It's Not A Hoax: Superstition in Sports

We’ve all been there. Watching a game we’re emotionally invested in: game on the line, a few plays/seconds/moments left, our thoughts racing about how we’ve got to make a string of plays for us to win. Although you’re just watching the game, what do you do? Tap on your table? Reverse your hat? Stay perfectly still and don’t move from your spot even though you really need to pee? What about any of these from a Bud Light commercial?


Anything to help your team win right?


How about those weird routines that pro sports players do? Before shooting a free throw? Pre game rituals? Tennis pro Rafa Nadal’s routines? (There are a lot, especially before each and every serve)



All of these rituals athletes perform can be bucketed into the topic of Superstition. We know the common ones: black cats, 13th floors, walking under ladders, opening umbrellas indoors, etc., but how do superstitions play a part sports? Athletes aren't casting negative mojo upon themselves. Superstitions are a part of their psychological routine.


For example, did you know Michael Jordan wore his old blue University of North Carolina shorts underneath his NBA uniform, for good luck? What about Serena Williams admitting wearing the same pair of socks for an entire tournament? How about Tiger Woods wearing a red shirt during Tournaments on Sundays?


The idea of superstitions is closely tied to the concept of self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is to believe in your own capabilities to organize and execute the courses of actions required to manage prospective situations— aka an individual belief of your ability to succeed in a particular situation. The more confidence you have, the more self-efficacy you have. To increase your confidence, people often turn to superstitions. Rituals, good luck charms, saying a prayer—they all inspire confidence and an increase in self-efficacy, which in turn leads to better performance.


While this full research paper is fascinating, here are four TL;DR ways superstition affects performance and the science to prove it:


1. Believe something is lucky

  • Participants were asked to putt a ball (at least 80% of them believed in good luck)

  • Outcome: Participants performed better when told they were playing with a lucky ball

2. Make sure your words of encouragement follows a commonly known superstitious phrase

  • Participants were instructed to place balls into holes by carefully tilting a cube in different directions

  • Experiment group: was told “I press the thumbs for you” (which is the German equivalent of the expression “I keep my fingers crossed”) right before starting the task

  • Outcome: Participants in the experimental group performed the task faster than other control groups, one of which the phrasing of the statement was a little off. Interestingly the performance between the two control groups were not significantly different, indicating you have to get a superstition just right for it to be effective

3. Have a lucky charm


In 2014 NBA lottery, Celtics Co-owner Steve Pagliuca wore a tie that had a leprechaun on it given to him by Celtics legend Red Auerbach in 2002 when Pagliuca bought the team

  • Participants were asked to bring a personal lucky charm with them

  • Outcome: Those who had a lucky charm performed better than those who did not. Also those who had their lucky charm had a higher self-reported self-efficacy rating from the survey they took just before the memory task, indicating the lucky charm already started to positively influence the confidence of a participant, even before beginning the task

4. Superstitions increase your personal goal settings


Sharpshooter Ray Allen was a routine machine. His rituals, organization, patterns were discipline and calculated

  • An anagram task was given and participants were told “Please set a goal. What percentage of all possible word solutions do you want to detect in the following task?”

  • Outcome: The question revealed that those who had their lucky charms set higher goals than those whose lucky charms had been removed. Increased levels of self-efficacy from activating a superstition lead to not only a higher set of goals, but also a greater persistence on a task

To summarize, superstitions had better performance in various motor and cognitive tasks compared to those without a superstition. Also, activating a good luck superstition led to improved performance as well as an increase in an individual’s belief to master a task.

We often think of superstitions as negative, causing some kind of bad omen; however, there are many positive aspects as well. Superstitions are a form of irrationality and often we think of irrationality as something negative. But irrationality isn’t all that bad, it can actually help you in various ways, including increasing your own confidence which is important in sports.


So next time you’re rooting for your team, make sure to knock on wood. Continue to reverse your cap if your team is down. Keep turning your bottles so the label faces the TV. You are making a difference. After all, taking some amount of credit for the win is a great feeling, no matter how irrational and superstitious you may be.

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