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Writings on the wall: Superstitions in athletes

By Jordan Clark
On March 26, 2017

If you ask an athlete what the key to their success is, they will likely tell you about importance of hard work, perseverance and maybe even passion for the game. But what they probably won’t tell you, their lucky underwear. 

Superstitions get a bad rap for seeming silly and it’s rare to hear someone publicly credit a personal ritual for helping them succeed. 

There has been research that suggest that some people do believe in some kind of superstition. Among athletes, superstitions are even more popular because they regularly engage in performance tasks. 

Michael Jordan, for example, reportedly wore his University of North Carolina shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls uniform for every game because he thought they brought him good luck. He would need longer shorts for his Bulls uniform to make sure he was able to cover up his Tarheels shorts. 

This happening even pushed the NBA to change their style of shorts from the short shorts to a longer pair of shorts. 

Jordan’s North Carolina shorts was even referenced in the movie “Space Jam” after he was sucked into the toon world by Bugs Bunny and his gang to take on a band of aliens that stole the playing abilities from five NBA players in a basketball game.

MJ mentioned to Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny that in order to play he would need them to go to the real world and obtain his basketball shoes and his North Carolina shorts from his home. 

NBA veteran and current member of the Milwaukee Bucks, Jason Terry, also has a particular ritual that he has during the NBA season. 

Terry owns a pair of shorts for every team in the NBA, and he will wear the shorts to bed the night before a game for his team’s next opponents. He has stated that it’s his way to get into the mind of his opponents. 

Former UNLV and Fresno State basketball coach, Jerry Tarkanian, had his own little superstitious event in his third year of his basketball coaching career when he was a high school coach. 

It was during the championship game in February and it was so hot in the gym. According to Tarkanian he would always have to go continue getting a drink of water. 

When the game headed into overtime, he decided to just wet a towel and chew on it instead of always having to get a drink of water. This little quirk would carry on for his five decade coaching career. 

But why do people feel like it helps?

In a study that took place in 2010 at the University of Cologne in Germany, researchers conducted a series of experiments to test and explain the idea of rituals or superstitions. 

The researchers at the university instructed 41 students to bring a lucky charm with them to the experiment. One half was instructed to leave the charm with the researchers and the other half kept a hold of theirs. 

Before completing the task that was designated to the students, a survey was filled out by all of those who took part of the experiment in which they indicated how confident they were that they would succeed. 

Results of the experiment show that the students who had their lucky charm did perform better on the memory task than the students who didn’t have their charm. The researchers also found that the performance advantage was largely explainable by the increase of confidence that the students got from bringing their lucky charm. 

A follow-up was conducted and revealed that superstitious behavior, and a confidence boost that comes with it, such as having a lucky charm, led the participants to set higher goals and persist longer on tasks, which can also lead to greater achievement. Members of the UNC men’s basketball team do have their own rituals they do before games and practices, but feel superstitions are, as stated earlier, silly and child-like. As head coach Jeff Linder simply put it, “I don’t believe in them.”

Linder however does have a ritual to take a pregame nap.

“When we have home games, taking a pregame nap is challenging when you four kids and one being a 14 month old,” Linder said. “But when on the road, the nap is easier to get in.” 

Sophomore guard Jordan Davis however has a slight belief in superstitions. If during the game and he has a bad first half, he will change his shoes for the second half. 

As for rituals, Davis will listen to music and arrive to the gym at 5:30 p.m. for shooting drills and also showers before a game to relax his mind. 

Senior forward Jon’te Dotson doesn’t have a big belief when it comes to superstitions but he will always end warm-ups with a made basket. Dotson also has some rituals he embarks on before games by listening to music and eats before games. 

Junior guard DJ Miles has a similar belief when it comes to shorts as MJ did, but of a different variety of shorts.  

“I wear the same compression shorts for games. If I’m not wearing them for a game, I feel completely off,” Miles said. 

 Miles also has ritual during the basketball season. He always puts his left shoe on first and it makes him feel more comfortable and prepared. 

Taken from the research conducted at the University of Cologne, the findings suggest that superstitions may not be real in a sense that Michael Jordan’s lucky shorts caused his exceptional performance, or members of the UNC men’s basketball team’s rituals and little superstitions. But a superstitious behavior seems to have a very real impact on the athletes’ belief that they can achieve anything.

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