Despite the growth of sports science, data analysis, nutritional wisdom and technical know-how, the dark art of superstition still pollutes the minds of elite athletes. Or does it?
The human brain craves control all events and when a success has been achieved many athletes repeat the same actions in order to recreate the previous successes. To the outsider this may and does appear strange at times especially when bazaar routines are enacted. Critical analysis surrounding odd behaviours seems to favor types. The first might prevent individuals focusing on bad things and therefore serve as a distracter to block out nerves, anxiety and worries e.g. demonstrating the Sign of the Cross. Second, these behaviours help players focus on what is important by forming set routines such as being the first or last player to enter the field of play. Sometimes the lines between ritual (superstitions) and routine are very blurred but generally when something helps performance it is a routine; and if it plays no identifiable part in player preparation then it is probably a superstition. According to Sports Psychologists routines are consistent and purposeful actions which prepare the mind and body for a good performance, whereas superstitions (or magical thinking) amount to compulsive and irrational behavior which ultimately are inconsequential.
To be a top class goal scorer the player needs not only to be able to score when the opportunity presents but even when there is only half a chance. Scoring from the slenderest opportunity places an exclusive band of goal scorers far above the average striker. On a simple goal tally it is obvious more goals are scored in the modern game than was the case in early times. How much of this relates to improved soccer boots remains unknown. Players are however, by nature, very superstitious and will go to extraordinary lengths to maintain their run of luck. Most of their actions defy common logic and some so bazaar as to be noted here.
Whilst most admit to being superstitious and doing silly things, like soaking themselves and their new boots in a bath before allowing boots to dry around their feet, many are as quick as to dismiss these beliefs. When the culmination of coaching, training, skill development and fitness are complete all that is required is for the player, is to go out and play. The surreptitious nature of the game and likelihood of suffering an injury combined with the abject fear of public disgrace particularly when seen by 715.1 million people puts intolerable pressures on the players. According to Morris (1981) these factors contribute to why soccer players are so ritualistic. They are not alone in the sporting fraternity. The power of superstition is all in the mind and for some players the magic rituals take on astonishing intensity. A study by researchers at the University of Cologne, published in Psychological Science in 2010, showed that activating ‘lucky’ superstitions via a common saying or action (such as crossing your fingers) or use of a ‘lucky charm’ improved subjects’ performances in various tests. In one experiment subjects who were handed a golf ball that they were told was ‘lucky’ putted better than those who used a ‘normal’ ball. In another experiment, subjects who were allowed to carry their lucky charm performed better at memory and anagram tests than those without one. The researchers concluded that these performance benefits were produced by changes in “self-efficacy” – a person’s belief in their own ability to complete a task: “Activating a superstition boosts participants’ confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improves performance.” A Dutch study of 197 elite athletes, including football players from Ajax and PSV Eindhoven, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2006 revealed that ritual commitment is greater when uncertainty is higher and the importance of the game is increased. The researchers explained: “Although the enactment of superstitious rituals often does not make sense to observers, it may serve an important tension-regulation function for sportsmen before a match.”
In the main team mates respect each other's rituals and all avoid tempting fate. Ritualistic behaviour starts days before the game. Many well known players will only wear certain shoes and socks, and like a young bride, place a sixpence (lucky coin) in their shoes. In the past some top class players used to personally polish their boots in preparation before the match. This menial task was usually reserved to apprentice players or bootboys. Alcohol, usually spirits, also played a role, and Desmond Morris described one player who insisted on dosing the tips of his boots, one with whisky and the other water. Players will be careful to travel to the stadium observing all taboos as a means of not tempting fate.
The most intense time for ritualism is in the changing rooms. Rigidly observed procedures involve those connected with changing clothes. Lucky shoes, socks, and even laces all form part of the rituals, religiously followed by those seeking the good fortunes of fate. The manner the clothing is put on often become ritualistic. Some players are known to put on socks and boots and nothing else well before the game. They sit quietly psyching themselves up to a peak performance. Putting on the left sock first before the right or the right boot before the left is commonly observed. So too is players lacing and unlacing their boots multiple times before the game. At the 1966 World Cup, Bobby Moore had to be the last man in the changing room to put on his shorts. Some players insist on eating prior to the match. Billy Bremner (former captain of Leeds United and Scotland) was famous for eating a plateful of baked beans before every game. Although frowned upon now, a nip of whisky or their favourite tipple to further concentrate their mind was not uncommon. Other activities include going to the toilet a fixed number of times.
