The power of superstitions and rituals in sports

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Hannah Woodrich, Staff reporter

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Michael Jordan, a former American basketball player, played 15 seasons in the National Basketball Association (NBA) for the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards. For years, researchers have been trying to come up with why his NBA seasons held such spectacular performances. Throughout Jordan’s professional career, he wore two pairs of shorts during games. Beneath his Chicago Bulls uniform shorts, he also wore the blue University North Carolina shorts from college. Certain researchers have reached consensus that Jordan truly believed and held a superstition that his college shorts brought him good luck and confidence to enhance his performance. Along with Jordan, hundreds of other athletes believe that performing these rituals and superstitions bring luck to their games, many claiming that it makes them play better. Serena Williams, a professional tennis player, wears the same pair of socks throughout a single tournament run. Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins MVP, wears one sweat-stained hat per season after games and practices and puts his equipment on in the same order from right to left. Aidan Hughes, a sophomore at OPHS, said, “I believe in athletic superstitions because it helps athletes get focused. I have to tie my right skate before my left skate. If I don’t, I don’t play as well. I have a better in-game performance.” However, some athletes have never tried or believed in such superstitions. James Agnew, a business teacher at OPHS, said, “I do not and definitely did not believe in athletic superstitions.” For some strange reason, superstitions sometimes get a bad rap, whether they are believed in or not, because they seem childlike. It is rare to hear someone publicly credit a superstition or ritual for helping him or her succeed. Dr. Paul van Lange, a professor of psychology at VU University Amsterdam, says that superstitions and rituals serve as a sort of psychological placebo. A 2010 research group at the University of Cologne in Germany, instructed 151 students to bring a lucky item to a memory task. Half of the students left the item up front, and the other half brought the item with them to their desk while they completed the task. The results showed that the students who brought a lucky item did perform better. The research was then analyzed to find that the performance was explained by the increase in self-efficacy, which is an individual’s belief in his or her innate ability to achieve goals. Players have their ways of avoiding bad luck. All seem like strange, inconsequential beliefs, but research shows that superstitions can actually be linked with improved performance. George Gmelch, a professor of anthropology at University of San Francisco, has studied superstition for decades.  He says that superstition tends to be more prevalent in areas of uncertainty. “What they are really doing is giving themselves confidence. If I do these rituals, then I’m going to feel confident going into this activity, and I can succeed and do well,” said Gmelch. So, the question that arises is, do these superstitions actually bring luck or is it a matter of a psychological belief in an individual’s mind?  The answer may never be known.

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