How World Cup rituals can benefit performance

The Rio Report

View photo

.

Kissing tattoos, adjusting bootlaces and touching the crossbar after every goal are just some of the bizarre routines and rituals that will be on show in Brazil during this World Cup.

Despite intense training regimes and carefully planned strategies, many stars still focus on superstitions just before a match, looking to repeat actions that ‘delivered’ success in the past even if they cannot see how they had an influence.

When Leighton Baines walks onto the pitch in Manaus for England’s clash with Italy on Saturday, for instance, he will go to the top of the D, with the goal to his left, and undo and re-tie his laces.

“It does my head in,” he once admitted to the Liverpool Echo. But he is far from alone.

England team-mate Phil Jones puts his sock on the left or right foot first depending on whether he’s playing home or away – so in Brazil it will be right foot first every game.

Cesc Fabregas will kiss the ring given to him by his girlfriend four times, Luis Suarez will kiss tattoos of his son and daughter’s names, Iker Casillas will touch the crossbar every time his team scores and Kolo Toure will always have to be last on the pitch.

Cristiano Ronaldo will have had to sit at the back of the plane on the way to Brazil, and reportedly must have a haircut before every match. He also must be first to go onto the pitch when with the national side – but last when playing for Real Madrid.

“Superstitions are often used to reduce anxiety by creating an illusion of control,” says Dr Eddie O’Connor, from the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. “It lowers nervousness and makes the athlete feel like they’re doing something to help performance.”

Sporting superstitions often relate to wearing certain ‘lucky’ items of clothing or kit.

John Terry wore the same shin pads for 10 years, England manager Don Revie always wore the same blue suit on matchdays, F1 driver David Coulthard wore the same blue underpants for every race and Tiger Woods will always wear red on the final day of a golf tournament.

NBA star Jason Eugene Terry used to wear five pairs of socks and sleep in the shorts of the next day’s opposing team the night before a game, while MLB star Jason Giambi would put on a golden thong when struggling for home runs.

Habitual activities are, however, where the most bizarre rituals appear.

Rio Ferdinand would always jump the line when walking onto the pitch while Paul Ince never wore his shirt until he came out of the changing room.

Tennis star Rafael Nadal will line all his water bottles up to face the court – leading opponent Marinko Matosevic to kick them over on purpose in last year’s Monte Carlo Masters – while Goran Ivanisevic watched the Teletubbies every morning when he won Wimbledon in 2001.

Cricketer Neil McKenzie had to put down all the changing room toilet seats before batting and always taped his bat to the ceiling because he once scored a century after his team-mates did it as a practical joke.

Strangest is baseball star Kevin Rhomberg, who had to touch anyone who touched him – leading to a game once being halted because opposing players would not leave him alone.

The problem comes when things happen that are out of a player’s control, but there is actually scientific proof that as long as these rituals keep being carried out, they can actually have a positive effect on players.

An analysis in Germany, reported in ‘Psychological Science’ journal, concluded having a lucky charm had actually made participants perform better while a study in the US found the more important and uncertain the game, the higher the reliance on ‘ritual commitment’.

“If a superstition allows an athlete to relax because they properly executed their pre-game ritual, they really might perform better for several reasons psychologically,” explains Dr Stephen Walker of PodiumSportsJournal.com.

“If that relaxation reduces muscle tension, enables the athlete to focus better, to visually track the ball better, then indeed the superstition can potentially help an athletic performance.”

Indeed, superstitions have actually played a part in previous World Cup successes, with Frenchman Laurent Blanc kissing Fabien Barthez’s head before every game in 1998 and Italy's Gennaro Gattuso packing his bags to go home before every game when they won in 2006.

So where there is superstition, there is hope...

 

- Will Gray

View comments (7)