Every night before a game day, Knox College senior Erik Smoy pulls out his Hoffman Estates, Ill. high school baseball jersey, slides it over his 5’11” frame and crawls into bed. It’s a pregame ritual the college outfielder has done for years and, despite recognizing it as a superstition gone wild, he truly believes that donning the red and white uniform will bring consistency to his game. “I know if I stop doing it my game will change, ” Smoy said. “I’m going to keep doing it even if it’s all in my mind.”
Once considered a touch of quirkiness among elite professional sports figures, superstitious rituals like Smoy’s are becoming more prominent among college athletes, said Damon Burton, a sports psychologist at the University of Idaho.
“Athletes try to create a suitable mindset in order to perform, and at times they tend to lean toward superstitions to help with that,” Burton said, acknowledging that most sports psychologists now try to move college athletes away from superstitions and guide them toward developing strategies and mental plans to find consistency in performance.
Convincing college and even high school athletes to completely drop their superstitious beliefs is a difficult task when these superstitions have been employed by many of the world’s superstar athletes. Throughout his 19-year career, Michael Jordan wore his blue University of North Carolina shorts below his Chicago Bulls uniform.
Rafael Nadal, the top ranked tennis player in the world, is notorious for his pre-match ritual of aligning his water bottles so that the bottle’s Evian logos face the same direction and even makes it a point to drink from specific bottles in a certain order. Cristiano Ronaldo, the egocentric star behind Real Madrid’s multiple titles, makes it a point to spend his halftime break restyling his hair under the belief that he simply cannot play a full 90-minute game with the same hairstyle.
Despite attracting criticism and outright ridicule from their fans and the media, professional athletes usually continue their superstitious routines. Sometimes it’s for attention, but other times the athletes truly believe there’s a cause and effect relationship with their superstition and how well they played.
According to Burton, most superstitious routines begin after an athlete plays unusually well. “If the athletic performance is unusually great, certain athletes attribute their success to that bizarre circumstance and continue to recreate it prior to each game,” he said. The genesis of this cause-and-effect relationship is no different among young athletes in college.
That is the case for many athletes at Knox College.
Before each soccer game, sophomore forward Charlie Harned cues up the same song, “The World’s Greatest” by R. Kelly, that he’s listened to since middle school. “It adds to my confidence, and feeling confident is everything,” Harned said. Before each game Harned also dons an undershirt emblazoned with the words “Don’t Forget – 11-29-11.“It’s an important date in my life for my mom and me, so I make it a point to wear that shirt under my kit,” he said.
Senior golfer Ben Schlotter’s ritual began as a tribute to two friends who died when he was in high school. Before each collegiate golf game he writes the initials – “EG 11” and “TM 14” – of his two friends on each golf ball. “It’s something I’ve done since they died. It’s just a way to remember them,” Schlotter said, who feels certain that if he stopped the ritual he’d play poorly.
Coaches often don’t interfere with a player’s superstitions, knowing that if there’s any group within society who have a reason to be superstitious, it’s athletes. Because athletes’ livelihoods depend on their ability to consistently replicate physical movements, it’s not surprising that they don’t want to be bothered by someone trying to alter their routines once they’ve tasted success.
“Superstitions are completely normal and if it makes the athlete feel comfortable then that’s all right,” said Head Athletic Trainer and Assistant Athletic Director Scott Sunderland. “It’s more of a routine and to keep players in a routine is key to being consistent.”