Leadership / 10.25.23
The Wild World of Sports … Superstitions!
Athletes, players, coaches, team owners. They are an athletic group of people … an intense group of people … a superstitious group of people! Last week in advance of Halloween, I detailed various superstitions from the world of live theatre (click here to read the full article on theatre superstitions). But, for sports fans, the stage’s ghost lights and actors’ vows to never say things like “break a leg” don’t come close to superstitions like “playoff beards” (where male athletes — and even some fans — will not shave their faces as long as their team is playing in the post-season).
In soccer, there is a decidedly opposite superstition — i.e., the custom of rubbing the shaved head of a teammate for good luck. Footballing, as the sport is known outside of the United States, has many player and team superstitions. Perhaps my favorite are those players, particularly strikers, who will not shoot on goal during pre-match warm-ups. Former Tottenham and England striker Gary Lineker is famous for refusing to "waste his goals" during such warm-ups.
For this follow-up article, we looked at superstitions from various major sports, knowing full well we could probably write a book on the subject.
Read on (if you dare):
No other sport lends itself to superstition more than baseball. In the majors, when you have a 162-game regular season, omens are going to take hold; good and bad luck charms are going to be created; and rituals to stave off losses, hitless streaks at the plate and other potential calamities will be embraced.
You’ve seen some of them on TV, everything from the kissing of religious necklaces when going up to bat to pointing skyward after a home run. Players will refuse to wash hats, helmets or uniforms during a winning streak. Hitters will draw symbols or letters in the batter’s box before each at-bat. And heaven help the broadcaster who mentions a player’s favorable statistics in the specific situation — it will undoubtedly result in the opposite effect.
Robert Bennett, Director of Ticket Operations for the Tampa Bay Rays, says, “I will give you a few superstitions regarding baseball. Number one, never talk to a pitcher when he’s pitching a no hitter. Never walk on the chalk [a.k.a. the foul line] as you are entering or leaving the field. And one of my favorites was Wade Boggs eating chicken before every game.”
The Hall of Fame third baseman would also take exactly 150 ground balls during each practice. And when the former Boston Red Sox great would enter the batter’s box, he would draw the Hebrew word “chai” — meaning “life” — in the dirt before taking the first pitch.
Then, there have been the team legacy superstitions. The Curse of the Bambino was cited as the reason for the failure of the Red Sox inability to win a World Series for 86 years. The curse was the result of the sale of the legendary Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. In 2004, that curse was finally reversed when Boston swept the St. Louis Cardinals in that year’s World Series.
And superstitions in baseball are not a modern thing. Yankees great Joe DiMaggio, for instance, would always run from the outfield and touch second base before going into the dugout.
With so many games during its regular season, pro basketball has had some of the most noteworthy and outlandish superstitions over the years. The great LeBron James is famous for his trademark ritual of throwing chalk in the air and clapping his hands before tipoff of each game (which some say he ripped off from Kevin Garnett).
Arguably the most famous superstition in the NBA was created by Michael Jordan during his time with the Chicago Bulls. After leading his alma mater, the North Carolina Tar Heels, to an NCAA championship over Georgetown in 1982, Jordan believed that the shorts he played in were lucky. During his entire career, he wore his Tar Heels practice shorts under his NBA uniform for good luck.
Simone Hogan, Director of Ticket Operations for the Dallas Mavericks, says, “For a general superstition, not specific to a player, I love watching how players shoot free throws. Several of them have rituals. Steve Nash would lick his fingertips before every free throw. Jason Terry had a weird one. Every night before a game, he had to sleep in his opponents' shorts … actual, authentic, game-worn shorts!” Indeed, Terry had connections all over the league of guys — players, equipment managers, etc. — to help get him his fix.
Superstitions also abound on the college level, too. Wendy Brown, Associate AD of Ticket Operations for Michigan State University Athletics, says, “Tom Izzo, our basketball coach, is known for taking 100 free throws each day!” Click here to check out more details on Izzo’s ritual.
Team and individual superstitions abound in pro hockey. For instance, every NHL team follows a certain routine when it leaves the locker room and heads to the ice. Sometimes the goalie will go first, or the captain will lead. Goalies are a particularly odd bunch, and they have many superstitions. One of them is talking to the goal posts. Patrick Roy famously made this particular superstition popular. Even the Great One had his share of irrational beliefs. Indeed, one of Wayne Gretzky’s craziest was that he never got his hair cut before a game. He did that once, and his team lost.
Hayley Chapman, Senior Director of Ticket Operations & Administration for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Partnership (MLSE), says, “As a hockey player growing up, I had my own weird superstitions. Equipment went on the same way, I had a specific routine when I got to the rink, and what I ate before playing was always the same. Now working in sports, I would say my favorite superstition in the NHL is the ritual of pregame soccer. … The soccer in the hall makes me laugh because I think every venue around the league either has a ball currently stuck in a random place or part of their ceiling missing due to these pregame superstitions. I say, whatever works and brings home the win!”
