Tyler, the owner of American Made Strength, asked my “opinions on the topics of superstitions and warm-up routines.” I understand their utility but there’s better ways of doing things, if a superstition turns problematic. Believing a ritual or special object has control over performance or a game outcome places faith somewhere other than skill, strategy, personal qualities, or fitness. You lend power to something potentially game-irrelevant.
Superstitions give a sense of control over an outcome you can’t control or predict (Damisch, Stoberock, & Mussweiler, 2010). You’re realistically unable to forecast your or another team’s performance, the quality of coaching on either side, or how officials will call a game. Superstitious rituals are especially relied upon when a game’s results are personally important or we’re concerned about potential outcomes (Ohtsuka, 2016). We rarely rely on superstitions when results are guaranteed, we’re sure about the outcome, and confident in our skills.
Rituals aren’t limited to the time before a game. They may surround specific situations or our execution of certain skills. Superstitions employed around in-game events (e.g. rushes, shootouts, penalty shots) may boost confidence in the skills necessary to succeed (Damisch, Stoberock, & Mussweiler, 2010). The relative ease of the task we’re about to perform factors into reliance on superstitions (Ohtsuka, 2016). For example, superstitions often occur around batting and pitching, but rarely before throwing to a base. The ease of throwing from one base to another and trust in our skill is greater relative to batting or pitching, although both are challenging tasks for the average person (Ohtsuka, 2016). If we have the skill to perform, what makes superstitions appealing?
***If you’re not interested in the theory stuff, hit ‘Page Down’ to scroll to the ‘How do I fix it?’ stuff
Ritual use is part to do with our being intuitive thinkers (Shleifer, 2012). We rely on two avenues of thought in information processing and decision making – fast System 1 thinking and slower System 2 thinking (thought is likely more complicated than a two-tier system but this well fleshed-out model fits our purposes). Fast thinking, which does produce errors, had functionality in our survival as a species and still works for us today. System 1 thinking:
-Uses cause-effect linking to help us make sense of the world (Ohtsuka, 2016)
-Inclines us not to tempt fate (Ohtsuka, 2016)
-Is nonstatistical (Shleifer, 2012)
-Jumps to catastrophic outcomes easily (Ohtsuka, 2016)
-Answers questions quickly through associations and resemblances (Shleifer, 2012)
-Is gullible (Shleifer, 2012)
-Uses a black and white perspective (Ohtsuka, 2016)
-Employs snap judgements (e.g. is fairly automatic, unconscious, and effortless [Shleifer, 2012; Ohtsuka, 2016])
-Heuristic or stereotypical (Shleifer, 2012)
For clarity, a stereotype is an idea or belief we apply to every like thing or member of a group. For example: I ate a mushroom with a red cap when I was foraging and got sick, so every mushroom with red on it is poisonous; I got snowed by someone on H.K. Insulation’s team, therefore they’re all assholes.
System 2 thinking, according to Shleifer (2012), is:
-Requires effort, time, and energy
This means it’s biologically costly
System 2 thinking typically kicks in when something is ‘sent up’ from System 1. We might feel the need for conscious attention and effort to analyze what’s in front of us or to ‘check our work’ (Shleifer, 2012). To combat superstitions and replace them with more productive routines, you’ll need to use S2 often. While we’re capable of higher-level thinking, we don’t always question and ‘pass things up’ to System 2 due to the ease and low cost of buying back in to our System 1 superstitious thinking. Ease is a key word.
***Here you go
If it’s easy to imagine a bad thing happening, it’s hard to ignore the superstition. We know the energy cost of superstitious thinking is low, but so is the relative cost of indulging a superstition. You engage in low-cost behaviors as added protection against the high cost of an undesirable outcome – like a loss (Ohtsuka, 2016). For example, the effort involved in eating the exact same foods and putting gear on in precisely the same way is much lower than the emotional, monetary, status, relational, or opportunity cost of loss. To refresh and summarize, superstitions aren’t only appealing because of their low cost – they also give comfort and feelings of control over the unknown or uncontrollable. Buying into and using superstitions may sound harmless but there’s a downside.
Rituals are inflexible preparation programs that may or may not contain superstitious components which don’t objectively impact performance (Taylor & Wilson, 2005). Not completing some piece of the ritual often creates feelings that performance will suffer and is out of our control. When we can’t perform a ritualized routine, our performance may suffer for: lack of confidence in our skills, lower perceptions of control over the situation, negative or defeating thinking about game outcomes, and the belief ‘mystic’ forces won’t work for us. When we identify a superstition’s purpose, we’re able to employ targeted pre-performance routines.
Identifying the purpose of a superstition helps with deciding what skills to acquire or build. If the ritual is in place to ensure game outcomes, you might develop skills to help focus on the present, what’s controllable, maintain an optimistic outlook, and redirect outcome or negative ‘what if’ thinking toward:
-What encourages trust in your abilities
-Skills you’ll use
-Ways you’ll support or help your team
-Ensuring you’re physically and mentally prepared
If it’s a ‘I don’t play well without it’ superstition, you may choose to:
-Find ways to trust your abilities
-Identify what skills you’ll execute and when/how to play certain situations
-Find ways to support or help your team
-Identify what part of performance you’re concerned about and how you’ll achieve success
-Ensuring you’re physically and mentally prepared
It may help to ask, ‘have I, in the past, performed well without engaging in superstitious behaviors or after missing something I usually do for a superstitious purpose?’ Occasionally, a stat sheet helps with this question. Realistically, the most you’re able to do is recognize what you’re capable of doing in the present to achieve the greatest chance at success and prime yourself to execute those skills. To do this, we curb thinking about outcomes and organize pre-performance routines.
