Alex Luckoo, Guest Contributor
Whether it be food, a bow, a certain number of leg swings or tapping the top rail of the door before exiting the locker room, many athletes have superstitions that they attribute to the quality of their performance.
Some of the most notable names with superstitious practices include Tiger Woods, who famously wears a red shirt on the final day of every major tournament, and Serena Williams, who always bounces the ball exactly five times before her first serve.
But Woods has won 14 of the 81 major championships that he has competed in — a 17.28 percent victory rate — which means that, even though he is among the most decorated golfers, his red shirt is mostly ineffective. Williams, on the other hand, has won 23 of her 31 Grand Slam tournaments.
Considering this, can a conclusion be made that superstitious practices improve performance? If a correlation is there, what makes this possible and from where do these practices originate?
Utica College’s 3,000-meter school record holder Kaitlyn Stinson, a senior, is indecisive about her belief in the power of superstition. She explained that, at the beginning of her cross country career, she noticed that a lot of girls wore bows in their hair on competition day. In trying the practice, Stinson had one of her poorest performances to date and has avoided the accessory ever since.
“I don’t really think about it, but I do need to braid my hair the same way before each race,” Stinson said.
She does not consider it superstitious. Rather, she refers to it as a habit that she decided on creating after her first outstanding performance in which she sported braided hair. She also thinks the hairdo played a part in her being the only member of a 14-girl cross country team to qualify for the NCAA Division III Cross Country Championships.
The superstitious collective
There is a noticeable pattern in the description of superstitions that athletes and their coaches share.
Some of the superstitious practices are collective beliefs that newcomers in a sport adopt to abide by the norm. Other practices were specific to individuals.
Watching a Utica College women’s basketball practice, you may notice everyone except freshman forward Ginamarie Pizza bounces the ball they are holding before a free-throw attempt. To score, senior forward Cortlynn Jepson’s version of the practice is to toss the ball back, realign her feet then bounce the ball three times.
According to Utica College athletic records, Jepson made 14 of her 25 free throws in the 2018 season. Senior center Briannah Florian, who bounces the ball she is holding three or four times before shooting, made 29 of her 40 free throws during the 2018 season.
Since developing these personal superstitions, both Jepson and Florian said they have noticed an improvement in performance.
Many of the girls neglected to mention anything about muscle memory, which suggested that it was not a reason for them bouncing the ball. In general, the idea is that the bounce is necessary to score, even if everyone has their own iteration of it.
Anything for the win
“Sometimes I wear Matt Dunn’s number 32 shirt or John Kaczmarski’s 75,” said Blaise Faggiano, Utica College’s head football coach. “No one would know that, but I kind of feel like those guys are with us.”
Dunn was Utica College’s football captain when he passed away in 2013 due to an enlarged heart, while Kaczmarski passed away five years earlier in a snowmobile accident.
Faggiano clarified that his practice is not based in religious belief. Instead, it is a feeling that memorializing his former athletes will help the team’s performance.
Of his other superstitions, Faggiano explained that he switches hats between halves and that he does not like wearing blue on blue on gameday. When the Pioneers’ Empire 8 rival, Ithaca College, showed up in blue for the 2018 ECAC Scotty Whitelaw Bowl game, Utica won 44-42 to claim their first-ever bowl win.
Faggiano explained that he does not attribute his success solely to his superstitions, but he always succumbs to them for an extra edge during the game.
Men’s basketball coach Sean Coffey explained that if his team had a particularly dreadful away game while he wore a certain tie, he will avoid that tie as much as possible for the rest of the season. If he happens to be on a win streak wearing certain socks, he would not change or even wash them.
“I think we’re always looking for a reason why it (a loss) wasn’t our fault, something like an external factor that affects our actual abilities,” Coffey explained.
Coffey and Faggiano both said that anything that will help their athlete’s performance is encouraged — even if it is a superstition.
Women’s lacrosse coach Kristin St. Hilaire thinks of superstitions as both useful and limiting. Though she had her own superstitions as an athlete at the University of Massachusetts, as a coach, she would prefer that her athletes remain adaptable. St. Hilaire neither encourages nor discourages superstition.
“I can’t have my players seeing me thrown off my game because I’m worried about superstitions and routines,” St. Hilaire said.
One of her most consistent athletes of the 2018 season wore a particular headband during every game. A freshman at the time, Lauren Wolff scored 22 goals, which was fourth most on her team. However, with a 62.86 percent accuracy, Wolff was the second most efficient shooter.
“I’ve experienced times when I couldn’t find my headband before games and I got anxious knowing that it would be different,” Wolff said.
Her practice started as a way to be easily spotted by friends and family, but now it has evolved into something that affects her state of mind.
Utica College psychology professor Arlene Lundquist explained this as operant conditioning. Operant conditioning refers to an idea that people strengthen the behaviors they perceive to be rewarding and avoid those that are not beneficial. She explained that in the creation of mental shortcuts, people are left prone to illusory correlations.
“Just because something might happen in or around the same time that another thing occurs, doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a meaningful connection between the two,” Lundquist said. “People would rather to avoid the critical thinking, and bam, now you have a superstition.”
She also mentioned the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In regard to the reason athletes believe their superstitions help them, their positive expectations of a sporting event motivate them to perform better.
“Becoming conditioned is easy, but breaking what you learn is tough,” Lundquist said. “That’s why it might take an athlete four or five games to think, ‘Maybe it wasn’t the socks after all.”
What does God have to do with it?
Utica College athletes Brittany Charlonne, Malcolm Stowe and Carly Tebolt have all observed the action of making the symbol of the cross before a game or match.
Charlonne is the only of the three to do it, but religion related superstitions were the first to come to mind when athletes discussed practices that are not specific to themselves.
“You cannot try to manipulate God’s preference,” said Reverent Jeanne Kumbalek, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Utica.
According to Kumbalek, making the symbol of the cross is associated with Catholicism. She explained that faith is separate from superstition in that faith is a belief that the force of God is present with an individual as a guidance through life.
On the other hand, something done to bring good luck is superstition. In her opinion, there are actions done to help people get a better understanding of how God will help them, but it is not likely to be the habit of putting a sock on the right foot before the left.
Kumbalek said that God is likely not concerned with things like sports simply because people from both teams will call upon Him during a game.