Thursday, 19 November 2015

Superstitions and weird rituals: a footballer’s magic remedy

Much is often made of the strange rituals and superstitions that many footballers display either before, during or after a match. Whether it involves wearing some ‘lucky’ clothing, carrying a charm or mascot with mystical powers or performing some kind of intricate routine, we can often marvel at the weird and wonderful practices players can put themselves through to give themselves piece of mind.

As a performance coach, I am often asked about how superstition can affect a player and many people are surprised when I tell them I actively encourage a lot of superstitious rituals rather than try and help players overcome them.

Superstitions are not a recent thing either. Back in the 60s and 70s, England football captain Bobby Moore wouldn’t put his shorts on until everyone else in the team had finished dressing. His team mate Martin Peters would have fun at his expense by waiting until Moore had finally put his shorts on before Peters would proceed to take his own shorts off again. Moore then would have to take off his shorts and wait until Peters had put his back on again before repeating his ritual.

Rituals certainly have the effect of giving a player a sense of comfort and control over the extreme pressures that come about from playing at the highest level. Another effect they can have is to tap into a player’s positive emotions by providing a ‘Pavlovian’ association with the ritual where the performing of the routine itself is associated with a positive feeling. So when Javier Hernandez of Mexico drops to his knees in prayer before each match he plays, he is not only connecting with a higher being, he is also enhancing his emotional state and improving his confidence on the field.

These superstitions can also impact on a player’s self belief by creating an expectation of performing well, what is often referred to as a ‘placebo’ effect. Placebos are most often used as a control when studying new drugs and often come in the form of sugar pills or salt water injections. The amazing thing about placebos is that they very often get as good results as the pill they are being tested against. When the great Pelé went through a dip in his form, he sent a friend of his on a mission to track down one of the last shirts that he had played in when he was playing well which he had given away to a fan. Although the friend lied and pretended that the shirt Pelé had actually used in the previous match was the ‘lucky’ shirt, the belief that it was the shirt was enough to have the hoped for placebo effect and Pelé’s form quickly returned.

The only thing I stipulate with the players I work with is that any routines or rituals, however strange they may be, must be in their control and must be repeatable. If a player needs to be blessed by a one-eyed druid standing on one leg in the centre circle before kick off in order for him to play well, he may have problems replicating that before each match.

One ritual that I probably would not recommend was the one chosen by the Argentinian goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea at the 1990 World Cup who decided it was good luck to urinate on the pitch before a penalty shoot out. Having been successful after performing this ritual in the quarter-finals against Yugoslavia, he decided to repeat his lucky routine in the semi-final against Italy which also went to penalties. The ritual obviously worked as Argentina won through to the final. We can only speculate as to what the outcome would have been if the ‘call of nature’ hadn’t come for Goycochea.

Andy Barton
Performance coach
The Sporting Mind