Lentis/Athletes, Superstition, and Performance


Despite the complexity and intelligence of the human mind, the hundreds of years of scientific research, and the advanced technology of the current age, human beings are superstitious. Superstition, in general, is defined as "a belief or way of behaving that is based on fear of the unknown and faith in magic or luck"[1]. In specifics to athletics, superstition is defined as an "action which [is] repetitive, formal, sequential, and distinct from technical performance that athletes believe to be powerful in controlling luck and other factors"[2]. Despite daily use of scientifically proven exercise schedule, diet plan, and exercise equipment to enhance their performance, athletes value superstitions on and off the court, field, pool deck, and course. This value represents a complex and intriguing intersection between the social and technical realm. The concept of superstitions raise many questions: Why are superstitions important? What do they do to help performance? To hurt performance? Why do humans cling to them in times of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty?

The Culture of Athletics: Why the superstitions?Edit

Superstitious SportsEdit

From pee-wee to professional league, coaches try and instill values that will stick with players throughout their lives. Coaches engrain values such as teamwork, loyalty, and the ability to rely on the fundamentals especially during state of being tired and exhausted. Each player has their own way of dealing with the struggle of training and competition. More specifically, having something to believe in, something intangible, and a superstition or a ritual they do prepares them for what lies ahead. Some examples include how you get dressed, what prayer you recite, how you stretch, what you eat, what you wear, etc.

Famous athletes that have been known to have their own superstitions are Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and Jason Giambi. All three men have a specific article of clothing they believe helps them to perform. Tiger Woods, to begin with, wears a red shirt every time he plays on Sundays. He is quoted as saying “my mother believes red is the color of power, and you always listen to your mother[3].” Michael Jordan played at the University of North Carolina, and since his departure he had to wear his pair of UNC shorts underneath his team shorts in every game. Finally, Jason Giambi has the most unique clothing superstition of all. When he is in a hitting slump he dons a gold thong underneath his uniform. The reason for this is that when it is worn, “you’re not worried about your hands or your balance at the plate, you’re worried about the uncomfortable feeling in your pants.” It’s not just Giambi that has worn the thong, players like Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, and Johnny Damon have been given the thong to get out of hitting slumps[4].

Even with all of their training and athletic ability, all three men have a certain superstition they need to feel confident and prepared to play the game. It’s not about fundamentals when you walk in the stadium or on the playing field; it’s about knowing that the ritual you have has been completed and you have what you need to perform at your best.

The 'Madden Curse'Edit

Boxes of Madden NFL 11 for PS3 & Xbox 360

Along with athletics, there is a specific downfall for having a breakout season in the National Football League (NFL). This is known as the Madden Curse. The Madden Curse is a superstition that claims any player that graces the cover of the Madden: NFL video game will subsequently have a bad season next year or be injured. Since 1999, out of the 16 players featured, 14 have had bad years and received a serious injury[5].

Marketing PotentialEdit

Believe it or not sports equipment companies often incorporate celebrities to make their advertisements effective. One commonly used strategy is celebrity branding. Presence of celebrities make the viewers feel confident in the product[6]. The companies have developed other strategies to make effective advertisement using superstitions. They are commonly used to engage consumers’ attention and engrain a message. Often “conditioned superstitions” develop and lead to greater profit. Bud Light commercial best exemplifies the use of superstition. According to Mike Sundet, vice president of Bud Light for Anheuser-Busch, "Fans truly believe they can have an impact on the game. They look at the spot and say, 'Gosh, that's me"[7].

Advertising StrategyEdit

Simple incorporation of superstition cannot guarantee profit. Innovative ideas are necessary to trigger consumers’ interest for the product. Celebrity branding, different consumer attraction strategies, and making a message be remembered are common strategies where the use of superstition is prevalent. Advertisements use superstition to amplify the desired effect.

Celebrity Branding in Sporting GoodsEdit

Gatorade commercial uses many sports superstars

Celebrity branding is a type of advertising strategy, in which a celebrity appears as promotional model in an advertisement. Celebrities in advertising build brand awareness and develops an irrational influence on consumers’ purchases. Appearance of sports legends promotes familiarity of the brand more quickly[8].

