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Does the use of superstition in sports increase with an increase in competition?

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Superstition is often defined as an irrational of unfounded belief in general and the term is used by many to merely show that they wish to characterise given beliefs or opinion as false, misinformation or ignorance. (Bernardin, 2004) Many definitions have been put forward as to what superstition means, however it is not easy to define or distinguish superstition from other types of belief and action. The only thing that is evident about superstition is that it is powerful in that it can influence people how to act or not to act in everyday life.

I propose to examine superstition in sport, as I became increasingly interested in the psychology of superstition recently whilst writing an essay on the persistence of superstition in the world today. When researching I found superstition was evident in the professions, especially those which produce a high level of anxiety, like competitive sports.

I have chosen the research question ‘Does the use of superstition in sports increase with an increase in competition?’ because of the increased interest of competitive sports and sporting success in the public domain. With many people today opting for some kind of sport as a hobby or following or supporting a team means that sport is a popular choice of interest, whether it be as an occupation, a means of spending leisure time, watching or taking part in it, making it a relevant topic to research in today’s society. The pressure that athletes have to deal with from their fans in order to win certain titles or trophies for example, is great, so surely these pressures need to be dealt with by some means. Many people in society today may find it interesting to see how athletes cope in situations like this and to see whether it is these rituals or superstitions that aid in their relief from the anxiety of competition.

Superstition in sport can be defined as “actions which are repetitive, formal, sequential, distinct from technical performance and which athletes believe to be powerful in controlling luck or other external factors” (Bleak & Frederick, 1998, p.2; quoted in Todd & Brown, 2003; McClearn, 2004). Reports in the media indicate the prevalence of superstition practiced by athletes in today’s sports (Kuehls, 1994; Sherman, 1988) and how it varies from behaviours related to clothing, food, pre and post-competition rituals, and activities during competition. (Buhrmann, Brown, Zaugg, 1981; Woman’s Sports and Fitness Magazine, 1986). According to Becker (1975) part of the motivation for athletes’ use of superstition is man’s basic need to order and regulate his life. Superstitious practices help athletes maintain equilibrium as they keep things constant and minimise disruption. Some athletes turn to superstition for the same reasons that others turn to religion or drugs, to relieve pressure and to convince themselves that results are predetermined, to take the fear out of the unknown. McCallum, 1992, p.203).

As much as athletes’ might indulge in their superstitions, sporting types may rarely care to admit that they are superstitious, as they prefer to talk about “habits” or “routines”. (Clark, 2003). This is because “Science” has taken on an almost mystical value for us, and we like to think of ourselves as “rational”. (Womack, 1992, p.199) However a routine becomes a superstition when someone believes that he must follow it to have good luck, or that bad luck will ensue if he doesn’t. (McCallum, 1992). As Nanne states in McCallum (1992, p.210) that “Little rituals become little obsessions. Obsessions become superstitions.” However according to Woman’s Sports and Fitness magazine (1986) call them procedures, call them rituals. Call them traditions, no matter what you dub them, it all comes down to the same thing…superstition.

Some see superstition as beneficial as it seems to help with anxiety and acts like a coping strategy when levels of competition are high, Neil et al (1981) noted that the higher the competition level and the greater the involvement in sport, the greater the prevalence of superstition, regardless of gender. Athletes are superstitious because confidence (Lustberg, 2004), together with training and physical conditioning, is necessary to top athletic performance. According to Crust (2005) emotions are an essential part of sport competition, but if you don’t gain control of them before competing they might control you and hinder performance. By taking mental charge by implementing psychological plans and routines can help all athletes to a more optimal state of readiness for performance. It is important that the athlete feels he is as much in control of himself and the situation as possible.

It is the chance element that is present in sport, which contributes to the athlete’s feelings of uncertainty and lack of control. Such feelings may detract from their confidence and contribute to anxiety. (Van Raalte & Brewer, 1991). It has been acknowledged that in order to feel some sense of certainty and to provide a means of feeling control in competitive situations, many athletes practice some form of superstition (Neil, 1982 & Dunleavy & Miracle). Superstitions help athletes overcome both physical and mental obstacles through what Antonelli terms a “psychological placebo” (Becker, 1975; Raalte et al, 1991). However some may argue that the chance element is present in all life, not just sport. Although superstition may seem to be a positive attraction as it seems to provide predictability, gambling too can have a positive allure for many, well as many other forms of uncertainty and risk. It would seem that not many things in life are predictable apart from the prison routine but what is appealing about this?

Superstition may possibly have a positive survival value in certain circumstances, like a ‘coping mechanism’ in order to deal with the pressure to succeed. According to Lustberg (2004) “Athletes begin to believe, and want to believe, that their particular routine is enhancing their performance…in reality, its probably just practice and confidence that’s making them perform better.” Matute (1994) found that in an uncontrollable situation where reinforcement is non-contingent, people are prone to superstitious behaviour and illusion of control, inaccurately believing that they have control over the reinforcement. Skinner (1948) observed that superstition is a mere conditioning process that occurs as an accidental result due to the fact that a reinforcement coincides temporally with a response and it is therefore assumed that the response is dependant upon the reinforcement.

