Monday, March 29, 2010


I wear the same elastic in my hair every time I play soccer. Well, elastic is a pretty generous word for this stretched out grey stringy circle I use to tie up my hair – but that’s what it was, an elastic, back when I started being superstitious. Yup, same one, and when it’s not in my hair at the field, it’s wound around my right hand, where my life line would be if I could read palms.

There are other things too, I realize, that have become part of my elaborate pre-soccer ritual. They are what keep me from getting injured. I wear only short black ankle sports socks to play (do you have any idea how hard these are to find?!). I brush my teeth (well, now, that’s just good oral hygiene), I put my cleats on before my knee brace, and I listen to the Clash before I play. Superstition is something I came to late in life, and I’m very selective in the way I practice it.

When my hair elastic stopped being pink and sparkly (I swiped it from my daughters), and well, elastic, I started to wonder if I had a problem. So I began to ask around amongst teammates and soccer friends. Do you have any superstitions around playing? Anything specific you do before a game to prepare? Nothing. Nada. One fellow finally admitted “well sometimes if I have time on a Monday night before we play, I’ll watch the top 50 goals of all time on youtube.” If I have time. Feh. That is not a superstition.

So, like all people who feel isolated and alone in their little worlds, I turned to the internet. And I started to feel better.

What I discovered was that everyone loves the crazy superstitious story –like that wackjob Turk Wendell, the major league baseball pitcher who would chew 4 pieces of licorice and brush his teeth every inning he pitched, or Mike Hargrove, another major leaguer who had so many little ticks and routines for every swing that he was nicknamed ‘the human rain delay’. I’m interested in it, of course, because I have some of these little quirks myself and seek to feel less.....weird. But there’s not a lot of actual scholarship or study on why people do this. I did find one study on the website “Athletic Insight, the Online Journal of Sport Psychology”, entitled “An Exploratory Investigation of Superstition, Personal Control, Optimism and Pessimism in NCAA Division 1 Intercollegiate Student-Athletes”. Close enough, right? The article mentions women soccer players as part of the group study, and more importantly, it must be worthwhile because it uses vocabulary like ‘locus of control’ and ‘behooves’.

After wading through fourteen pages of research and bibliography filled with language such as “a negative correlation emerged between a God-mediated local of control and prayer frequency (-3.7) and prayer effectiveness (-3.6)” , all I can think is wha? Those cutesy licorice stories are looking pretty good right about now. But the foray into academia wasn’t a total waste. I found out that people who believe in God are more superstitious. Considering my kids call church ‘you know mom, that building with the big plus sign’ – it’s apparently a little surprising that I’m superstitious.

I also learned that the authors differentiate between superstitious behaviours and rituals and what they call preperformance routines; they feel the major difference is that the preperformance stuff is something athletes can control, as opposed to the superstitions, which athletes tend to feel control them....(mmm, licorice anyone?) So....brushing my teeth before playing – fine, normal, preperformance routine; ridiculous grey stringy hair elastic of questionable effectiveness and need to wear short black sports socks - not fine.

Also– in the past, the limited studies that have been done showed that women were more likely to emphasize superstitious ‘appearance rituals’ than men, but over a period of twenty years, this has changed; apparently now there is virtually no difference in the kinds of ‘appearance rituals’ men and women undertake before playing in sporting events. Dudes worry about the way things look just as much as us girls. (Thank you, David Beckham.)

More tellingly, for me personally, is the explanation that ‘superstitious behaviours have been used to reduce anxiety, build confidence and cope with uncertainty” and that they are “utilized to give the illusion of control over reinforcement in an uncontrollable situation”. Ah, the illusion of control. Don’t we all want that? The study says that women have a stronger sense than men do that they can control things, but I feel just the opposite. I’m in control of nothing in my life. The kids run the household. We must remember of course, that these are collegiate athletes being studied, those pre-kids women who say things like “When I have kids, I’m never going to let them watch TV” and things of that ilk. I too used to think that way. But getting married and having kids and working and driving for field trips and helping with brownie badges means exhaustion, and it’s strange how quickly things can spiral out of control before you know it.

And so we start to need these things, these simple little things, like formerly pink hair elastics and black socks. It’s no wonder someone like Michael Jordan wore his UNC basketball shorts under his Chicago Bulls ones every time he played. He didn’t even make his high school basketball team, but suddenly he’s playing collegiate ball, he’s amazing, he’s in the NBA, and he’s famous and talk about spiralling out of control – everyone wants a piece of him and he’s making commercials for almost every product imaginable, and kids all over the U.S. want to be just like him and even though he can seemingly fly through the air towards the basket, he still knows inside that he’s human, and flawed, and that he screws up sometimes, and maybe those UNC shorts help him remember what it feels like to be shocked at how good he is all of a sudden, and humbled somewhat.

Now I wish my weird greying hair elastic and short black athletic socks made sense in the same way, but instead, they are boring and inexplicable. Probably I was so worried about getting hurt while playing that after wearing them once and not getting hurt, I wore them again and this false sense of safety started to build up around them to the point where it has just become ridiculous.

I should be thankful, I suppose, that my superstitions aren’t worse; I’m not worried about stepping on lines on the field, which could affect my game; I don’t have the lame superstition of not washing my socks or jersey if I win, a fairly popular superstitious habit, according to my research, which I’m certain would make me less popular amongst my teammates. They’re just funny little things I do, and it doesn’t really affect anyone negatively. Looking for ankle length black athletic socks give me something to do at the mall. Besides, it behooves my ego (and my vocabulary!) to study this and to compare myself in some remote way with real athletes out there, those Tiger Woods (red shirt on Sundays) and Wayne Gretzky types (hockey jersey tucked in on one side). After all, if it worked for them.....

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