Wimbledon is on its way. Along with the famous strawberries and cream, the immaculately turned out ball boys and girls and all of our favourite tennis players there is something else which might keep your interest while watching. Superstition spotting.
Serena Williams’ pregnancy means we will miss her superstitions of bringing shower sandals to the court, tying her shoelaces a specific way, bouncing the ball five times before her first serve and twice before her second, and wearing the same pair of socks during a tournament run. What we can look out for though is Nadal whose superstitions are said to be crossing lines with his right foot, arriving with one tennis racket in his hand, eating his energy gels in a specific way and lining up his water bottles in an orderly line, with all the labels pointing in the same direction.
Many of us have superstitions and they become really evident in sport. Some can be controlled by the athlete. In football Ronaldo is said to step onto the pitch with his right foot first and in cricket Neil McKenzie refused to step on white lines. Other superstitions require a piece of clothing or a charm. One example is from basketball where Michael Jordan always wore a pair of North Carolina practice shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls ones. Another is multi Olympic gold medal winning cyclist Laura Kenny who once won a junior race wearing a wet sock and so now steps on a wet towel before races. And Paula Radcliffe apparently used the same safety pins to attach her number to her running top in every race.
Some of these idiosyncrasies can get you into a complete pickle. The baseball player Kevin Rhomberg refused to turn right while running and had a compulsion to touch anyone who had touched him. On occasion referees had to stop games when he was playing as he had so many people touching him that he couldn’t continue playing effectively.
Our superstitions often start accidentally. If we have a great competition we may attribute it to something specific we did and then aim to repeat that in future to continue to benefit.
On the plus side these superstitions can be helpful at getting us into the right mindset to compete. When we do the superstitious behaviour we release adrenalin which triggers the feeling of readiness. They can also help distract us from anxiety or nerves. And they can work. When we do the behaviour or have the charm then researchers have found that performance is improved, perhaps due to higher confidence and a feeling of increased control.
So why are sport psychologists worried when athletes have superstitions?
There are three reasons:
- A problem comes if you lose your charm or the top you are relying upon is in the wash or your lucky pins get blunt. If you have created a superstitious ritual because you believe it has the power to influence how you perform then when you can’t perform your ritual your performance is likely to suffer.
- Sticking rigidly to a superstition can limit your flexibility to respond to the environment around you, which means if something unpredictable happens you are not in the right place mentally to deal with it.
- Other athletes can use your superstitions against you to disrupt your performance, perhaps hiding the equipment you need or chatting to you to distract you so you step with the wrong foot on the pitch first.
A better solution to give yourself confidence is a pre-performance routine. This allows you to feel in control but also gives you flexibility for different situations. It helps you to purposefully prepare your mind and body for your competition and to ensure everything you need to do to prepare logistically, physically and mentally is in place. You can write down everything within your pre-performance routine down (mental skills, logistics, kit, warm up, visualisation, nutrition) and follow it on competition day to make sure you are completely in control.
So while you look out for players superstitions at Wimbledon think about if you have any superstitions yourself – and whether perhaps a pre-competition routine would be more helpful.