“Look at the ball. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Back one step, two steps, and three steps. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Left once. Left twice. Darn. Looked up. Look at the ball, don’t look up…”
We’ve all seen the pre-kick ritual. Watched the player at the foul line bounce once, twice. Watched the golfer look and wiggle and look and wiggle. Many of us have heard the yell, “Mom! Where’s my lucky hat?” We have our own quirks at Disco Sports.
Where is the line between ritual and superstition? Coaches and sports psychologists have long believed in the importance of a ritual and visualizing a goal. Much of it helps to build and maintain a particular technique. A good practice swing.
A study of collegiate athletes in the NCAA found a couple of interesting things:
- Athletes in individual sports (golf, swimming) had a higher belief in superstition influencing results than team athletes.
- Female athletes were more influenced than male athletes.
- Gymnasts used more superstitious rituals than football players.
A different study of Canadian collegiate athletes found variations in the rituals by sport:
- Hockey players focused on equipment.
- Basketball players on action like sinking the last warm-up shot.
- Volleyball players on food.
- Swimmers on the color of a suit.
Maybe it’s Tiger Woods and his red Sunday shirt. Maybe it’s Brian Wilson and his beard. Superstition certainly makes the leap to the pros. Tiger and Brian aren’t alone.
Kevin Rhomberg of the Cleveland Indians would only turn left. He also had to touch anyone who touched him. If he was tagged out he would return to the base to touch the player that tagged him.
Jason Terry of the Dallas Mavericks took a page from Michael Jordan, who famously wore his North Carolina shorts under his Bulls gear. Except that Terry sleeps in the shorts of his opponent’s team before each game. At least they were clean. Steve Kline, a pitcher for the Cardinals would pick a hat, and wear it for every game. One hat, all season, no washing allowed.
Sometimes it’s food. Brian Urlacher started each game day with 2 chocolate chip cookies. Never one, never three. LSU Coach Les Miles also has a pre-game ritual meal. He chomps down on a piece of turf. Keeps him connected to the game. Does he have to floss after Astroturf? Wade Boggs was famous for his chicken dinners.
Boggs was also famous for his punctuality. He always took batting practice at 5:17 and ran sprints at 7:17. He must have been an influence on slugger Larry Walker. Walker played for the Rockies, Expos, and Cardinals. Every batting practice? 3 hits and a rest. 3 swings before every at-bat. He always set his alarm for 33 minutes past the hour, got married on November 3rd at 3:33 p.m., bought tickets for charities in blocks of 33 seats in section 33, and requested a salary of $3,333,333.33.
The Kindred Soul Award goes to the duo of Turk Wendell and Mark Fidrych. Both right handed pitchers, both fan favorites, both superstitious. Both were notorious hand-shakers, and both had an aversion to the foul line, leaping over it going to and from the dugout. Fidrych started each inning by carefully grooming the mound and talking to his baseball, while Wendell ended each by brushing his teeth. Wendell made a fashion statement with a necklace made from the teeth of animals that he’d killed, while Fidrych made his with a mane of unruly hair that earned him the nickname “Bird”, as in Big Bird. Fidrych liked to take a victory lap around the mound with every strikeout, while Wendell kept his eyes on his catcher. If his catcher stood, he would squat. When the catcher went back to his squat, Wendell would stand. This dance continued into the dugout and the clubhouse. Musical Bullpen Chairs, anyone?
Superstition isn’t limited to baseball or basketball.
Patrick Roy of the Montreal Canadiens was one of the best goalkeepers of all time. It all started with his goal. He would start at middle ice, skate backwards to the goal, and whip around at the last minute. He liked to scare the goal into submission. He thought that they would shrink in fear. Like, physically get smaller. He wasn’t without respect, though. He would frequently talk to the goal, offer encouragement, and thank the posts for deflections and protecting him.
I wonder if he played against Bruce Gardiner of the Ottawa Senators? Early in his career, Gardiner was having trouble putting the puck in the net. A veteran player suggested that he was perhaps too nice to his stick. “Go dunk it in the toilet. Show it who’s boss!” He did, he scored, and for the rest of his career took his equipment to the lavatory before hitting the ice.
If you’re a life-long Redskins fan, there are probably some players and seasons that you’d like to forget. Do you remember journeyman punter Reggie Roby? Not the fastest release, not the best hang-time. The Redskins were one stop in a career that sent him all over the league. Why do we remember him? He always wore a watch. Always.