Superstitious beliefs and practices is therefore perceived as the outcome of learning, except that the learning has in a sense gone wrong. (Jahoda, 1969, p.89) Skinner believed ritualistic practices and superstition stemmed from the accidental connection between the response and the appearance of a reinforcer (Todd & Brown, 2003). It has been observed too in Yale athletes that superstitions depend on their prior record of success or failure. Success leads to repetition of behaviour, according to Vic Esclamado “…because you associate it with the way you played…if something works you don’t change the routine.” (Becker, 1979, p.149).

Womack (1992) discussed these superstitious behaviours as ritual and stated that although, by definition, ritual is not essential to technical performance, anthropologists have offered impressive evidence of the impact of ritual on human affairs, in both the psychological and sociological realms. Malinowski, according to Womack (1992), argued that ritual or magical behaviour is associated with high risk activities, with the risk being expressed in terms of physical danger to the participants or possibly of failure of the activity. In the context of sport ritual, Gmelch (1971) supports Malinowski’s contention. He determined that magical behaviour in baseball is associated with the high-risk activities of pitching and hitting, rather than with the low-risk activity of fielding. (Womack, 1992, p.193). Case (2001) carried out a study with first year students, which seems to mirror Malinowski’s argument, where a series of chance determined tasks with varied outcomes and varied possibilities of success were employed.

The students were offered the advice of a psychic. Case observed when the probability of success was high, no one used the psychic and once the probability of success decreased students used the psychic more. When Case measured the students’ belief in psychic powers he found no association between such beliefs and use of the psychic. It portrayed to him that it did not matter whether they believed in the superstitious strategy or not, the students used the psychic every time they felt desperate. This concluded for Case that people tend to use superstitious strategies when their control is most threatened, even when they say they do not believe in the effectiveness of such strategies. If they really believed in their superstition they would carry it out regardless. However the fact that they only resorted to it when they were most anxious indicated they were using superstition as a means of control. (Vozella, 2001). This may be attributed to Neil’s (1980) that it appears that superstitious practices increase as the stakes become greater.

The drive to gain control in uncontrollable situations is a characteristic of individuals displaying type A behaviour pattern (TABP) (Prkachin & Harvey, 1998). A behaviour pattern found to be prevalent among elite athletes, as well as a strong athletic identity, which has been described as a strong identification with the athlete role and a tendency to be very ego-involved in athletic competition. Research by Neil et al. (1981) found that athletes to be more ego-involved have a greater tendency to practice sport superstitions. Research has shown that TABP is motivated by a driven need to maintain personal control over events (Todd & Brown, 2003). Competitive sport is seen to involve stress and uncontrollability, the very sort of situation a type A individual may put themselves in. It has been asserted that since superstition can be seen as a way to reduce anxiety in sports situations, it would be expected that the more ego-involved athletes, those likely to feel more anxiety, would therefore be more likely to develop sport-related superstitions. (Raalte, 1991). This is evident from research carried out by Neil, Anderson, & Sheppard, (1981) where it was found that the higher the ego-involvement of male and female ice hockey players, the greater the prevalence of sport superstitions.

Although Cohn (2005) argues for superstitions’ success in building confidence and helping boost morale they should not be perceived as the only reason for success and think that they will determine success no matter how well you prepare before a game. Cohn (2005) mentions pre-performance rituals and like Sherman believes functional behaviours such as exercise physiology, biomechanics and sport psychology, represent a more productive use of an athlete’s energies than engagement in non functional behaviours, such as superstitious ritual, those activities that have no demonstrated relationship to performance, as they have been proved through research to consistently enhance performance. Team psychologists and coaches may try to make athletes give superstitions up, rationalising scientific thought (Watson & Tharpe, 1990), however according to Womack there is increasing evidence that it makes good sense to keep them. Brunvand stated that “whether personally superstitious or not it would be a foolish coach who would discourage such a reassuring habit.” (Becker, 1975, p.148). According to Val Skinner it has absolutely no bearing on how you perform, but if it gives you a feeling that it’s going to make a difference, why not do it.

Some perceive superstition as deficient as it makes athletes believe they are not in control of their own events. Sherman (1988) believes to adopt a more internal locus of control. Locus of control can be defined as believing that an event is either in one’s control or out of one’s control. Those that believe in internal locus of control are more likely to believe that an event occurs as a product of their own behaviour and this will therefore increase an individual’s motivation to continue an activity. The other half who believe in external locus of control, who perceive that an event is contingent on chance, luck, or the influence of other people will decrease in desire to persist in an activity that he or she feels unable to influence.

This difference in beliefs leads to a parallel difference in behaviour, because those that believe in internal locus of control perceive themselves as masters of their own fate, they will actually try, more than those who believe in an external locus of control, to assert control and to practice behaviour that enhance control over their own lives. Follow up work, suggested by Bleak & Frederick (1998), that needs to be addressed is the relationship between use of superstition in sport and actual sport performance. Todd & Brown (2003) also suggested to look at collective sports and individual sports to observe which exercises more superstition.

