Superstitions of Champions

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Why superstitious rituals work for top athletes

Here at Freshline, we like to monitor leaders in sport and in health. We do so because we value insights shared by gifted professionals who make their living from mentoring or coaching others and encouraging greatness.

One local sage we admire is Josh Martin, a Tennis Coach and sports mentor at the University of British Columbia. Josh often shares insights and ideas in his “Fresh Take”, and his recent post - Superstitious Habits? Do They Really Work? contained some good advice as well.

Insights from Josh’s Fresh Take

It’s funny how superstitions formulate for an individual. An eccentric routine helps an athlete believe they can perform at their best. This past week, I spoke to my colleague Dana about her game-time habits that help focus or calm her nerves. She remarked “During matches, when picking up a ball for serving, I would pick it up with my left foot and my racket. I’d then bounce the ball all the way back to the baseline about 5 to 10 times depending on how nervous I was. Once there, I’d bounce the ball three times with my left hand and then serve. This method would help me focus and relax.”

Rafael Nadal’s positive habits

An interesting part of superstitious habits is that they persist and become part of a routine which helps individuals prepare, focus, relax and concentrate. In addition, these habits do not necessarily disappear or diminish while a player becomes great, but often, may become more elaborate and entrenched. For instance, Josh focuses on Rafael Nadal and some of his habits and methods. Nadal always waits patiently for his opponent to stand before he does and he jumps non-stop during every pre-game coin toss. As well, he insists on having both cold and warm water bottles with him on court. But are there other reasons as to why people carry out these habits? Can they be a form of OCD? For instance, Nadal needs his water bottles diagonally placed facing the court with the labels pointed towards his side. Is this placement (the angle of his water bottle) really going to help his performance against the likes of a fellow tennis legend such as Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer? We don’t really know, BUT, if this is part of Nadal’s routine and the labels were not facing the appropriate direction, it could serve as a distraction. Nadal’s focus would be taken away from the game until this was corrected.

Always seek to improve

As we complete this blog, it is also interesting to cite the perspective of Miyamoto Musashi – considered by many to be the greatest swordsmen ever. In his Book of Five Rings, he noted, “There is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself” Meanwhile, another sage known as Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect”

If we seek to reconcile MM’s perspectives with his Rafael’s habits or Josh’s advice, we must ask “So would we consider these habits or superstitions something inside or outside of us?” The short answer is that if these persistent ideas and habits help you play your best, then use them to your advantage.

As Rafael Nadal says: "The glory is being happy. The glory is not winning here or winning there. The glory is enjoying practicing, enjoy every day, enjoying to work hard, trying to be a better player than before."