Gatorade is known for its iconic advertisements, featuring a wide variety of the world’s most popular sports figures [9]. Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning, and Michael Jordan are examples. The celebrity appearance develop the attitude, “If the product works for him, it’s good enough for me”[10]. Consumers that wish to enhance their performance in sports is more likely to develop this philosophy. This is because people who have both a high need for control and a sense of helplessness succumb to superstition[11].

Conditioned SuperstitionsEdit

“Conditioned superstitions” refer to any irrational behaviors associated with consumption decisions with positive or negative outcomes[12]. It starts when people try something special – a blue tie instead of the red one – and find that something good happens. Such “conditioned superstitions’ develop when people believe there is something they can do to control a situation, despite there being no rational reason to think so. Soon, without realizing it, people begin to associate their new behavior with a good luck and reach for the blue tie again and again. This is demonstrated in one of Bud Light commercial: a fan forcing down a terrible-tasting veggie burger because his team won the last time he did so [13].

Psychology: Mind Over [what ] MattersEdit

"The consequences of behavior determine the probability that the behavior will occur again." - B.F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner's variable interval ratio theory, resulting from his Pigeon Experiment, provides an explanation as to why humans resort to superstitions to explain successes as well as failures. He believes that superstition falls into the category of "chance rewarding of chance behaviors" [14] More specifically, the variable interval aspect of Skinner's theory states that there are arbitrary periods of time that elapse between rewards (positive athletic performances) and the ratio aspect of Skinner's theory holds that the subject is rewarded in varying amounts based on chance alone throughout a period of time.[15] When combined, the variable interval ratio theory claims that subjects are rewarded for no specific behavior, but in actuality, the rewards are completely random and independent of specific accomplishments. The subject of the reward, in this case the athlete, begins to understand the rewards, positive or desired athletic performances, as things that result from the specific behavior occurring when the rewards result. This is how Skinner believes superstitious behavior and thinking are learned. The subject experiences a reward, which he claims is independent of a behavior or accomplishment, and associates that reward with the current action. This helps explain why athletes continue superstitious behaviors, especially after the desired outcome of a competition occurs.

Pigeons exhibit signs of superstitious behavior

The Good and the BadEdit

Superstitious behavior and thinking can have mixed results on human performance. Some superstitions aid performance and give people more confidence and strength, while some superstitions and mindsets severely hinder performance and lives. Some superstitious behavior and thought patterns lead to phobias and result in behavior similar to that of mental illnesses[16].

Power, Fuel, ControlEdit

A research study was conducted in the United Kingdom by Aberywystwyth University and Loughborough University on the superstitious behaviors of 120 male elite Ghana footballers. The research methods used were questionnaires that inquired about specific superstitions of the athletes and a style scale that rated the superstitious behaviors of the athletes. Findings showed a significant (p<.05) correlation between superstitious behaviors and positive controllability [17]. These finding suggest that superstitions provide athletes with some sense of control over the outcome of competition. This sense of control aids them in coping with stress and the uncertainties associated with athletic performance. Stress and anxiety are both negative emotions that could hinder athletic performance, thus, the superstition is adding and element of control that can lead to increased performance.

Another study on superstition conducted by Jennifer Witson and Adam Galinsky also showed that control is a key player in the development and maintaining of superstitions. Throughout a series of six experiments that caused participants to reflect upon times that felt they lost control, Witson and Galinsky confirmed that "[f]eelings of control are so important to people that a lack of control is inherently threatening" [18]. A sense of control leads to a sense of power which fuels performance in human beings. Though superstitious behavior can decrease negative feelings, it has also been shown to have the opposite effect.

Fear and AnxietyEdit

"Humans seek explanations between cause and effect and have tendencies to acquire beliefs in something that cannot be scientifically proven"[19]. Skinner found that this urge to seek explanations leads to faulty cause and effect associations. Some common examples of negative superstitions that can lead to anxiety and fear are as follows:

  1. Walking under a ladder will give you bad luck until death
  2. Crossing the path of a black cat will result in bad luck
  3. Breaking a mirror is like shattering the image of your soul, 7 years of bad luck will follow
  4. Friday the 13th is a day of bad luck

When any of these things occur, persons involved feel a sense of anxiety and fear towards the superstitious outcome even though this outcome, according to Skinner, is by chance. Superstitious behavior and thinking, though it can provide athletes with a sense of control and ease anxiety, it can also cause more anxiety and fear. Superstition does not result from reason and findings in psychology support that superstitious behavior and thinking can be both beneficial and hazardous to a persons thought process and way of life.

