Will superstitions help Olympians get to the podium during London 2012?Reported by Metro.co.uk on Monday, 23 July 2012 (on July 23, 2012)
*Harder, faster, stronger, more superstitious? Metro asks if rituals before their event in the Olympics Games will help athletes bring home a gold medal.*
Tiger Woods wore his traditional red for the final round of The Open on Sunday, but it didn't do him any good (Picture: Getty)
‘When you believe in things that you don't understand, then you suffer.’
Although Stevie Wonder wasn’t talking about the Olympic Games when he wrote one of his most famous songs, those words will no doubt resonate with many athletes who will endure pain in the pursuit of what may seem like an impossible goal.
Thousands of left socks will be put on first over the next few weeks as the world’s top sportsmen and women strive to take every advantage they can to make it on to the podium.
But does an odd routine help competitors into the right frame of mind or is Mr Wonder right when he says, ‘superstition ain’t the way’?
When British tennis player Heather Watson recently made her way into the third round at Wimbledon, much was made of her admission she had eaten eggs and smoked salmon for breakfast on each day of the championship – the press (and the public) appeared to find it too much of a stretch that a Briton could progress in a Grand Slam on sheer ability alone.
Obviously, it was Watson’s tennis skills that got her through her first two matches, but if a tasty morning routine gave her an extra psychological boost before taking to the court, then why not embrace it?
However, it prompted sports psychologist Dr Victor Thompson to warn that when taken to extremes, superstitions could be harmful to a sports person’s performance as it eventually can become a distraction.
Dr Richard Stephens, senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University, agrees.
‘If an athlete became over-focused on their superstition rather than their sports performance, then that could be detrimental,’ he told Metro.
‘And if they came to rely on their lucky whatever and then were prevented from using it then that could be bad.’
However, Dr Stephens believe superstitions have their place in sporting arenas.
‘Sport is about ability but there is also a strong psychological component that needs to be managed,’ he said.
‘We just saw the golfer Adam Scott enter the final round of the the Open with a comfortable lead but then nerves got the better of him.
‘So if superstitions help with self-belief then it is a good idea for sports people to employ helpful superstitions.’
But Andrew Lane, professor of sport psychology at the University of Wolverhampton, thinks athletes should steer clear of them altogether.
‘Anyone can develop irrational beliefs that performance is predetermined when it is not,’ he said.
‘Many superstitions do not have rationale basis. I am not a fan of superstitions and would suggest to the athlete that he or she should challenge the basis for the superstition.’
Prof Lane has designed an experiment alongside the BBC and former 200m and 400m Olympic champion Michael Johnson to examine what it takes to perform under pressure.
He said athletes should focus on the factors which influence performance and help them manage their emotions.
‘Performance is a combination of skills, physical preparation and psychological readiness,’ he said.
‘If you have the necessary ability, are trained physically, then you have a chance. However, performance on the day is often about getting it right mentally. Performance in sport can be about managing unwanted emotions that usurp your thinking.’
He said routines can help manage nerves but that it may lead to ‘some odd behaviours’ and that the sheer scope of the Games may have an effect.
‘In the pressure cooker that can be Olympic competition, an athlete might be influenced by ideas that doing X or doing Y will be helpful, even if there is no logical basis for this behaviour. Deep down, people know that there are no such things as lucky socks, for instance.’
Dr Stephens likens some athletes’ propensity for superstition to the famous experiment involving Pavlov’s dogs.
‘We can transpose this example on to a sports person’s superstition such as a javelin thrower with a lucky pair of socks,’ he said.
‘There is probably no relationship between socks and javelin throwing. Once the association is made and the thrower always wears their socks in competition, the association will continue even though there will be days when they perform poorly in their lucky socks.’
He said previous studies had showed that people will increase their performance levels if they are told a golf ball is lucky or if they are in possession of a lucky charm.
‘This research shows not only that superstition works, but also that it appears to do so by increasing individuals' self-belief or confidence.
‘Perhaps the bottom line is that if a superstition has zero cost but some potential benefit, however small, then why not use it?’
Don’t be surprised to see some particularly ragged looking pairs of socks on display during the Olympics. Although perhaps not in the swimming pool.
Weightlifter Zoe Smith, 18, who will compete at the London Games for Great Britain, has a musical pre-lift ritual. She listens to the song, All The Small Things, by Blink 182, before each event
Basketball superstar – and double Olympic gold medallist – Michael Jordan wore his old University of North Carolina shorts under his Chicago Bulls pair in NBA games. The superstition made him ask for longer Bulls shorts, thus sparking a new trend across the game
Jordan isn’t the only NBA basketball star to have a shorts fascination. Jason Terry, who has just signed for the Boston Celtics, wears the shorts of his team’s opponents in bed the night before the game. His wife isn’t a fan. ‘Nah, she doesn’t like it,’ said Terry. ‘But hey, it works for me. Got a lot of wins.’
Golfer Tiger Woods always wears red on the final day of a tournament – a superstition that has seen him win 14 majors. Why does he do it? Because his mother told him to. ‘I wear red on Sundays because my mom thinks that that's my power colour and you know you should always listen to your mom,’ he explained
During the football world cup in France in 1998, French defender Laurent Blanc kissed the bald head of his goalkeeper Fabien Barthez before each game. France won the tournament
Links: Full news story
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