Many of us can’t help but worry at the thought of a Friday the 13th approaching on the calendar. That no matter what, we are destined to have bad luck that day. Or, we see a penny on the ground and stare so intently; not at the value of it, but to see if it’s heads up, or good luck. Or, if we spot a black cat, we quickly turn the other way hoping the eye contact we made with it does not bring us bad luck. These are just a few common superstitions we universally acknowledge.
As competitive athletes, we strive for perfection and do whatever it takes to prepare for optimum performance. By doing so, we create personal superstitions as part of our pre-game routines. It is without question the majority of us fall into quirky habits that we believe put us in a better position to succeed and win; and without fulfilling the custom, we will fail.
Teams have superstitions that are passed down, new ones are developed, and, as a result, a culture is established. For example, during playoff time, it is obvious when a hockey team is still competing just by their facial hair. Shaving a beard is, of course, bad luck. Each player on the football team must hit the plaque on the way out of the locker room. This, also, symbolizes team unity and good luck. And, finally, each basketball player has to make free throws before the clock ticks down to the final seconds of warm-up before the start of a game. The idea is that the team will have a better chance of winning when routines are consistent.
In addition to team superstitions, each athlete establishes pre-game rituals designed to set one up for success. For instance, a football player may suck on a piece of grass during the team stretch; a goalkeeper in soccer may have to touch each goal post before the first whistle; or a basketball player may have to lace his shoes up a particular way. This system does have its benefits, but unfortunately, it has the opportunity to become excessive and counterintuitive.
As an extremely structured and ritualized individual, I became overly focused and preoccupied with superstitions as a competitive athlete. Similar to an eating disorder, it started with very small habits, and then gradually developed more routines based on my previous performance. When I was diagnosed with anorexia my sophomore year of college at Michigan State, I still continued to compete at the collegiate level in women’s soccer. My schedule as a college athlete was organized, structured, and redundant. As a result of such rigidity, I became obsessed with my pre-game routine. The rules I had determined necessary to implement were completely irrational, but I believed they were to be followed if I had a desire to perform well.
A typical game day my sophomore year consisted of the same behaviors on repeat. Prior to reporting to the locker room two hours early, my day’s focus began with what I ate for breakfast, how long I napped after, what I consumed at our team lunch, and ended with an afternoon shower before heading over to the field house. Upon arriving to the locker room, I would put my jersey on before switching my shorts. I waited a particular amount of time before putting on my shinguards and socks, and then circled tape around my socks four times to ensure proper tightness. After the coaches came in to meet, I rushed to be the first one in the bathroom to pee before walking out to the field. Once on the field, I needed to use a specific ball for warm-up; and if I didn’t have that ball, I was sure I would not play well. With seven minutes left in warm-up, it was imperative I found a bathroom, again, to prevent having a full bladder at the start of competition.
The fact is my performance did not depend on how tight I laced my cleats, or how many times I jumped during the national anthem, or even, what ball I used to warm-up. I had trained hard and prepared physically and emotionally prior to competition, which should have been enough to give me the confidence I needed. I was far too focused on those small, intricate, unimportant details that season. The routines did affect my play; and not for the better. One of my favorite aspects of recovery was returning my junior year and eliminating every single habit. Not only did I negate such behaviors, but I made a distinct effort to never repeat the same routine twice. It was the best thing I could have ever done for my playing career.