by Mimi Winsberg, M.D.
I often joke that the endurance sports community is rife with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). OCD is defined as an anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors and rituals aimed at reducing anxiety.
Nowhere is this more manifest than in athletes' pre-race rituals and superstitions. As an important race looms, triathletes find themselves needing to eat specific foods, wear lucky clothes, look for significance in their race number, groom in particular ways (shave, paint nails, braid hair), listen to certain music, and do ritualized pre-race workouts and warm-ups. Some athletes need to carry a family photo or lucky charm on race day.
In professional sports, superstitious behaviors are pervasive, and recognized as a routine part of play. There is the famous Sports Illustrated jinx -- the notion that appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated represents the kiss of death. Teammates won’t speak to the pitcher during a no-hitter game. Michael Jordan was known to wear his blue North Carolina shorts under his Bulls uniform.
Rituals also abound. Baseball players spit in their hands. Tennis players and basketball players bounce the ball a certain number of times before serving or taking a foul shot.
Many Olympians practice pre-race rituals that range from the common such as visualization, to the bizarre. Downhill skier Lindsay Vonn rubbed her injured shin with a soft Austrian cheese prior to racing in this year’s winter games. Getting to the top of a sport clearly takes an obsessive focus, and a willingness to practice and repeat routines in a somewhat compulsive way.
Distinguishing Superstitions and Rituals
Superstitions are typically developed in hindsight. The athlete notices that he or she did something that coincided with a good result, and attributes the success in performance to the circumstances. Those circumstances then become a necessary precursor to competition. Triathlete Chris McCormack admits that his mother used to make him lasagna before soccer games, and now he must eat it before every race.
Sports with high accident and injury rates seem to elicit superstitious behaviors. The behavior alleviates the athlete’s performance anxiety or fear of injury. Several professional cyclists have refused to race with the number 13.
Rituals such as pre-race visualization or movements are encouraged by sports psychologists, as they help athletes get in the right mindset, and activate the neuromuscular system to prime the brain for competition. Used properly, they will make the athlete feel engaged, with an optimal level of arousal.
A ritualized pre-race routine lays the groundwork for a focused performance state. This is why so many elite triathletes have developed a highly choreographed set of rituals leading up to gun time.
How Rituals Work
If an athlete believes that a ritual will improve his or her performance, and that belief is reinforced over time by a series of successful experiences, the ritual then delivers a powerful boost in confidence.
Rituals function as a useful coping mechanism to deal with pre-race anxiety and the pressure to succeed. As well as preparing the athlete mentally, rituals help the athlete relax, shake feelings of self-doubt and feel confident. Confidence promotes performance.
How Superstitions Work
On race day when so many elements are out of one’s control, it helps to focus on aspects of performance that one can control. Athletes assume a sense of control from believing in the power of the superstition.
Does Luck Really Exist?
Thomas Jefferson was quoted as saying, “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”
Or, as tennis champion Jack Kramer was known to say, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”
Prepare diligently for your races, find a focused routine... and if wearing those lucky socks makes you feel on top of your game then by all means do it.
Mimi is a psychiatrist, multiple-time Kona qualifier and Endurance Corner team member. You can contact her at email@example.com. You can also learn more about Mimi in her recent athlete profile.