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Creatures of Habit
  Many athletes believe the power of rituals can help them win, while breaking them can bring along the bad vibes.

By Laurie Wilson

When Erin McLean has a bad day on the field she simply looks to the Japanese coin that dangles around her neck for reassurance.

It is a reminder of one of the soon-to-be Olympic softball player’s finest athletic performances at a university tournament she played in a couple of summers back.

While the lucky necklace gives her peace of mind, she does not believe it has any effect on her play.

“I’m not overly superstitious,” McLean says. “I try not to be.”

To varying degrees, all athletes bring a certain amount of ritual and routine to their game, sports psychologists say.

Whether it’s pre-game stretching, listening to music, a playoff beard or a lucky pair of undergarments, a ritual can be a blessing or curse depending on the outcome of each game.

You know something that all of your teammates have that no other team knows about.

Erin McLean
Canadian Olympic Women’s Softball team


According to sports psychologists Dr. Kate Hays of The Performing Edge sports consulting clinic in Toronto and Peter Papadogiannis, a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, it is in an athlete’s best interest to set routines to help achieve optimal performance.

And they should know. For years, both have worked with athletes of all shapes, sizes and skill levels, from elite Olympic and professional athletes, to amateurs destined to remain in the beer leagues.

“I think it’s really important for athletes to plan what they’re going to do before an event and to really think it through quite thoroughly ahead of time,” Hays says. “Because there’s going to be a whole lot they’re not in control of.”

Papadogiannis stresses that because every athlete is different, what works for one might not work for others.

Though a habit’s effectiveness is in the eye of the beholder, it can help put an athlete at ease and into the “zone.”

“It makes people comfortable,” Papadogiannis notes. “It’s that routine, it’s familiar.”

This is especially true for elite athletes, who are systematic, he adds.

Hays says problems can arise when routine crosses the line into hardened ritual and becomes embedded in a player’s psyche.

Mental preparation may start to be challenging if an athlete grows attached to an object or ritual that really has nothing to do with performance.

“Because then it becomes more like, ‘The only way that I’m going to do well in this event is if I wear the socks that I wore the other time that I did really well’, ” Hays says.

“If those socks are dirty . . . one’s entire life falls apart. “ In that sense, ritual is not very useful.” Not to mention the risk of annoying one’s teammates.

During a tournament last summer, McLean remembers her team being coerced into not changing seats on the bus during a winning streak. In the opinion of a few of her more zealous teammates, to do otherwise would have jeopardized the team’s good karma.

“They’re very anal about it actually, it’s really annoying,” McLean says.

“You get on a roll . . . and they don’t want to change anything up, but then if you lose a game it’s okay to switch,” she says. “Some people take it very seriously.”

Though she is cautious to admit it at first, McLean has been involved in her share of superstitious acts.

While playing softball at Simon Fraser University, her team turned to the supernatural to build solidarity.

At one tournament the whole team wore charms with “can” inscribed on them.

Because a rule disallowed visible jewellery, the team wore the charms on anklets under their socks in an act McLean says gave them a psychological edge.

“There’s the benefit of knowing that you know something that all of your teammates have that no other team knows about,” she says.

What players do to get ready for games doesn’t really matter as long as performance in competition is at its peak, York’s Dr. Papadogiannis says. Ritualistic idiosyncrasies may or may not have an effect, but as long as players see results there isn’t much reason to worry.

“It’s all comfort and if that’s not interfering I’m pretty sure a coach would just say, ‘Leave him alone, he’s playing well’,” he says. “It’s about trying to re-structure someone’s thinking to deal without those things.”

“Really following something that works . . . When it’s not there, then there’s a little kink in the plan.”