Ideally, a pre-performance routine (PPR) will provide the same sense of trust in your abilities and influence over uncertain situations as a ritual. Employing PPRs improved performance in a number of sports (Phelps & Kulinna, 2015). When you organize a pre-performance routine, it will ideally prime you to perform skills necessary to your sport. Pending your needs, this may mean developing skills to:
-Clear your mind of irrelevant thoughts
-Manage emotions concerning the upcoming performance
-Reassure confidence in skills relevant to what you’re about to do
-Focus on skill-specific reminders
-Imagine a successful performance just prior to execution
One study pointed to an important consideration when implementing a PPR – the possibility of a performance decrement while practicing the routine in place of a superstitious behavior (Foster & Weigand, 2006). While most studies show an improvement (Phelps & Kulinna, 2015), be sure a routine suits your needs and you’ve got adequate time to practice until your performance is at or above the level prior to making a change. You might find this approach helpful or get bang-for-your-buck out of learning how to accept the situation, center yourself, and trust your skills – an ACT approach (Vealey, Low, Peirce, & Quinones-Paredes, 2014). A commonality between pre-performance routines, the ACT approach, and even aspects of confidence-building, is developing trust in your skills.
When you build a PPR, be patient and mindful of confirmation biases. It’s tempting to compare present performances – especially if they’re worse – to past successes using superstitious thinking. Before giving up too soon, track your statistics and work with your coach to gather data in order to make accurate comparisons. Allow your first attempt at a pre-performance routine to be a learning experience. If your PPR helps but doesn’t get you where you want to be, find out what worked and what needs changing, then try again. Eventually, your pre-performance routine composed of productive thinking and habits will become second nature, less effortful, and produce desired results.
Exercise caution with pregame routines, so you don’t create an ‘I can’t perform without these exact requirements met’ mentality – this is the difference between a routine and a ritual. When you create a routine, ensure everything has a purpose – getting you optimally ready to perform (Taylor & Wilson, 2005). Understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, so you can meet your needs in multiple ways in case the situation calls for a change to what’s typical (e.g. limited space or time, lack of facilities, different equipment, lost items). A routine allows flexibility and ensures you’re prepared to perform – you do things that meet your physical, mental, and nutritional needs with an allowance for realistic variability. You may feel some nerves about executing your routine differently – this can be perfectly normal. If that’s the case, some of the above questions about trusting your abilities and focusing on what you can do will apply well. Have an awareness about if your thoughts becomes catastrophic when some part of your routine is missed – this may mean it’s taking on a ritualistic turn.
In organizing a routine, each piece is purposeful, prepares you for performance and, ideally, you have a lot of familiarity with performing it or variations of it. This creates a sense of normalcy for you in a new or stressful context (e.g. new league, new arena, playoffs away or at home) (Red book). Having flexibility with routines for challenging or less-than-optimal settings empowers you to add to your bag of tricks as a goalie, so to speak. Initiating a well-practiced preperformance routine over time helps trigger the ideal intensity and mindset to begin building (blue book). Or, in those less-than-optimal situations, help pull you nearer a place where you’re optimally ready to perform by executing behaviors that tend to create that desired result. It may help to plan low-risk days where you practice a ‘oh, no!’ scenario and do what’s minimally necessary to cross off the ‘mentally ready’ and ‘physically ready’ boxes. Or, less risky, recognize days when something wasn’t exactly right and you still did well or used your versatility and creativity to make what you had work – but don’t make a habit out of it! Sometimes it helps to ask: “If I’m used to warming up a specific way, but can’t because of equipment, space, or some other factor, what desired or necessary result am I hoping for and can it be achieved another way?”
Focus on finding an effective routine and using accurate performance assessment to justify its use. Hopefully, understanding why superstitions are appealing and knowing there’s other solutions will help you be a more efficient and self-assured athlete. Find resources on organizing pre-performance routines by reading about other athlete’s experiences, using some self-analysis, contacting a mental skills coach, or exploring what’s available on the Association for Applied Sport Psychology website.
Damisch, L., Stoberock, B., & Mussweiler, T. (2010). Keep your fingers crossed!: How superstition improves performance. Psychological Science, 21, 1014-1020.
Foster, D.J., & Weigand, D.A. (2006). The effect of removing superstitious behavior and introducing a pre-performance routine on basketball free-throw performance. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 18, 167-171.
Phelps, A., Kulinna, P. (2015). Pre-performance routines followed by free throw shooting accuracy in secondary basketball players Biomedical Human Kinetics, 7, 171-176.
Vealey, R.S., Low, W., Pierce, S., & Quinones-Paredes, D. (2014). Choking in Sport: ACT on it! Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 5, 156-169.