Race-day shorts. Three pancakes for breakfast. A penny in your pocket. Your pre-race superstitions are probably a curated combination of ritual and bric-a-brac meant to recruit the race gods to your team. And you swear by them: Those shorts give you superhuman speed, the three pancakes give you climbing power, and the penny … well, who knows what the penny does, really. But it can’t hurt.
If you’re the superstitious type, you’re not alone. Mo Farah shaves his head before each race. Serena Williams bounces the ball five times before her first serves. Michael Jordan used to wear his UNC basketball shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform during games.
And believe it or not, there’s science to being superstitious: German researchers found that people played a better round of putt-putt when they were told they were hitting a “lucky” ball, and people were more confident in their ability to complete a task when they were carrying their lucky charm.
“If you think you’re lucky, then you’ll be more optimistic going into a situation,” says Carol Sansone, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at the University of Utah.
A good luck routine won’t hand you the win every time, but it can give you a boost. That said, if you lean too heavily on your superstitions, they can also set you back. So before you give shorts, pancakes, or pennies too much credit, make sure it meets these four criteria.
Ritual Rule #1: It makes you feel calm
Laying out your outfit a day early, jogging three laps before a race, and putting your hair up in the same style can bring a sense of order to the pre-race chaos. “Repeating a familiar ritual before an event reduces anxiety by giving the person a sense of control,” says John Johnson, Ph.D., a personality psychologist and professor at Penn State University.
So if your rituals stress you out, find new ones. The best pre-race routines occupy and calm your mind, Johnson says. So consider a new routine: 50 high-knees or a few casual sprints work great.
“Part of the reason people run around before a race is to get their heart rate up, but equally important is the calming effect,” says Johnson. “The alternative, just standing around and waiting for the gun to go off, can be excruciatingly nerve-wracking.”
Ritual Rule #2: It doesn’t take the place of real work
If you give your charms all the credit for your luck, then odds are, you’ll stop having it.
“Unrestricted interpretation of luck can have bad outcomes,” Sansone says. Truly believing your shorts are magical, for example, can lead you to slack off on training.
The bottom line? Your lucky charms are worthless unless you charge them up, and you do that by training, preparing, and working hard.
Ritual Rule #3: It does not control you
If you’re being superstitious regarding something beyond your control—like needing to see a bald eagle or the number 7 before every event—then you’ll probably be disappointed at some point. And that can hurt your performance.
“Choose a ritual that you think will work for you, but change it if you do not have control over it,” says Michaéla Schippers, Ph.D., author of the aforementioned Dutch paper and a professor of behavior and performance management at Erasmus University in the Netherlands.
Remember: A good-luck ritual works in part by helping you focus on the feat and ignore distractions. So don’t let being superstitious become a distraction.
Ritual Rule #4: You can live without it
Imagine this: It’s race day, and you accidentally tossed your training shoes instead of your lucky race-day shoes into the trunk. Are you worried? Do you fear you won’t run a good race without those kicks?
Relying too heavily on a good luck token can backfire if you’re ever forced to go without it, says Johnson. He knows firsthand: In college, he used the same “lucky” number 2 pencils for every test. On a particular exam day, one of them went missing.
“I felt a moment of crippling fear until I found it,” he says. “That kind of emotional dependence can’t be healthy.” If you ran out of flour and can’t make your customary pancakes, or your penny disappears into a seat cushion, adapt fast. You already put the sweat into training, right? Then you’re all set. That’s the only luck that really matters.
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