Before the first and second half of each basketball game, senior Olivia Kosla takes a left-handed layup after all of her teammates have finished shooting. She cannot explain why she started doing this, but she does know that making the layup gives her more confidence when she plays.
“If I make [the layup, it] makes me feel good,” said Kosla. “And then I make these … crazy layups during games and I think it’s because of that.”
Kevin L. Burke, sport psychology professor in the kinesiology department of Queens University of Charlotte, said in a phone interview that superstitions are not based on a logical premise and are used to give people a sense of control. The origin of superstitions can be different for each person — emerging by accident, stemming from tradition or evolving from other pre-performance routines.
Players who have superstitions can be negatively affected when unable to perform them, Burke said.
“The thing about the world of sports is it’s a lot like life,” said Burke. “You know, sports is a microcosm of society, sport is a smaller version of what goes on in society, and so what happens is people are trying to take control. If superstition gives them a sense of control, they may follow it.”
George Gmelch, professor of anthropology at the University of San Francisco and Union College, said in a phone interview that whether someone is taking an important test, going on a first date or competing in a sport, they may resort to superstitions to increase confidence.
Confidence from superstition changes the way Kosla plays.
“[If I miss the layup,] I shoot less and pass more … ’cause if I miss, it just gets me nervous and I don’t want to mess it up for my team,” Kosla said.
Sports psychologist Jim Taylor said in an email exchange that “there is no actual causal connection between superstitions and performance” and “athletes’ belief in the connection is what matters.”
Senior Sammi Kindy has multiple superstitions she performs before soccer games to give herself a sense of calm. Some of her superstitions include stepping onto the field with her right foot first and always putting on her left sock before her right sock, then her left shin guard before her right shin guard.
After missing the first few weeks of her junior year soccer season due to an ACL tear, Kindy said she made sure to do all of her superstitions before her first game back. Kindy felt less nervous than she thought she was going to be after performing them.
“It was like I was back to how I was … before my injury,” Kindy said.
According to Taylor, “the problem is that the superstitions can keep athletes from focusing on things that actually influence performance,” such as a pre-competitive routine, a physical warm-up or mental imagery.
Whether or not the superstitions are positively influencing performance, Kindy has made a habit of doing them before each game.
“[Each superstition] calms me down, it makes me know … I got this, … it’s going to be a good game, … even if I mess up, it’s OK,” Kindy said.