Sporting Superstitions

Athletes and fans alike practice superstitions — but why?


Samson Chan

Field hockey player Lily Gover (‘24) wears her lucky Union Jack HocSocx (under-shin guard covers) beneath her socks in every game, a superstition she’s maintained for three high school seasons.

Michael Jordan wore his University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC) practice shorts under his Chicago Bulls National Basketball Association (NBA) uniform shorts for every professional basketball game he played during his career; Serena Williams always bounced a tennis ball five times preceding her first serve and twice before her second; and Tiger Woods sported a red polo and black pants every Sunday for golf matches ever since he began to play professionally in 1996.

Lily Gover (‘24) has worn and will continue to wear her lucky Union Jack HocSocx (under-shin guard covers) in every high school field hockey game; Grace Dabir (‘24) never fails to sleep in her green American Taekwondo Association pajama pants the night before a tournament; and Luke Seltzer (‘23) listens to mostly rap and house music on the team playlist before every basketball game to bring his energy level up.

Many athletes at every level practice certain superstitions before, and sometimes even during, games to trick their brains into advancing their athletic performances. Similarly, many sports fans practice a number of bizarre rituals in an attempt to guide their teams to victory. But why do athletes and fans have superstitions in the first place, and is following them an emotionally healthy practice to sustain?

Honors Psychology teacher and volleyball coach Ms. Karri Woods defined “superstition” as a case in which someone believes there to be a contingency between one action and another result.

Let’s say a basketball player taps their left foot twice before every free throw. Whenever they do make the hoop, an internal belief that tapping their foot has something to do with a positive result is reinforced.

“In psychology, there’s something called operant conditioning,” Ms. Woods explained, “which is the idea that certain behaviors are reinforced when followed by a reward.” For example, if an athlete were to non-intentionally wear mismatched socks in a game against a hard opponent, but their team happened to win; the athlete may feel some sort of satisfaction with the extra “luck” that came from their choice of clothing and may wear mismatched socks more frequently in future games. 

For most people, these superstitions “give you a confidence boost,” Adelaide Kessler (‘25) said. While there’s no scientific evidence proving that wearing your lucky socks during your game will help you score a hat trick, “superstitious rituals can have a calming effect and help you feel like you are better able to face a particular challenge or stressful situation,” Ms. Woods shared.

Simplistically, the mental block is often what athletes need to overcome before performing their best during the game. Superstitions can help athletes get in the zone faster, by providing a little bit of extra comfort.

But it’s not only athletes that hold these superstitions. Reports show that sports fans practice similar habits, sometimes even at a more extreme level. Ms. Shana M. Wilson, who received her Masters of Arts in the Department of Psychology at Western Kentucky University, explained in her 2011 report, “The Relationship between Superstitious Behaviors of Sports Fans, Team Identification, Team Location, and Game Outcome,” published by Western Kentucky University, that the uncertainty in sports because of the element of chance adds to the anxiety for a sports fan.

While athletes are in control of their own actions — such as how they pass the ball, how they make the shot, etc. — fans watch the games as an outsider, with zero control. Superstitions, for fans especially, can provide peace of mind. 

On the night of Game 6 of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians — now known as the Cleveland Guardians — my mother made our family a certain dinner. And after a successful nine-to-three victory for the Cubs that night, my mother prepared the same meal before Game 7. After a stressful rain delay, the Cubs won the World Series in 2016 for the first time since 1907. While I don’t believe that our family meal was the deciding factor that led the Cubs to victory, I won’t argue against the fact that it could’ve helped. At least a little.

But when superstitions are no longer just fun and games, and instead are something more seriously relied upon, are they actually healthy to sustain? 

“I don’t think they have to be inherently bad,” Ms. Woods answered, “But I think superstitions can become unhealthy if they cause you to underestimate your own skill and agency.” In other words, your confidence in your own ability should outshine your need to use a superstition or a similar practice.

Ms. Woods advised athletes to be aware of the definition of superstitions and their limits. If an athlete simply enjoys having a ritual and routine that gives them confidence, then there’s no harm in wanting to do your hair in a certain style before a big game. But once it becomes “debilitating and distressing” — such as if an athlete physically cannot get themselves to play in a game if they don’t have their lucky item or didn’t complete their lucky ritual — that’s where superstitions can be of concern.

The sports community has always been one of blood, sweat, and tears, but it’s also one of laughter, love, and celebration. While many of us involved in sports have superstitions for the love of the game, in hopes of giving our team a better chance at victory; it’s important to always stay cautious of the extent to which we rely on these silly little practices and not let them restrict us from performing at our highest levels.