Most athletes have specific rituals or superstitions that rule the way in which they act, dress or participate in their sport. In fact, these rituals are so prevalent that there are acts that are specific to separate sports.
For instance baseball players arguably have the most complicated rituals and superstitions. Some consider it bad luck to acknowledge the existence of a pitchers perfect game while the game is still in progress. An offensive player is jinxed if he lends his bat to a teammate. Some hitters will sleep with their bat to break a batting slump. And the act of spitting in his hand before going to bat isn’t to help increase the traction on the bat but instead is thought to bring him good luck at the next at bat.
Basketball players also have their rituals and superstitions that range from how they dress to how they shoot the ball from the free throw line. While some players bounce the ball to drown out the sound of the crowd others do it just as a ritual.
But what is the difference between the rituals the athlete uses prior to a game or performance and the superstitious beliefs they depend upon to give them luck or improve their performance? The line between each is truly a thin one.
For most athletes who use rituals prior to a performance they are able to continue to perform even when those rituals are broken. The athlete will find that his focus and concentration are also broken but they aren’t frozen by the inability to complete the ritual.
Some athletes have lucky socks, warms ups that they use before each event, shoes that are tied in a specific manner or arm bands. But other athletes find that they aren’t able to perform when their rituals aren’t completed. At this point the ritual becomes a superstition.
When an athlete believes that any ability to win an event is specifically linked to a behavior or a piece of clothing and not to their physical and mental preparation the ritual crosses the line of pre-performance behavior to superstition.
In other instances athletes are able to be flexible about the rituals they perform based on the results they achieve. For instance, Frank Viola, a former Cy Young winner, had a secret to his success as a pitcher. He would clean the mound before every inning. In the process he would also kick up the dirt exactly four times. But, if something happened during the inning that would have been considered bad luck he would then change the repetitions from four to three or five.
In the case of Frank Viola cleaning the mound could very well have given him an advantage during his pitching. But instead of using it as a ritual to give him better footing he believed that kicking a certain amount of dirt is what gave him luck.
Rituals are methods of preparing for performance in which there is some degree of possibility that the action will have an effect on the results. But superstitions are behaviors that have no possible way of effecting the outcome of a practice or performance.