Why are sportspeople so superstitious?
Why are sportspeople so superstitious?

Did you know that Liverpool FC used to train in unwashed kit for six days a week? Every day, apart from Monday they trained in dirty kit. Why? Well, because when the club first started winning in the 1950s, they didn’t have a washing machine. Instead a lady called Mrs Jones washed the kit once a week. So, in order to continue the winning tradition, even 20 years later they didn’t wash the kit!

Another story is told of the famously superstitious Rafael Nadal refusing to meet the Queen because he hadn’t met her the day before, when he had won! Anyone who has played competitive sport knows what it is to have superstitions. One leading sports website has a whole section on the phenomenon!

We’ve all been in dressing rooms where someone has to have something exactly the same way each time. Whether it’s putting kit on in a certain order, always getting changed in the same place or having to enter the pitch last - sport is full of odd and quirky routines. Think of Nadal with his water bottles or the footballers who regularly touch the turf before entering the pitch or have to cross themselves before entering the match.

We see it from the amateur level right through to professionals.

So why is it that sport is full of superstition? Can we look at the make-up of the world to find out? Does the Bible have any answers for us?

It’s all about control

Are we in control? We feel like we are but then something like a sudden injury or a major pandemic arrives and we realise that we may be less in control than we’d like.

Indian sports psychologist Ashis Nandy thinks this may be why cricketers are so superstitious. In a game full of failure, which has a high degree of luck, it is inevitable that players will turn to superstition to help regain a sense of control:

“No wonder cricketers lean on superstition as a crutch. They cannot accept the awful truth - that the game is governed by erratic umpiring decisions, random tosses and unpredictable seam movement - so they invent a coping strategy to persuade themselves they are in control.”

We want to be in control but we know we’re not.

Whether it’s a snapped achilles at a random training session, a contract not renewed at the end of a season or point deductions due to mismanagement by owners - sport is littered with examples which remind us of our lack of control.

In individual matches or races we see it as well don’t we? The dodgy decision from the referee, equipment failure or the weather that suddenly changes the ground you’re running on. It can seem like life and sport is random when we think about it.

It’s worth saying that routine is different to superstition. US soccer psychologist Tom Perrin argues that routines are integral for the elite sportsperson. “Performance is about routines—they take us into performance, and superstitions are very much a part of that,” Perrin said. “They are a way we can very habitually, automatically, and unconsciously take ourselves into performance mode.”

Repetition and routine are a key part of sport. Not only do they improve our skill levels (think of the 10,000 hour theory) but they also help ease the mental pressures faced by athletes. As Perin explains, the emotional demands and strains of sport can be lessened by routines that “allow certain things (to be done) on a mechanistic, repetitive nature” and can thus be “put on autopilot.”

This, for example, is Rafa Nadal’s rationale for his litany of idiosyncratic routines.

The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines superstition as: “a widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such a belief.”

So when does routine tip into superstition? It’s when it becomes irrational and when a change to that routine leads to distinct mental torment or a level of discomfort.

So, when we think about this and see it in our sport each week, it leads us and those we play with to think: is there a way to be in control? Or am I actually under control from a higher power? Or can I actually be in control at all?

Who is in control?

We all live our lives pursuing control. We think we are in charge. So when then the injury happens, the race that couldn’t be lost is lost or a pandemic or war hits we are reminded that we are not masters of our own destiny. We think we can solve this by ‘controlling the controllables’ and working harder to change or to make sure that we limit the margin by which we can influence things. But we know that still doesn’t stop things which we don’t want to happen, from happening.

It is easy at this point to feel pretty disillusioned.

Now, as Christian sportspeople, do we have a good answer to this feeling? Do our superstitious tendencies point towards something bigger?

The Bible tells us that we are created in the image of God and that he gave us responsibility to live in the world and shape it. Whilst we have responsibility in how we live, we’re only stewards - he is still in charge.

The Bible tells us though that something has gone wrong. That we wanted to be like God, to be in total control and so our trust in God as our creator, as our King, has been replaced by trust in ourselves and in created things.

As Dr Dan Strange, in his book Making Faith Magnetic, says: “deep down we know we’re not divine and that we need something greater than us in which to find meaning and legitimacy. So we still invest in other things that can give us a sense of ultimate meaning and purpose.”

This could be our partner or family. It could quite easily be our sporting career. We load them with an unbearable weight of responsibility, that none of these God-substitutes can handle because they can’t answer our biggest questions.

The one who is in control

In John 10:11 Jesus describes himself as “the good shepherd.”

The Christian view on who is in charge is seen in Jesus - and it is immensely personal. The world is not controlled by luck or energy or even random chance, it is in the hands of a loving God, a loving shepherd who leads and who is in charge.

Jesus shows us constantly in his life a control over the world - over nature, over disease and over evil powers. His call to us is to follow him as he leads.

Jesus shows us a world which isn’t just defined by fate or by an angry impersonal God but instead a world in which there is a sense that we are both in control and under control.

As Strange explains “whilst the interplay between the two is never fully explained or comprehended by our finite minds, it has been graciously revealed to us in space and time in the death of Jesus.” Peter told the Jewish people he was speaking to that Jesus was “handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan…and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death.” (Acts 2:23)

Far from living in a world of randomness and luck, the Christian can say we live in a world where our good God is in charge of the details of our lives and is with us in the ups and the downs, in the injury, de-selection, contract confusion, dip in form and in the cup wins, record breaking, peak-performing moments of our sporting careers.

We trust in a good God whose plans we can trust because we can trust him, our good shepherd, who leads us through dark valleys to green pastures. We need not fear because we walk through this life with a good God in the midst of all that he chooses to bring along our path.

So, whilst wanting to clearly affirm that routine and rhythm can help sporting performance, we need to be wary when that seeps into an ‘over-control’ and a false sense of being in charge. Instead we can look to our good shepherd and delight in being in his care, we can find safety and security with him. In our clubs and teams, as we notice these routines and superstitions, we can point to a God who is in charge and is in control when life can seem so random.

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