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Game On: Superstitions

Columns | April 22, 2019

Are the doors shut tight? Check.

Is television volume set to an even number? Check.

Is everyone seated in the exact right spot? Check.

These are the steps my family takes while getting ready to watch a Seahawks game. As absurd as this may seem, I know we’re not alone. I decided to collect some stories about the superstitions other fans follow while watching sports. There are a few common tropes —having everyone sit in the same seat or refusing to wash your jersey for the duration of the season. Others get more extreme. One of my friend’s families, a group of Patriots fans, decides to all touch the bald spot on their uncle’s head when their team is about to make a field goal attempt. Another family of 49ers fans claimed they have to stand on their coffee table during the last two minutes of the game.

Fans aren’t the only ones with strange superstitions; many famous athletes engage in similar practices. Michael Jordan used to play NBA games with his basketball shorts from UNC under his Bulls uniform. Serena Williams doesn’t change her socks during a tennis tournament. Wade Boggs would eat a chicken before every baseball game. Sports psychologists actually believe superstitions can help athletes perform better in certain instances, especially when there are aspects of luck involved. This can be attributed to an increase in self-efficacy, the belief in an individual’s own ability to perform in a specific way.

George Gmelch, a professor from the University of San Francisco, explained, “What they’re really doing is giving themselves confidence…If I do these little rituals, then I’m gonna feel confident going into this activity, and I can succeed and do well.” It gives athletes an additional sense of assurance in stressful situations during important games, which can in turn let them perform better.

While athletes can’t be sure of what  the weather will be like during a game, what plays their opponent will run, and many other aspects of the game, these small but constant rituals allow them to feel more confident in spite of other uncertain circumstances. Other times, rituals can help improve memory and visualization according to some sports psychologists. Spectators can notice some common practices like basketball players who high-five their teammates after each free-throw attempt or tennis players who bounce the tennis ball a certain number of times before each serve. Although these practices don’t have a direct effect on their game, they can can help athletes create a rhythm for themselves and re-execute past successful attempts.

While these explanations  reveal some rationality in the actions of athletes, they don’t always explain the superstitious practices fans in engage in. That being said, fans recognize that their actions have no logical backing. We know they don’t work, but that doesn’t mean we stop. At least once a game, my family will be performing each one of our superstitions, and the Seahawk still don’t score. Regardless, we just label that a “fluke” and continue on with our normal superstitions. Every time the Seahawks score, it’s because of our superstitions. Any time they don’t, it was an unrelated accident. In that respect, superstitions are unfalsifiable.

And they aren’t just limited to sports. Many people perform them when they have to take important exams, have big job interviews, or just in their everyday lives. They help give individuals a sense of routine that makes them more confident about their day. Some people cross their fingers when they are about to see their test results and others carry around lucky coins. I’d argue the same attribute of wanting to exercise control over an outcome that exists for athletes when they play exists for fans as they watch sports or people as they live their daily lives. When there’s a bit of luck or randomness at play, these rituals can help give the illusion that individuals have more control over a situation than they really do.

Watching sports can be a lot more fun with that additional feeling of control. At the end of the day, there’s no cost to performing sports superstitions; but they let viewers pretend they are in some way involved in the game. Fans cheer for their team with everything they have in their hearts, and these rituals allow them to externally display that support. At the point at which you care so deeply over the outcome of an event, it’s difficult to acknowledge that you can’t do anything to influence the result. Practicing superstitions lets us ignore that fact just a little bit.