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Unearthing superstitions

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By Wesley Mayberry

The well-known phrase “the luck of the Irish” is used throughout the country, but it’s not just the athletes from the University of Notre Dame who are affected by superstition. In fact, superstition permeates the entire sporting world.

The Psychological Influence of Superstition

Superstitious beliefs and routines can be found in any sport from basketball to tennis, and they are also believed to exist in the sports media including the Madden video games and Sports Illustrated magazines, but certified psychologist Dr. Richard Lustberg notes on his website that any superstitious ritual that an athlete has is purely psychological.

“Superstitions are a coping mechanism to deal with the pressure to succeed,” Lustberg writes. “Athletes begin to believe- they, in fact, want to believe- that their routine of choice is enhancing their performance. In reality, it is just practice and confidence that make them perform better.”

Lustberg also asserts that athletic superstitions create a circular pattern due to the athletes attributing their success solely to the superstitious act.

“If a player has success in sports, it’s more than likely because of practice and skill,” Lustberg notes. “But if the player attributes his or her success to some type of different act, such as wearing a certain article of clothing or repeating some kind of routine, the player will repeat the act. As a result, the player’s confidence will rise, and this increased confidence allows the player to perform at a higher level.”

Game Shorts and Sleeping Shorts

The NBA has seen many superstitious athletes, but Hall of Famer Michael Jordan and current Dallas Maverick Jason Terry may have the quirkiest rituals. Widely regarded as the best player in NBA history, Michael Jordan did not rely on talent alone to ensure victory. During every game he played for the Chicago Bulls,  Jordan wore his University of North Carolina shorts under his uniform, which he believed brought him luck after he led UNC to the NCAA Championship in 1982. According to Men’s Fitness magazine, Jordan’s superstition led to a trend. To cover up his UNC shorts, he had to wear long shorts, which now commonplace among basketball players.

Jason Terry is also superstitious about game shorts, but his ritual occurs the night before the game.

“The night before every game, Terry goes to bed while wearing the shorts of the next day’s opposing team,” Ryan Murphy of Men’s Fitness writes.

Early on, Terry had his difficulties accruing the appropriate gear, but he has since developed a network in which to acquire the shorts.

“I have a lot of inside guys- equipment guys, former teammates, lots of connections,” Terry told the Dallas Morning News. “You just have to know where to go.

Terry, one of the most superstitious athletes to currently play in the NBA, also eats chicken before every game and wears five pairs of socks during the game, a trend he once broke in a college game that led to him going scoreless.

“I got plenty of issues,” Terry said.

Curses and Jinxes

Superstition does not play a major role in the sport of football until you consider the infamous cases of the Heisman jinx and the Madden curse. The Heisman Trophy is given annually, preceding the postseason bowl games, to the best player in college football as determined by the votes of media members and former Heisman winners. The jinx associated with this prestigious award is widely believed to be true after numerous winners have struggled in their respective bowl games, usually a National Championship Game, which followed their winning the trophy.  In 2004, Oklahoma quarterback Jason White completed only 13 of 37 passes for 102 yards and had two interceptions in the title game against LSU. White’s poor performance resulted in a 21-14 loss, and he has not been heard from in the football world again. More recently, in 2007, Ohio State’s Heisman-winner, quarterback Troy Smith, played a debacle of a championship game against the Florida Gators. In a performance much worse than White’s, Smith completed just four of 14 passes for a measly 35 yards with one interception. Adding insult to injury, Smith, known for his speed and evasiveness, had a rushing total of -29 yards in the 41-14 loss.

The Madden curse, or the Madden cover jinx, is just as widely held, as it has come to fruition throughout the Madden video game era. Each year, EA Sports, the company that designs the game, selects an athlete who succeeded in the previous season to be its cover art. Early victims of the jinx include Barry Sanders, Eddie George, and Daunte Culpepper. The curse later affected Donovan McNabb, Shaun Alexander, and Michael Vick.

Even with the persistent evidence, the game’s marketers downplay the curse.

“What we’ve been involved with has been coincidence after coincidence,” Chris Erb, a Madden marketing director, said to Time magazine.

The past two versions of the game featured Brett Favre, in Madden ’09, and the tandem of Troy Polamalu and Larry Fitzgerald in Madden ’10. Favre, who was pictured on the cover in a Green Bay Packers uniform, began his season by being traded to the New York Jets and ended his season with a shoulder injury. One season later, Polamalu and Fitzgerald suffered injury-plagued seasons of their own.

For this year’s Madden ’11, EA Sports decided to let the fans decide who would grace the cover in an online vote. After receiving the most votes, Super-Bowl-winning quarterback Drew Brees hopes to debunk the curse.

“It is what it is, but I look at it as a challenge,” Brees told ESPN.

He made light of the curse in a separate interview.

“Maybe there are some fans in New Orleans who, if they’re still practicing voodoo, could put a curse on the curse,” Brees told bloomberg.com.

