Why It’s Not Silly to Wear Your Lucky Underwear on Game Day

Are you listening, Phillies?

My kids hate baseball. Wait, let me qualify that—they hate it when I watch Phillies games on TV. “They’re so slow,” they moan, dragging the last word out to match their meaning. And I see what they’re saying. The batter up at the plate swings at a pitch, steps out of the box, unstraps his left battling glove and tightens it, unstraps the right glove and tightens it, hitches up his pants, touches his hat, checks his belt buckle, steps back into the box and taps his right toe three times …

What the kids are impatient with, what slows the game down, are the rituals, those small symbolic acts that pitchers and batters engage in for luck. Everybody in sports seems to have such rituals, whether it’s making the sign of the cross or pointing up to heaven or wearing lucky underpants or eating the exact same meal before every game. They may seem silly and superstitious, but scientists are beginning to pin down why they’re so endemic.

A new article in Scientific American reports on the latest research into rituals by sports psychologists. In one experiment, golfers were given a ball that had been designated as “lucky” or just an ordinary ball; in another, participants playing a computer game were either told to start playing or told, “I’ll cross my fingers for you” and then instructed to begin. In both cases, the small ritual element enhanced players’ self-confidence and improved their performance. In another intriguing experiment, researchers invited people into their laboratory to take part in a random drawing for $200. Invitees were asked to write down how they’d use the money if they won, just to twist the knife. Then the winner was announced and left, and the losers were sorted into two groups. One group was told to draw how they felt; the other was instructed to follow a series of ritual steps: draw how you feel on paper, sprinkle the paper with salt, tear up the piece of paper, and count to 10 to yourself five times. Afterward, on questionnaires, participants who’d followed the ritual said they weren’t as unhappy about losing as those who hadn’t.

Fifty years ago, my Lithuanian grandfather always tossed a bit of salt over his shoulder if the shaker spilled. I don’t exactly know why, but I do the same thing. Whether it’s saying 10 Hail Marys or knocking on wood, life’s small rituals seem to calm us, reduce anxiety, and make us feel more in control of what’s going on around us. There’s a certain magic to that, I guess—and, perhaps, a winning recipe for athletes.

Photo: Jerry Zitterman / Shutterstock.com