Superstitious Rituals and the Power of Believing

Fingers crossed and other superstitious rituals in sports and business

Superstitious rituals like smelly socks, unshaved beards, and energy stones are only weird if they don’t work.

When I was a boy, I played a lot of baseball growing up. I liked to play the infield at shortstop or second base and when my team would take the field, I made sure that I never walked on top of the first or third baseline. Instead, I always walked over the baseline. I had this superstition that if I walked on the line, something bad would happen to me during that inning. It’s been years since I thought of my baseball ritual, but an article I read about U.S. Open athletes and their changeover routines brought my boyhood superstition back to me.

Like most sports, tennis is an incredible match of mental skill, so I was curious to learn what rituals players perform during their changeover time. Spanish player, Rafael Nadal, who won the U.S. Open this week, is known for strictly abiding by a superstition. He sips from one bottle, then another and puts the two bottles at his feet on the left side of his chair, one behind the other, aimed diagonally at the court. He repeats this process at the beginning of the match and at every break until the match is over.

Much like athletes in the sports industry, the business arena also has its share of superstitious rituals among successful leaders. Some are task-based like executives who wear “lucky shoes” to pitch meetings or professional speakers who perform the same routine right before they go on stage. Others are longstanding rituals to bring good fortune like architects who design buildings without a thirteenth floor in the U.S. or a fourth floor in Asia because those numbers are considered unlucky.

When athletes like Nadal with superstitious rituals win 16 Grand Slam singles titles, NHL teams who don’t shave their beards sustain an undefeated winning streak, and market-busting CEOs carry bad-energy blocking stones in their pockets, you can’t help but wonder if there’s something to these behaviors.

The truth is that superstitious rituals do work many times and here’s why: We choose to believe in them and that trust boosts our certainty in the outcome. Those confident feelings naturally have a cascading effect on our mental state, which helps us perform. Mounting studies collectively show a correlation between believing in a force external to ourselves and better performance.

The truth is that superstitious rituals do work many times and here’s why: We choose to believe in them and that trust boosts our certainty in the outcome.

It’s no coincidence that companies succeed when leaders provide their people with a greater purpose and something to believe in. As human beings, we’re driven by meaning. Whether you rely on something externally good or put your faith in behavior associated with past successes, the important takeaway here is the power of conviction. When we believe, our brains override uncertainty and, instead, create pathways for envisioning what’s possible.

 

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Comments

  1. It’s well known that a lot of athletes are skilled visualizers, so there might be a fine line between between visualization and superstition. …or perhaps a lot of times watching an athlete engage in repetition, it appears to the observer that they think their inconsequential action has magical power.

    I think more often than not, high performers – athletic or otherwise – do these rituals as a part of experiencing success ahead of time. A great example is Conor McGregor’s recent match with Floyd Mayweather. Someone made Conor a loud (of course), albeit beautiful fur coat dyed in the colors of the Irish flag for him to wear on his approach to the ring. He was presented this just prior to step off, and he declined it, choosing instead to wear an Irish flag over his shoulders instead. Why? Because he visualized every detail of the fight, from arriving at the MGM to the post-fight interview. In his visualized approach, was wearing the flag. As the visualization played out in real life, each scene realized was a little victory and an affirmation that his “program” was correct. He was executing, to a large degree on autopilot, because – in the infamous words of Mike Tyson – “Everyone’s got a plan til I punch him in the face!”

    Jim Ryan, regarded as the greatest mile-runner to ever not win a gold medal, put it simply: “Motivation gets you started, *good habits* keep you going!” Some habits serve only as a subconscious trigger to keep our feet trudging one in front of the other when all other external stimulus – if we stopped to think about it – would tell us to stop.

    What kinds of things do you do to turn off your brain to deactivate discouragement and discomfort?

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