Some athletes will wear the same pair of underwear to their deathbed. Others would rather chop off a leg than put their shoes on in the wrong order. There are lucky-charm wearers, backwards-sock worriers, colour fetishists and devotees of the number eight. Everyone who is closely, or even slightly, interested in elite sports will have witnessed these little rituals that the upper echelons of sport perform to call in some good fortune. And you can’t help but notice that some of them are also very accomplished at this little game. I mean, real experts!
For example, ice hockey player Sidney Crosby, centre for the Pittsburgh Penguins (NHL), never calls his mother on the day of a game – he did it once and lost two teeth in the match that followed. Moreover, when they have to travel by bus, he lifts his feet up as they drive over train tracks. Legendary football coach Giovanni Trapattoni would never start a match until he had splashed a heavy dose of holy water on the pitch. Rio Ferdinand, the former Manchester United captain, was also, by his own admission, ruled by a litany of rituals. He always jumped over the touchline before setting foot on the pitch, and never wore underwear on game days. His counterpart at Chelsea, John Terry, didn’t replace his shin guards for more than twelve years.
Tics and tocks
Are these isolated cases? Not really, according to sports psychologist Manon Eluère, who is a researcher at the ENS Rennes and co-authored a fascinating study on the question*. “Elite athletes do in fact have a higher-than-average dose of superstition”, she confirms. “Studies carried out in the 1980s and 1990s show, furthermore, that the number of superstitious rituals increases with the level of competition”. A recourse that springs from the incompressible unpredictability inherent to the sport. Athletes’ propensity to fall back on rituals can be explained by their need to bridle uncertainty and anxious, or even risky, situations. Professional sport lends itself even more so to this, because as the level rises, so do the stakes. And even though victory depends mostly on intrinsic qualities and technical skill, there is always an element of the randomness of chance that you can’t control and that you want to contain.
And where the quest for mastery is concerned, there is one athlete who is a textbook case unto himself: Rafael Nadal. The undisputed king of clay courts is as well known for the immutable rituals he subjects himself to during every match as he is for his powerful forehand. Systematically arranging his hair before each serve, checking the height of his socks, lining up his water bottles “at [his] feet, in front of [his] chair to [his] left, one behind the other, diagonally facing the court”, as he describes it himself. Nothing is left to chance. Even the number of times he bounces the ball before serving. Here, our psychologist steps in: “If Nadal bounces the ball sixteen times and not fifteen, it’s not necessarily based on superstition. It’s more of a pre-performance routine. The main purpose of all this is to tighten his focus, though obviously, it can seem a bit quirky.”
The Mallorcan agrees 100% with this interpretation. In a video published last year by MAPFRE, the insurance company that sponsors him, the King of Clay explained: “Human beings need routines and the safety of repeating the same things. I’m very organised with the things I think are really important. My routine before each tennis match is exactly the same. I try to repeat them exactly every day. It gives me confidence and peace of mind to know that things are going well for me, or at least that I am doing everything possible to make sure that things go well.” After 20 Grand Slam victories, including 13 at Roland Garros, his recipe for success seems to be working perfectly (even if the connection between having his water bottle lined up perpendicular to his chair and maintaining an optimal level of focus might seem tenuous, to say the least).
If certain rituals have entered the annals as classics in superstition – putting on your right sock before your left, wearing a good-luck charm, etc. – and work on a more intimate level, it’s interesting to note that education can also play an important role in their elaboration. Manon Eluère came to this conclusion while studying the members of a professional women’s volleyball team. “Here, the ritual that struck me the most was without doubt one used by a Brazilian player. The colour red had special powers for this player. She carried this belief from her childhood. When she was little, her mother would give her a piece of red string whenever she got the hiccups. She would rub the thread between her fingers and then stick it to her forehead to cure the hiccups. The colour has maintained its hold over her ever since and, at the beginning of each season, she would stock up on red bras, pants and charms. She was really convinced of its power – to her it was quite clear.”
Another conclusion the psychologist reached was that the athlete’s nationality also plays an important role in how they view superstition. “The cultural link between the players we followed and their position regarding superstition was very strong. There was a certain distance between the French women and the rituals they adhered to. They were aware that their actions weren’t completely rational, and tended to look at it as something that was basically amusing.” A lucidity that their American counterparts clearly did not share. “They refused to consider their rituals as superstitious. For them, only hard work gives results and it was difficult to talk about luck. Consequently, in their view, everything was linked to the rational need to establish a mental routine. They really didn’t grasp the irrational nature of some of their habits. For example, one of the players told me she always wore the same headband when she played. One day, she had worn a different one and lost. She never wore it again. But she nonetheless insisted that she wasn’t superstitious.”
“This clearly pervasive denial among the American players can also be explained by the fact that the line between superstitious ritual and pre-performance routine is often rather fine”, as Manon Eluère explains. The general public doesn’t seem to be as susceptible to this type of confusion. According to a CSA survey carried out in 2014, 23% of French people recognise that they are superstitious. And thinking about the phenomenon doesn’t necessarily make you immune. “When I played volleyball myself, I had my little rituals, things that I still do in everyday life”, the psychologist admits. “For example, I always put my right sock on before my left and, if I forget, I am perfectly capable of untying my laces and starting again. To be honest, doing this study only reinforced my own rituals and I even added a few new ones.” From that to reading this article and deciding to wear the same underwear every match day is a single, small step.