Ritual and Superstition

Bring up a mental image of Maria Sharapova when she’s in between points. What’s she doing? If you watch enough professional tennis, you know she has her back turned to the court and she’s fiddling with her racquet strings.

And Rafael Nadal before he serves? Even casual tennis fans are familiar with his elaborate pre-serve choreography–a tug on the shorts followed by an unvarying sequence of touches (left shoulder, right shoulder, nose, left ear, nose, right ear.)

What’s the point of these quirks? Are they just silly superstition?

I don’t think so. It seems to me there’s more to these behaviors than superstition, mindless habit, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. As any parent of little kids knows, there’s comfort to be found in repetition and routine. Children crave predictability and find it easier to transition to bedtime when a ritual is established and followed.

Not that I’m calling these tennis greats childish, but perhaps we never outgrow our innate love of predictability. People of any age can find comfort in routine. In a tennis match, where emotions are running high, a routine like adjusting racquet strings can calm the player’s mind, allowing greater focus when the point begins. Having an established behavior to perform may help a player mentally re-set, letting go of the last point and refreshing the mind for the next.

I’d draw a distinction between these mid-match behaviors, which, for sake of discussion, I’ll call rituals, and pure superstitions performed outside the sporting event. Tiger Woods’s red shirt comes to mind as an example of pure superstition. He puts the shirt on in the morning, but doesn’t perform that ritual throughout the game itself. (I suspect the graybeards at Augusta would frown on him removing and donning his shirt before every stroke.)

Similarly, athletes who let their beards grow, like the 2013 Red Sox or Bjorn Borg during Wimbledon, are engaging in a superstitious belief, but not a ritual. Merely having a beard, like wearing a shirt, doesn’t change the player’s behavior during the game. It seems unlikely that, in the heat of battle, these superstitions can soothe the mind the way a ritual can.

Yet despite my somewhat arbitrary distinction, research supports the power of pure superstition, too. For example, a 2010 study showed that people performed better in memory and dexterity tests if they were allowed to bring their “lucky charm” with them. Even though most people don’t really believe their amulets possess magical powers, people may still enjoy a boost in confidence and performance just from having them around.

I don’t have any behaviors that I’d describe as a ritual. Like all tennis players, I do have an individual service rhythm of ball bouncing and pausing before the toss. If I had to play a match using a completely different service tempo, it would probably affect my play, at least initially. But I don’t engage in any truly unique behavior, like John Isner’s bouncing the ball between his legs.

I do, however, have my mascot, a gift from my longtime tennis partner.


Adorable, right? But cute as he is, he’s not a very effective talisman. He lives in the pocket of my tennis bag. I don’t place him there when I head off to a match, the way I do my water bottle or my towel. Because he’s always there, I forget I have him and thus lose any benefit he could be providing.

So as an experiment this week, I’ll remove him from my bag at night and return him to his pocket just before I head out to the courts. Next Monday we’ll see if my little friend has had a positive impact on my game. (I’m skeptical, but it’s worth a shot.) (And no, I don’t have any way of isolating the effect of my lucky charm from other possible influences, like what I had for breakfast. Don’t get all science-y on me. We’re just having fun.)

Do you have any tennis rituals or superstitions? Do you think there’s a benefit in having an individual routine, or are quirks like Nadal’s and Sharapova’s just tiresome?

2 thoughts on “Ritual and Superstition

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  1. I think it’s powerful to have a routine and use behaviors to get into the proper mindset. But Nadal’s touch sequence seems more OCD than ritual. I wonder if he ever experiments with fewer touches.

    Your talisman is so adorable! And the idea of giving him some attention is a good experiment. I hope the dog and cats don’t decide he’s a pet toy!

    1. My pets only like to destroy expensive things, like furniture and the woodwork in the house. They can’t be bothered with anything as low-rent as a stuffed animal.

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