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Why Do Sports and Superstitions Seem To Go Together?

By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer

While watching a movie the other night I noticed the lead character do something very strange. Mel Gibson, in the movie “Forever Young”, was sitting in a diner eating a meal. He accidentally knocked over the salt shaker and immediately scooped up the spilled salt and tossed it over his left shoulder.  I thought, “Why would he do that?”. Well, here’s the answer.

It seems that according to legend spilling salt is tantamount to losing money as salt was very valuable in ancient times. Most people in those days believed the Devil was lurking at the person’s left shoulder and caused the spill to happen. In order to defeat the Devil it was believed that throwing salt over the left shoulder would cause the salt to go into the Devil’s eyes thus driving him away from the unfortunate victim before he could create any other misfortunes.

Of course the next question is what does this have to do with sports? Everything. Throwing salt over your shoulder is a superstition based on a bad event that happened to an individual. It’s purpose was to try to eliminate the perceived cause of the bad event – the Devil. All players and coaches try to avoid bad results during their games or matches so sports seems to attract people that believe in superstitions. Players notoriously try to avoid bad results during their games or matches by going through superstitious routines. Here are just a few.

Venus Williams, Olympic gold medalist and Wimbledon winner, wears the same socks throughout an entire tennis tournament. In fact she has stated in the past that in tournaments where she has not followed this superstitious practice she has lost. Venus relates the losses to changing her routine.

Other crazy superstitions include Michael Jordan wearing his North Carolina Tar Heel shorts under his NBA uniform shorts during his games in the NBA. The practice of wearing the UNC shorts made him feel confident and comfortable during his NBA days. Other superstitions are Hall of Fame baseball player Richie Ashburn sleeping with his baseball bat every night when he was on a hot hitting streak. Ashburn always said he was afraid the team equipment manager would get his bat mixed up with the other bats and give him the wrong bat when he came up to the plate thus ending his hot streak.

Another very superstitious athlete was Major League Baseball’s twelve time All-Star Wade Boggs. Boggs played 18 years for the Boston  Red Sox, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays. During that time he religiously ate chicken as his pre-game meal, always woke up at the same time every day, always ran his pre-game wind sprints at 7:17 pm. He also always drew the Hebrew word “Chai” meaning “life” in the batter’s box, even though he is not Jewish. Boggs also asked the Red Sox public address announcer not to say his uniform number when he was introduced because he once broke out of a batting slump on the day Sherm Feller, the announcer, forgot to announce his number during his introduction.

All of these strange rituals helped Hall of Fame type players reach unprecedented levels of success. The same is true for coaches.

Let’s start with Roy Williams, the basketball coach at North Carolina. If his team loses a game he will never wear that same tie again to another game. If they beat a team he always re-wears the same suit again the next time he plays that team. Ol’ Roy always wears the same exact outfit to every practice. He will only write on a whiteboard using a blue marker and he always has to have his hand on a player’s shoulder as he enters the locker room. Williams has also been known to spit in the Mississippi River for good luck when he is on an NCAA Tournament run.

Roy Williams is not the only superstitious coach. Former UK great Adolph Rupp was a coach who was well known for his superstitious behavior. He was known for carrying a buckeye in his pocket for good luck. He was also known to carry a rabbit’s foot and four-leaf clover for the same reason. Rupp believed that if he found a hairpin before a game it was a sign of good luck and that his team would perform well that night. Legend has it that one time his players spread bobby pins around the parking lot before a game to see his reaction. He told the players before the game that they should have good luck that night because of all the bobby pins
he found on his way to the game.

Like Roy Williams Rupp was also superstitious about his clothing on game day.  While coaching high school basketball at Freeport High School in Freeport, Illinois Rupp replaced his worn out brown suit with a new blue suit that he wore to his next game. His team was soundly beaten. After that game Adolph Rupp only wore brown suits to games and the nickname “the man in the brown suit” stuck. If  Rupp was coaching in a tournament and his team won their first game he would head back to his hotel room and wash his socks before the next game. Rupp also always had the same pre-game meal – two eggs, bacon and lightly buttered toast.

At first glance it seems odd that so many great athletes and coaches are superstitious and yet it makes sense. Anyone who excels in any area of life has a disciplined approach to what they do and likes to control every aspect of the activity if possible. The superstitious traits are really just the out workings of a personality that is driven to succeed. Superstitious people seem to be very regimented in their approach to their sport and the superstitions help to reinforce the regimented approach. By controlling all the circumstances they can it helps to eliminate fear and gives them a feeling of confidence that they can achieve their goal.

So superstitions can be very helpful. With that being said if you find yourself walking through a graveyard at night make sure you whistle a happy tune – another superstition.  It helps to let the spirits know that you are in control and aren’t scared. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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