121. doi:10.1080/21520704.2013.781560

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.