Few people care to admit that they themselves are superstitious, especially those that have a strong belief in science and objectivity. However it may seem plausible to say that there is no objective means of distinguishing superstition from other types of belief and action. However Heath proposed that if there is objective evidence for a belief, if its probabilities are calculable and on reasonable grounds, then there is nothing irrational in believing it, but if odds are grossly outweighed then the belief is seen as no more than mere superstition. (Jahoda, 1969,p.4). However superstition like all behaviour is observable so therefore should be measurable. Therefore I have decided to take the positivist approach whilst carrying out the questionnaires, this is where the researcher applies reason to observation. Using empirical evidence to form generalisations will then mean a hypothesis can be deduced from them.

This is known as the deductive method. My research design will be cross-sectional, as it will be carried out in a single point in time. I propose to test the previous hypothesis that researchers have mentioned by conducting my own study in order to test ‘whether the use of superstition in sports increases with an increase in competition’ and to see whether past research by Neil (1982) was right in concluding that superstition is used as a means to cope with the stress of competition, and who concludes that there are differences in superstitions by sport and gender. In order to carry out my study data will need to be collected on competition, superstition and sport.

To collect the secondary data in order to answer my research question I have began searching relevant books, journals, articles and websites and also made a trip to the British Library Document Supply Centre in Boston Spa. However my main aim is to collect primary data.

I recognise that it would not be an easy assignment to try and tackle a large sample of professional athletes who would suffer from the most intense pressures by competition. It may be hard to track famous sporting professionals that will reply in my limited time frame to give be substantial results that would be reliable and valid in order to generalise my conclusions. However as living near Headingly Stadium I may be able to gain access to carry out my study using the ruby union and rugby league and cricket teams, this will give me results for professional athletes. I could use the method of snowball sampling for this, as I question a few team members they will provide me with contact details for other team members that will be able to help me with my study. Although this study would prove to be a most interesting, it will only consist of male athletes and would therefore not be able to make generalisations or comparisons with gender. Knowing this might not be an easy task I have created a back up plan.

The methodological and research techniques I will use to collect the primary research for this study will consist of the survey approach where I will conduct questionnaires. I will use an easy to administer superstition questionnaire and then distribute it to a sample of students taking part in 3 different sports. Male football, female netball and mixed hockey at a high level of competition (1st team) and at a low level of competition (3rd team), then compare the results of these to see if there are any correlations. I will use the procedure of stratified random sampling, this procedure involves dividing the population I am researching into separate strata and then taking a percentage from each stratum in order to provide me with a representative sample of the sporting student population. Access of my sample will be relatively easy to gain and it will also consist of a wide variety of people, giving me better grounds for generalisation. I chose to sample using probability sampling as it will make it possible to measure the degree of sampling error. My sample will consist of approx 33 (3 teams of 11).

After distributing the questionnaires to my sample I will use the same sample to conduct semi-structured interviews enabling me to go into more depth in discovering the relationship between superstition and competitiveness. My aim is to ask questions concerning positive and negative superstitions to see whether they each have different effects on the athlete, because on a methodological level, findings from Wiseman & Watt (2004) suggested that it is important that any valid measure of superstitious belief should include reference to positive and negative superstitions. Therefore I should aim to develop a broader measure of belief that encompasses much wider and diverse forms of superstition, as positive and negative superstitions may serve different psychological functions.

In order to gain access to the information I am looking for I will have to gain informed consent from each participant and should not take part in covert research or try to deceive them in any way. I would have to clearly define what my research involves as not to harm anyone when data is released, this is essential regarding the Data Protection Act (1998). (Bryman, 2001). The consequence of not respecting a person’s anonymity, privacy and confidentiality are risky so I must be prepared to anticipate and deal with ethical issues. Although some issues are apparent before I begin to collect my data, I must be wary of others arising as I proceed.

My data analysis plans must meet my research goals, which are to find out who is superstitious and to see whether higher levels of competition in these 3 groups show a greater use in superstition. Analysing two variables in order to discover whether they are related is known as Bivariate analysis. It will help me search for evidence that I need in order to see whether the variation in one variable (competition) coincides with variation in another variable (superstition). For each research objective I should specify how I will analyse it and make sure there is a clear relationship between data analysis and the research question. I propose to analyse the data using Likert scales, from which I will collect qualitative data. McClearn (2004) carried out a survey showing how participants with high interest in sports showed a tendency to subscribe to the type of irrational belief associated specifically with sports.

The Belief in Sports Superstitions Scale, which measured adherence specifically to sports superstitions, may be a good one to use. The descriptive statistics presented as the means and standard deviations that will be presented in tables and figures, will make it easier to understand and compare easily in order to answer my research question, whether the use in superstitions in sports increase with an increase of competition. The inferential statistics will be used to determine if relationships or differences occur between variables. I will carry out a t-test to see whether my results were significant or not using the equation t(df)= T-value, p

0.05. If p= below 0.05 therefore the results are significant (p

My study should not be a timely or costly review and I would be in a position to provide a thorough and comprehensive review in the future. If I happen to find that my results don’t show a significant relationship then this could later lead to me testing other variables such as level of education, religious background and any other variables that might indicate a ‘non’-rational frame of mind to see whether they have an affect on the use of superstition.


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