The Placebo EffectEdit

The Placebo Effect is a phenomenon that leads people to believe that a treatment they are undergoing is real. They perceive that something is curing or helping them when it is really a hoax. This effect may be present in athletic superstitious behavior. The superstition helps bring a sense of control, reduced anxiety and stress, and increased confidence into competitions that are marked be uncertainty, high-stress, and high-risk situations [20].


  1. Merriam-Webster, 2013 Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/superstition
  2. Ofori, K.P., Biddle, S., Lavallee, D. (2012). Athletic Insight. The Online Journal of Sport Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.athleticinsight.com/Vol14Iss2/Feature.htm
  3. Kelley, B. (n.d.). Why does Tiger Woods always wear red shirts in final rounds of tournaments?. About.com: Golf. Retrieved November 27, 2013, from http://golf.about.com/od/tigerwoods/f/tiger-woods-red-shirts.htm
  4. Feinsand, M., Boyle, C., & Siemaszko, C. (2008, May 17). Jason Giambi and his magic gold thong. NY Daily News. Retrieved November 27, 2013, from http://www.nydailynews.com/news/jason-giambi-magic-gold-thong-article-1.333178
  5. Fleming, R. (2013, September 16). ‘Madden’ turns 25 this month, so here’s a brief history of the ‘Madden Curse’. Digital Trends. Retrieved November 27, 2013, from http://www.digitaltrends.com/gaming/the-madden-curse/
  6. Suttle, Rick. What Are Five Advantages to Using Celebrities in Advertising? smallbusiness.chron.com
  7. In, Mike (2012). Touchdown: Bud Light Captures Fan Superstitions In New TV Spot. Retrieved from: www.sportsbizusa.com/blog
  8. Suttle, Rick. What Are Five Advantages to Using Celebrities in Advertising? smallbusiness.chron.com
  9. AthletePromotions. Gatorade Endorsers. www.athletepromotions.com
  10. Suttle, Rick. What Are Five Advantages to Using Celebrities in Advertising? smallbusiness.chron.com
  11. Chen, Angela (2013). When Superstition Works. online.wsj.com
  12. Hammerman, E and Johar, G (2013). Desire for control and consumer brand preferences. www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/670762
  13. Chen, Angela (2013). When Superstition Works. online.wsj.com
  14. Olson, A. (2013). From Superstition to Psychological Anarchy. Theory and Psychopathy:lines of thought. Retrieved from www.psychologytoday.com/blog/theory-and-psychopathy/201310/superstition-psychological-anarchy
  15. Olson, A. (2013). From Superstition to Psychological Anarchy. Theory and Psychopathy:lines of thought. Retrieved from www.psychologytoday.com/blog/theory-and-psychopathy/201310/superstition-psychological-anarchy
  16. Albert, S. (2004). The Psychology of Superstition. WebMD. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/psychology-of-superstition?page=1
  17. Ofori, K.P., Biddle S., Lavallee, D. (2012). Athletic Insight. The Online Journal of Sport Psychology. Retrieved from http://www.athleticinsight.com/Vol14Iss2/Feature.htm#Results
  18. Witson, J., Galinsky, A. (2008). Loss of Control Leads People to Seek Order Through Superstition, Ritual. Retrieved from http://www.utexas.edu/news/2008/10/02/control_superstition/
  19. Futrell, B. (2011). A Closer Look at the Relationship Between Superstitious Behavior and Trait Anxiety. Rollins Undergraduate Research Journal, Vol. 5, Num. 2. Retrieved from http://scholarship.rollins.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1042&context=rurj
  20. Cashmore, E., Casmore, E. (2003). Sports Culture: An A-Z Guide. Taylor and Francis