Very Superstitious!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Very Superstitious!: The role of rituals in sport.

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 edition of Our Game Magazine.

[Sidelines] When I was 12 years old, a close friend of my family gave me a small glass elephant that gently flickered when the light hit it just right. I kept it safely tucked away inside my soccer backpack. Soon after, when we set out on a long car ride to play the first round of State Cup—let me add here that if someone in our household mentioned State Cup back then, you might have thought they were talking about the World Cup—I pulled the elephant out hoping to get lost in the kaleidoscopic diversion. My mom caught a glimpse of its sparkle in the rear view mirror…and I’m pretty sure I caught a glimmer of panic in her eye. She asked to examine my elephant so I handed it over. It seems, she explained, that elephant figurines like mine, with their trunks turned down, are actually bad luck. And before I could say “I’d rather be lucky than good,” she promptly rolled down the window and sent it flying into a gully.

What sphere of life arouses otherwise intelligent human beings to hold on to such bizarre superstitions as does sports? I can’t quite understand it. I adhere to them, like salt over the right shoulder, and avoid them, like the dreaded crossing black cat…but I’m not sure just why.
I am sure that it was 1993 when I became superstitious. Every day…countless times a day… I would play this game with myself: In the spur of a moment, I would come up with a personal challenge—if I can stop that ball before it crosses the line… if I can jump over 3 cracks on the street… if I can swim to shore in the next minute—I’ll win the national championship with my club team Slammers FC. Soon, I was swimming so fast and hopping so far I was nearly out of breath and clearly ready for my triathlon, when fate left its calling card. I still have the slip of paper from a Panda Express fortune cookie that I opened before the finals of Southern Cal State Cup. It reads, “A tropical destination is in your near future.” Low and behold…Far West Regionals were in Hawaii that year.
For sure, none of those mini challenges affected the outcome of the State Cup games, but, when the next check comes, I might advice not to throw out those pre-sealed, sugary, albeit stale, fortune cookies.

Today in the House of Happiness, matches do not pass by discreetly. Game days are marked by florescent yellow nail polish, Meghan’s GAME DAY neon tee shirt, and Kristina Maria’s “Our Song” on full volume, windows down, voices up, hair flipping everywhere.
It’s common for a man to not shave his beard throughout the playoffs…for luck. It’s common knowledge that Michael Jordan wore his UNC shirt under his Bull’s jersey…for luck. Cristiano Ronaldo never shoots towards the goal in his pregame warm up because he dare not “waste the goals.” And don’t even think about messing with the USWNT seating arrangements on the bus.Although some rituals are downright dirty…like a former teammate who refused to wash her sports bra. Some are quite pure…like those, rooted in a team’s legend, which involve kissing a picture of the Virgin Mary before every match. When I asked my teammates/housemates their thoughts on the subject, Verónica Boquete confessed to hopping with both feet before crossing the line onto the pitch before each game. She hops with both feet at the same time because, obviously, she doesn’t want one foot to feel left behind and jealous. As for Meghan , she admits that she used to have a specific order to putting on every garment, after which she would tap her shin guards twice, stand up, and turn once to the right. But that sounds less like superstition and more like obsessive-compulsive behavior.And, since we are all coming clean here…every morning before the game, I go out to the field and take 21 shots. If a field is not available to me, then I sit on my bed with the door closed and all the lights off, visualizing myself at the field taking 21 shots. Hmm, if I deferr to the wisdom of CR himself, then I wonder just how many goals I have left in the back of my pillow…On the other hand, USWNT teammate Yael Averbuch told me, “I try to avoid them [superstitious behaviors]. Because, to be honest, once I believe something like that it'll make me go crazy.”

But is it really craziness? It’s hard to watch sports. It’s hard to watch someone you love take on a formidable opponent with no way to help. For fans, superstition serves as a channeled vehicle to feel a sense of control. Rally caps fall under this form of craziness. As for us athletes… perhaps it is because sports, and especially football, seem to be controlled as much by luck and fortune as they are by talent or skill. In our desire to achieve, it can seem like, all too often, the ball rolls the wrong way…hits the post…was out of the view of the ref …the list goes on and on. Wouldn’t it be nice sometimes just to hold your fate in your own hand…your right hand of course…and an elephant in the other hand…with his trunk turned upward. J

Still, years later, when I look back at my wrinkly old fortune sitting next to my youth soccer national championship medal, I am still in awe of its power. Not power to predict the future, but its power to affect it. If believing is achieving, then maybe there is more to superstition than we give credit.I was 14 when I succumbed to superstition. I am 24 today. Ten years later, I try everyday to be my own fortune cookie, my own college undershirt, and my own play-off beard. And I do so through positive self talk. Yogi Berra once said, “Ninety percent of the game is half mental…” Pumping myself up with positive self-talk is the most powerful and effective tool I can use. It is the process of crafting superstitious self-fulfilling prophecies. Unfortunately these little mantras don’t keep quiet during my matches. Last week was not the first time I’ve heard a defender on the opposing team ask if I’m crazy as they see me mouthing and gesturing to myself on the field. Oh well… Muhammed Ali said, “I told myself I was the greatest long before I knew I actually was.” That little bit of trust that we feel inside because of our rituals, that instant of hope found in our superstition, that moment we imagine how success feels after our “little lie”… is added power. And perhaps that power…that magic… is an edge. And at the very least, our superstitious rituals and behaviors help us cope and manage our fears…

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.” – Cheryl Strayed in WILD.