Morris reported the clothing of others could also become a focus to the superstitious. For example some players needed to see their coach wear socks of their lucky colour before they would take to the field. This fetishism extends to the shoes worn by the coach and the author described a ceremoniously fastened of the coach's shoe by one of the players as pre match necessity before the team would leave the dressing rooms. Some players insist on entering the changing rooms in a particular way most of, which involves walking through the boot room. Players will carry lucky charms including a rabbit's foot or lucky heather. The absence of pockets in playing kits and restrictions on wearing jewelery for safety mean the talisman are slipped into the shoe, or in the case of goal keeper such paraphonalia are tossed into the back of the goal.
Players are ritualistic even in the tunnel leading to the pitch. Some players will head or kick the ball a certain number of times or bounce it off the wall before running onto the field. Some players lead with their right foot onto the pitch (Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)others with their left. Kolo Touré ( Ivory Coast) will always insist on being the last man in his team to enter the field. Once on the pitch another set of ritual behaviour might take place. Players like Leighton Baines (England) will take their boots off and put them back on again and some even kiss their boots for luck. Luis Suarez (Uruaguay) ritually kisses the tattoo of his children’s names etched onto his wrist. Whereas Cesc Fabregas (Spain) will kiss the badge on his shirt for luck. In the 1998 World Cup France's Laurent Blanc kissed his teammate Fabien Barthez (goal keeper) for good luck. For luck some strikers refuse to score any goals during the training sessions previous to any important match. Gary Liniker (England) always swapped his jersey for a fresh one at half-time if he had not scored in the first half. He also had a hair cut to stop a goal-less run. Ronaldo too likes to have a fresh hair trim before important games.
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Javier Hernandez (Mexico) drops to his knees in prayer before each World Cup match. Daniele de Rossi (Italy)jumps up and down three times prior to kick-off. Players may roll the chewing gum they have been chewing into a ball and attempt to kick the ball. A successful contact means a good game but when the player misses then bad luck will follow. Iker Casillas (Spain) used to wear his socks inside-out during matches and always touches the crossbar every time his team scores.
Why so many superstitions involve boots remains unclear but such behaviour as preferring the right or left has been known since antiquity. In Roman and Greek times the left side was considered lucky with one exception and that was when entering a home. Only the right foot could cross the threshold if good luck was to prevail. In rich domiciles there were servants whose sole function (excuse the pun) was to direct all visitors to use their right foot first. They were called footmen and position is still with us today. By the Middle Ages the left side was more associated with bad luck. The origins of "By the left quick march" for example refer to a clear indication no mercy will be extended to the enemy. Soccer players may be extending the same charity to their opponents. For most people left sides are weaker. This is partly explained by neonatal compression of the left leg against the mother's spine in the womb. Attendance to the right foot first may be to favour the stronger side. This would be reversed in the case of left-footed players. One other reason to explain the boot ritual may be the misfortune awaiting those who place their right foot in a left shoe. History records this happened to Augustus Caesar.
"Augustus having an oversight
Put on his left shoe for his right
Had like to have been slain that day
By soldiers mutinying for pay."
An old Jewish custom was to put the right shoe on first without tying it, then the left sock. The ritual required taking the right shoe off and putting on the right sock, left shoe on tied and back to the right shoe. This is seen occasionally when players will come onto the field and during pre-match warm ups and are observed taking their boots and putting them on again.
Players prefer to play in boots that are broken in. Not so strange when hidden seams can burst causing painful blisters as well as cuts and abrasions to their feet. In the past some sponsored players removed their design logos from their boots to get an all black appearance. When manufacturers became aware of this they incorporated weaknesses such as hidden seems which would tear easily once the company's logo was removed. Now that colourful boots have become the norm few sponsored players interfere with their major source of additional income.
In 1908 when goal-scoring ace, George Hedley played for Woverhampton Wanderers he scored a goal against Newcastle causing one of his favourite boots to split. Despite being offered a new pair Hedley steadfastly refused and saw the game to completion with one tattered boot. The player had his favourite boots patched up at least 17 times before eventually and somewhat reluctantly parting with them.
Becker J 1975 Superstition in sport International Journal of Sports Psychology 6:3 148-152.
Morris D 1981 The soccer tribe London: Jonathan Cape, London 193-194.