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The Foul Line, Mental Imagery and Taco Bell?

If you’ve ever played a team sport, you’re probably familiar with the various routines that go into preparing for the game. These routines include stretching, warm-ups, discussion of strategy, and mental preparation. The purpose of these routines is to help enhance performance by warming up the mind and body for competition. In addition to activation, they help give athletes a sense of control and familiarity over the situation (Ptacek, 2016). The idea of control is an important concept in the realm of sports, one that is often misunderstood. This is because it can be hard to define what exactly is within an athlete’s control, and how much influence they really* have (or think they have) over the events that take place in a sporting event. Separating what we control from what we do not is a valuable skill as a human being. Anxiety, fear and frustration often originate from a low sense of control while confidence, presence and mental well-being are all results of keeping things we can and cannot control in perspective. While it is easy to understand the logic that people can’t control every external event that happens in their lives, there are others (athletes especially) that may beg to differ. Enter: the mysteriously powerful and seemingly bizarre world of superstitions.

What are Superstitions, exactly?

It’s safe to say we are familiar with superstitions in some capacity. If you’ve ever been told to not step on a crack break because it’ll break your mother’s back, that is superstition. This type of behavior is defined as acting as though there is, or believing there is, a cause and effect connection between certain behaviors and positive outcomes when there is no rational direct association (Ptacek, 2016). If you’ve ever stepped on a crack, did your mother’s back actually break at that moment? I’m guessing not. But oftentimes that doesn’t mean we stop thinking the belief holds any weight; we still may think twice about avoiding cracks on the sidewalk…because it can’t hurt, right?

There is no greater belief in the power of superstitions than in the world of sports. In games like baseball where there are so many outcomes up to chance, it’s understandable to desire some level of perceived control over the game result. What’s not so understandable, however, are the types of rituals that athletes perform to gain this clandestine sense of control, either before games or during, which seemingly have nothing to do with the game itself. To outsiders, some of the superstitious behaviors of athletes (baseball players especially) do seem incredibly bizarre. If you asked Jason Giambi if the reason he broke out of his hitting slumps was that he wore a golden thong (yes, he really did that), or that Michael Jordan played better because he wore his North Carolina Collegiate shorts underneath his Chicago Bulls shorts, or that Justin Verlander pitches well because he eats Taco Bell before every start, they’d all reply with a resounding yes.

What makes this type of superstitious behavior so prominent in sports, and why does it seem to work?

It’s clear that the superstitious behavior that athletes perform is backed by no logical or scientific basis, yet the belief that it does trumps all rational thought. This belief is so strong because it appears to enhance an individual’s performance. If this wasn’t the case, Jason Giambi wouldn’t have attributed a golden thong, something that has nothing to do with his performance whatsoever, to be the secret to ending his hitting slumps.

If you’ve ever taken an introductory psychology course, you’re probably familiar with B.F. Skinner and his model of reinforcement and operant conditioning. The theory behind his model is that an irrelevant action is reinforced, which leads to a belief that the action itself is causing the reinforcement, hence a superstition is formed (Ptacek, 2016). Skinner’s famous experiment behind this model involved pigeons, which he gave food at irregular intervals. Whatever the pigeons were doing at the particular time they received food, walking around the cage, turning their head, etc, was reinforced by the food. As a result, they’d repeat those same actions thinking it was the reason they were receiving food.

Pertaining to sports, an athlete may have worn a particular pair of socks or shoes on a day they played well. If they continue to play well wearing the same articles of clothing, they’ll likely develop the superstitious belief that the socks or shoes are directly contributing to a successful performance. While there is not a direct cause and effect relationship between the shorts and a great performance, what superstitions can do is reduce negative thinking which naturally occurs as human beings. Negative thinking is often extremely harmful for performance so if a superstitious routine helps to quiet our inner critic that can be a very powerful tool.

Do I need to be superstitious to perform well?

When it’s all said and done, the power of one’s belief in themselves cannot be understated. Stepping onto a competitive surface with confidence is the most important aspect of the mental game. The feelings of comfort and assurance that athletes get from doing certain rituals are real and do translate to better performance, but there is a risk to relying on these behaviors as well. What if we forget the lucky shorts? What if we play poorly even though we jumped over the foul line? Relying too heavily on beliefs that are not based in fact can be extremely dangerous psychologically. It can cause us to completely lose our locus of control and question our past, our present and our future.

So, what if there was a way to cultivate that same level of comfort and confidence without having to wear certain clothing or eat certain foods? The good news is there is a way to do so, and it starts with building a pre-performance routine.

The standard definition for a pre-performance routine is as follows: ‘A sequence of task-relevant thoughts and actions which an athlete engages in systematically prior to his or her performance of a specific sport or skill.’ (Moran, 1996). As stated at the beginning of the post, the distinct differences between pre-performance routines and superstitions are that pre-performance routines:

1. Involve task-relevant actions (no rituals required)

2.. Help athletes concentrate on performance factors that are within their control.

The components of the routine are specifically tailored to mimic in-game events (e.g., batting practice in baseball, shooting practice free throws in basketball, practicing tennis serves) and get the athlete in the right level of arousal (listening to music, practicing mindfulness / mental imagery). Developing a pre-performance routine that emulates movements used during the game will instill a greater sense of confidence in your ability to perform. In addition to performing ‘task relevant actions’, such as visualizing successful movements or working towards your desired outcome can be beneficial as well. It’s important to note that our brains can’t tell the difference between reality and our thoughts. This means that when we imagine ourselves taking a jump shot or hitting the receiver in stride the neurological pathway is actually the same as if we were physically performing the movements.

Routines help to message the performer that it is time to perform. They help the athlete to get their mind and body into the best state possible for high performance and they help to increase confidence, quiet our inner critic while channeling our emotion. Superstitions can often have a similar effect and if it’s working and you feel confident on the field, keep doing it, however understand the challenges that can come from too much reliance on a that pre-game Taco Bell…If the ritual is tied to the strong belief that it will determine your performance, it can have an effect in the opposite direction under certain circumstances. Jump over the foul line if you’d like, but make sure it’s part of a evidenced based performance routine for the greatest results. After all, even Michael Jordan paired his superstition with mental training.


Moran, A. L. (1996). The Psychology of Concentration in Sport Performance: A Cognitive Approach. Hove: Psychology Press.


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