Talk to any athlete about his or her pre-competition routine, and you’ll get a laundry list of each individual’s “must-do” rituals. These include, but are not limited to: shaving legs immediately prior to the event (swimmers and triathletes), creating identical conditions (eating the same breakfast, wearing the same clothes, performing the same warmup) for every race, listening to certain songs before a game, and readjusting batting gloves obsessively while at the mound (restricting this particular superstitous ritual would do a lot to hurry up a MLB game!) There are thousands of routines, unique to each individual and sport, and when I read this NPR blog on the importance of societal rituals I started wondering whether these athletic rituals actually make a difference in performance.
The strong placebo effect observed through studies of sports performance would argue that rituals — and belief in their efficacy– do work. For example, a 2006 study found that telling cyclists they were getting caffeine (but giving them a non-caffeinated placebo) increased performance in a dose-response fashion. Cyclists produced 1.4% less power than at baseline when they believed they had ingested a placebo, but 1.3% more power when they believed they had been given 4.5 mg/kg caffeine, and 3.1% more power when they believed they had received 9.0 mg/kg caffeine. A similar effect (a 4% increase in power) was seen when athletes were falsely told they had received a sports drink containing carbohydrate but which was in actuality a noncaloric placebo. Interestingly, athletes recognize the power of the placebo effect, as survey data indicate that almost 75% of them acknowledge experiencing it. Despite this awareness, ironically, belief in performance enhancement through ritual persists. This NPR commentary from the World Cup details some of the more interesting pre-game team rituals, ranging from the 1962 Chilean team eating the national food or drink of the team they were facing (vodka before playing the Soviet Union; cheese before facing the Swiss) to praying, tying and untying shoelaces repeatedly, and kissing tattoos. And, in a series of fascinating laboratory experiments, simple superstitious rituals– telling subjects that they were using the “lucky ball” or telling them to “break a leg”– improved performance in golfing, motor dexterity and memory.
So…although pre-race routines and rituals can range from seeming rigid to downright ludicrous, their beneficial impact on psychology, confidence and emotion appears very real.