Jackson: Some Athletes Believe Superstitions Give Them Competitive Edge

By Megan Fox and Monica Macellari
The Red Line Project

Posted: Sunday, June 5, 2011

Clipping fingernails on the bench, brushing teeth in between innings, and drinking liters of soda before games aren’t necessarily the actions that come to mind while thinking about your favorite athletes.

But maybe they should -- all of those habits are among superstitions that amateur and professional athletes hope will give them a competitive edge and good luck.

Pink socks, chalky fingers, even sewage-soaked hockey sticks -- athletes at all levels have adopted superstitions. Whether they do them out of habit, to promote consistency, or simply use them for security, some competitors opt for routine.

The World English Dictionary defines a superstition as “an irrational belief usually founded on ignorance or fear and characterized by obsessive reverence for omens, charms, etc.” Though the general public might view these rituals as unnecessary or silly, athletes often rely on them as a means to enhance their performance.

CrossFit athlete and trainer, Nick Urankar of South Bend Ind., considers it normal for athletes to repeat behaviors in order to mentally prepare themselves for competition. His ritual -- wearing bright pink socks over his muscular calves.

 “I didn’t think I believed in superstitions because I think of them more as habit," he said. "I think that as an athlete you do things the same because you feel that it works.”

Urankar finishes a workout at a gym in South
Bend, Ind. (Photo by Monica Macellari)

Urankar, 27, who currently has a sponsorship pending with Reebok, started CrossFit training in January 2010. He has won several regional competitions.

CrossFit, a sport comprised of weightlifting, body weight exercises, and traditional cardio, has quickly amassed a number of followers in the past few years. Athletes from around the globe attempt to complete standardized workouts in as little time possible. These times are then compared via web and competition.

In addition to his extensive workouts, Urankar, who played football at Indiana State, said he rehearses rituals while training for contests.

“I feel I perform best in my pink socks and shoes because if I go into a competition I better perform well and I better win and actually so far I’ve never lost wearing them, so you know obviously I’m going to keep doing it,” he said.

Urankar shows off his pink calves during a
workout. (Photo by Monica Macellari)

In addition to his sacred socks and Converse shoes, Urankar is a firm believer in rubbing chalk on his hands repeatedly during workouts.

Urankar is not the only athlete to create individualized customs. A number of well-known competitors have good luck charms and repetitive routines.

When sports blogger Ethan Trex, a contributor to ESPN The Magazine, formulated a list of the top 10 most bizarre athlete superstitions he exposed what to many seem like silly rituals, but to these athletes they were vital when performing.

Trex’s article listed Jason Terry at number four on the the list for sleeping in his uniform the day before a game when he played for the University of Arizona. Ottawa Senators, Bruce Gardiner made the list for sticking his hockey stick in the locker room toilet before each game.

Sports psychologist Jonathon Katz explains that athletes find comfort in their different rituals, which allow them to control the situation they are in.

According to Katz, founder of High Performance Associates, a group that works with athletes, competitors often use sources of comfort as tools to monitor their performance. Katz has worked for the New York Rangers NBA and Major League Baseball teams, top-ranked professional tennis players, and a variety of NCAA athletes and athletic programs.

"I think there is a fine line between routine and superstition," he said. "That being said, I believe routines deal with events that have a functional impact on performance. Superstitions don't necessarily impact the athlete or sport, but provide a sense of comfort or security. For example, a routine of eating the same meal before games could effect performance, whereas always putting on your left sock first...will probably not."

Former Northwestern quarterback Mike Kafka, now with the Philadelphia Eagles, is also a believer in rituals. Since high school, Kafka eats Twizzlers before  every game and in the last five years has started drinking peach-flavored Guayaki Yerba Mate.

“I do believe in superstitions, however, I think that all of that stuff is psychological," he said. "If you have confidence and are prepared for what might happen then you will have success. I think superstitions give that person a little bit more confidence to carry on what they are asked to do… sports are about consistency…athletes try to replicate their performances.”

While Kafka agreed that superstitions are are common amongst athletes, he said he has seen some  strange rituals.

“One of the guys on my team use to put an ace of spades card in his sock before every game," he said. "I thought that was a little odd.”

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