Wade Boggs ate chicken. Wayne Gretzky put his pads on in a particular order. Jason Giambi wore a gold thong to break out of hitting slumps. All professional athletes seem to have their own strange belief system. Some rituals are more unusual than others – Boggs also took batting practice at 5:17, ran sprints at 7:17, and drew the Hebrew word "Chai," meaning life, in the dirt before each at-bat – but they all serve the same purpose. According to psychologists, externalizing concerns about luck gets athletes to focus on what is actually within their power.
"Rituals are helpful in structuring athletes and helping them to prepare for competition," says Dr. William Wiener, a New York-based sports psychologist who consults with professional athletes.
Mental routines are often as important as physical routines like stretching and can keep serious competitors from overthinking the job at hand. Most athletes, after all, are performing fairly uncomplicated tasks at an extremely high level.
"It insulates them from a lot of their own obsessive thoughts and from thinking about their nerves and what's at stake in a given competition," Dr. Wiener says. "It's more adaptive to focus on a certain procedure for tying your shoes than it is to focus on the implications of a possible loss in a given tennis match."
Dr. Jonathan Katz, another sports psychologist with high-achieving clientele, cites Rafael Nadal's apparent need to carefully reposition water bottles prior to each match as an effective routine, because it makes low-stakes and high-stakes matches seem similar and doesn't require much energy or distract from tennis.
"It gives him a sense of comfort and control," says Katz. "And it doesn't get in the way. Lining up a water bottle doesn't really take any more time than just throwing the bottle to the ground."
Dr. Katz posits that the element of routine is important in making illogical and unrelated rituals into effective pre-game programs and notes that superstitious deviations from routine can be hazardous. When baseball players refuse to sit near or talk to a pitcher during a no-hitter, for instance, they are changing the game dynamic of their team.
"In a regular game, the pitcher was pitching still very well and had given up some hits or some runs; there'd be interaction," Dr. Katz says. "All of a sudden now, he's pitching well, and they change the whole routine. So I actually think it's counterintuitive."
The key, Dr. Katz explains, is to focus on repetition without becoming obsessive-compulsive about certain behaviors. Some psychologists believe that OCD is particularly common in athletes, who have to be somewhat obsessive to excel at their sports and beat their competition. A culture of superstition can both help this – by providing structure – and lead toward an increasing reliance on ritualized behavior. Great athletes decide to partake of rituals and, in making that decision, prepare themselves for battle.
What this means for serious amateurs is that there is no shame in manufacturing a superstition and allowing it to take hold. Forcing yourself to, say, pull on both your ears while hopping up and down will seem ridiculous at first, but it may help get you focused on the game or match about to start. It won't be long until your ritual becomes an important part of your pregame preparation.