By nature, humans are pretty superstitious and we do all sorts of things to bring us good luck (rub a rabbit’s foot, pick a four-leaf clover, pull wishbones apart, hang horseshoes with the open end up) or prevent bad luck (try not to break a mirror, don’t open an umbrella indoors, throw salt over your left shoulder, skip the 13th floor in tall buildings, and on and on). Nearly every group of people has its own luck-related superstitions (many Catholics cross themselves, many Jews don’t name their children after living relatives, actors say “break a leg” instead of “good luck” and refer Shakespeare’s Macbeth as “The Scottish Play,” musicians have theirs, construction workers have theirs, and so on.)
One of the most superstitious groups is athletes. Lebron James used to toss chalk; Baseball Hall of Famer Wade Boggs wrote the Hebrew word for “life” in the dirt every time he came up to the plate and ate chicken (presumably kosher) before every game; former pro football player Ray Lewis did his squirrel dace for the fans; French soccer player Lauren Blanc used to kiss the top of his goalie’s bald head. There are team rituals too: some have a team meal the day before each game, some kneel in prayer before games, some slap the top of the dugout before running on to the field, and others just have a rousing “get-out-there-and-win-win-win!” cheer.
We often hear that sports involves much more than physical performance. Many experts agree that the mental part of any game is just as important. (Baseball philosopher Yogi Berra did the math a little differently when he said that “Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.”)
Just as pre-game stretching and warm ups prepare the body, the kind of pre-game rituals I’ve described here prepare the mind. They’re designed to build the individual’s or the team’s confidence, reduce anxiety, make players feel that they control the outcome, and help them stay focused. Do they work? (Would Wade Boggs be in the Hall of Fame if he were a vegetarian? Would he have played even better if he’d eaten carrots instead?). It’s impossible to say for sure, but I’m fairly certain that the answer is Yes, they do. If the coach’s or a teammate’s pep talk revs up the players and makes the team feel like an unstoppable force, they’re going to play harder and support each other more than if they just showed up 10 minutes before the game. And if you’re nervous before games and meditating, painting your toenails, or wearing a pair of socks you haven’t washed all season calms you, you’re going to play better. How could you not? As long as they’re positive, supportive, and healthy, pregame rituals are must-haves for any team or individual.
This summer, I’ve been partnering with Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes on their “Show Your Stripes” campaign, which is all about encouraging dads and kids to play sports with a sense of passion, sportsmanship, and team spirit. You can view an amazing video highlighting these themes on Frosted Flakes’ YouTube page, featuring the famous speech given last year by Coach David Belisle at the Little League World Series after his team lost:
A lot of that passion, sportsmanship, and team spirit starts before the game, with a ritual of some kind. Kellogg’s has a fun video about pre-game rituals here:
Did you or your teammates have any rituals when you were young? Does your child’s team have one? If so, we’d love to hear about it! Tweet it using #showyourstripes and help other dads and kids show theirs.