The Hat, the Post and the Golden Thong

In Major League Baseball, many players use superstitious acts to break out of hitting slumps or because the individual feels that the act will bring his team good luck. A study done by CBC Sports found that baseball players are more prone to superstition than athletes from any other sport.

For Tim Lincecum, the San Francisco Giants two-time Cy Young Award winner, an old hat is his good-luck charm. Lincecum has worn the same hat ever since his first game with the Giants, and he has never washed it. It’s a tradition that the young pitcher began in high school.

“In high school, I got a cap and I stuck with it all year. In college, I wore the same hat until I had to change because (the team) changed brands,” Lincecum told jockism.com. “I like keeping the old hat. I like the worn look. Plus, it means something to me. I don’t want to throw it away.”

Rather than donning a lucky cap during every game, former Yankee Jason Giambi would only wear his special article of clothing during his hitting slumps. When he just couldn’t seem to connect the bat with the ball, Giambi would wear a golden thong that he believed would break him out of his slump. This superstition seemed to work more often than not, and it was so successful that the five-time All-Star’s Yankee teammates would ask to borrow the lucky thong to break out of their own funks.

Even though he could be considered the greatest NHL goalie of all-time, Patrick Roy relied on superstition throughout his career. Prior to the start of each game, Roy would “skate backwards toward the net before turning around at the last second- an act he believed made the goal shrink” according to Men’s Fitness. During each game, he would hold small conversations with the goalposts in which he would thank them for deflecting a puck. Roy’s immense talent as a goaltender, along with his friendly relationship with the posts, garnered him much success in his storied career.

Court of Superstition

Many hockey players grow a “playoff beard” that they think will bring them good luck in the playoffs. What most of these athletes do not realize is that the superstition of growing a “lucky beard” has its origins in the sport of tennis. In preparation for the annual Wimbledon Tournament in England, Swedish legend Bjorn Borg would always grow a beard and wear the same t-shirt. Borg won five consecutive Wimbledon Tournaments from 1976 through 1980, and he credits his success to his facial hair.

Superstition also enters the game of current female star Serena Williams. She follows a very strict routine in preparing for, and playing in, her matches. According to Men’s Fitness, Serena always “brings her shower sandals to the court, ties her shoelaces a specific way, wears the same pair of socks during a tournament run, and bounces the ball five times before her first serve and twice before her second.” She is so superstitious that she has attributed some major losses to not faithfully following her routine.

The SI Cover Jinx

It has long been believed that whomever graces the cover of Sports Illustrated will bring bad luck upon themselves or their teams.

“The list of season-ending injuries, fatal car crashes, family tragedies, divorces, batting slumps, chokes, losing streaks, and shocking upsets suffered by individuals and teams since August 1954 is too long and scary to recount,” writes Bill Steigerwald in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

To see just how much truth there was to this jinx, SI writer Alexander Wolff decided to investigate to find any facts that would support such a belief. After completing his study, Wolff found “a demonstrable misfortune or decline in performance following a cover appearance roughly 37.2 percent of the time.” He also found that almost 12 percent suffered injury or death.

This seems to be a rather high correlation, but after conversations with a statistics professor, Wolff concluded that the jinx is simply a “regression to the mean.” In other words, the athletes are usually photographed during a hot streak, and hot streaks eventually get cold.

In opposition to the jinx, Wolff found that some of the athletes that had the most cover appearances ended their careers as one of the most successful athletes in their respective sport. This list includes Michael Jordan (51 appearances), Muhammad Ali (38), and Jack Nicklaus (23).

In the end, one cannot prove or disprove this “curse,” but it sure has affected its fair share of athletes and teams in the sporting world.

Superstitious Bobcats

Superstition has also invaded the Ohio University athletic community, especially the men’s basketball team. At least seven players have superstitions that are well known by their teammates. Forwards DeVaughn Washington and Reggie Keely must have a new pair of socks every year, while teammate Tommy Freeman prefers familiarity.

“Tommy has worn the same ankle bracelet (in every game) since his freshman year,” said Washington.

Other players are superstitious about their pre-game routines. Prior to the start of each game, forward Adetunji Adedipe listens to Usher’s “Confessions,” while forward Ivo Baltic listens to music by Tupac and eats two pickles.

After experiencing so much success in the MAC Tournament, guard Armon Bassett decided against washing his jersey heading into the NCAA Tournament. This decision paid off at first, as the ‘Cats upset heavily favored Georgetown in the first round, but the team later faltered against Tennessee.

A final Bobcat superstition concerns a tribute to a loved one.

“At the free-throw line, I always kiss my bracelets for my grandma because she passed,” said guard D.J. Cooper.

After surveying the world of sports and finding that so many athletes are affected by superstition, one would begin to think that maybe some of these rituals do have an impact on the outcome of a game.

Even the Babe thought so.

“I have just one superstition,” Babe Ruth once joked. “Whenever I hit a home run, I make certain I touch all four bases.”