Cait Schumann, Vice President of Ticketing for Nationwide Arena & Columbus Arena Sports and Entertainment, says, “I would say that, as an employee of an NHL team, my favorite sports superstition is that a player shouldn’t touch the Stanley Cup until they win it or else they will never win it. The fact that grown men feel that touching a piece of metal will keep them from wining a trophy is hysterical to me. However, athletes are superstitious by nature, so if that is what gets them ready to play one of the most grueling playoff schedules in sports, have at it!”
American football — both pro and college — has far fewer games each season than the three aforementioned sports. But superstitions of the gridiron are many. The individual ones are among the most entertaining. Legendary Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, for example, was known as one of the toughest linebackers in the game during his playing days. But the hard hitter had a decidedly sweet side when it came to his pregame ritual. Before each game, Urlacher would eat chocolate chip cookies provided by former Bears trainer Tim Bream.
Before each game he played in, the great running back Curtis Martin would read the Bible's Psalm 91. The passage speaks of finding a “fortress in faith” and of fighting fear. But it was two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders who might have had the NFL’s most entertaining pregame superstition. Before each game, he had to play — and usually beat — that day's opponent in a rousing video game of “Madden.”
Golf, meanwhile, is a sport where the amateur weekend players have just as many superstitions as the pros. For example, many golfers refuse to use any golf ball numbered more than four. This superstition is so prevalent that Titleist now allows you to purchase balls numbered 1–4 only. Supposedly keeping extra golf balls in your pocket is bad luck. The rationale is by keeping them so accessible, you’re bound to use them.
After every good putt, most players are urged to tap the inside of the cup with the ball for continued good luck. Legend says if you fail to do so, you will pay dearly for it on every green for the rest of the round. Also, whether it’s your favorite putter, a lucky ball or even some lucky shoes, do not wash anything that’s performing well for you. Finally, using the change in your pocket for a ball marker is common practice. Superstition has it, though, that one should never “short-change” the ball. Yes, it is bad luck to use any coin worth less than 25 cents as a ball marker.
But, of course, no superstition is bigger than the one held by the game’s greatest player. Nicole Fred, Senior Manager of Ticketing Support for the PGA TOUR, says, “I immediately think of Tiger Woods' iconic red Nike shirt worn on Sundays, of course! There has been speculation … anything from red making him stand out on the course to red being a color of aggression and strength. Tiger himself says that his mom says it's his ‘power color.’ Whether or not it's a superstition, that is something only the man himself knows.”
Amanda Weiner, Managing Director of Digital Media and Ticketing for the United States Golf Association (USGA), concurs: “My favorite sports superstition is definitely seeing Tiger Woods in his Sunday red. Dating back to Tiger’s junior golf days, I always get fired up — maybe even an air fist pump — watching Woods tee off in red on a competition Sunday.”
But leave it to the sport of auto racing to have perhaps the most touching superstition. Both Brent S. Gambill, Senior Director of Track Communications for NASCAR, and Kari Gritton, Vice President of Data Strategy for NASCAR, shared the famous penny story involving Dale Earnhardt.
Going into NASCAR's 50th season in 1998, the legendary driver was 0-for-19 in the season-opening Daytona 500. So many things in his past had prevented him from winning NASCAR's biggest prize — everything from last-lap passes to engine failures to crashes.
Meanwhile, six-year-old Wessa Miller was an Earnhardt fan with spina bifida who used a wheelchair. Through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Miller's family was able to make a trip to meet Earnhardt in Florida for his 20th Daytona 500. Miller had a gift for Earnhardt, one that she believed would give him luck — a penny.
Following their meeting, Earnhardt took some glue used by his tire changers during pit stops and affixed Wessa's penny to his race car’s dashboard. He would go on to win the Daytona 500, and the penny remained a part of the car where it resides to this day in the Richard Childress Racing Museum in North Carolina!
And, finally, there are those superstitions that go beyond one sport and leak into others. We opened this article with playoff beards. They started in the NHL, but now you see baseball, football, and other players in their respective post-seasons hoping for the ZZ Top look.
Daniel McBride, Senior Director of Ticketing & Experiences for the USGA, has another one to bring this feature to a close: “My favorite superstition [across most team sports] is how nobody is allowed to walk on the team logo in the locker room — players, staff, media, etc. It’s fascinating to understand and see the sanctity of the locker room and how the team logo is put on a pedestal as the north star. It’s to emphasize that the team comes first!”
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Tags: Leadership , Sports Superstitions