How superstitious are rowers?

Every now and then I like to go to Sunday mass at a local church. I can hear the snorts

Head of the River
Head of the River (Photo credit: Pachango)

already, and yes, I have also read Richard Dawkins. This is not going to be a religious debate, and while I’m not really religious, I think that churches are beautiful, and I like the nostalgic and peaceful feeling I get when I walk inside. And the churches in Italy are always beautiful.

So here I am, sitting amongst the village Nonnas in the back of an Italian church, and I find myself praying for the Australian Rowing team. I obviously don’t really think that my prayers to some higher being will alter the Olympic result in August. It certainly won’t have an effect on the amount and quality of preparation the team has had, nor that of its’ competitors. I guess I was praying for some kind of ‘good luck’ that everything aligns, and our team can have that perfect race when it counts.

But why do we do this? As someone who has been an athlete (I’m probably using that word a tad loosely here) and someone that pretty much solely hangs out with athletes, I should know that in sport, you only get what you put in. And especially with an honest sport like rowing, there is no luck involved. But even still, we all have superstitions –even the Olympians! (I won’t name names).

As a schoolgirl, I still remember the drive to Head of the River with my mum… “If we get all green lights, it means we’ll win”. (After the first red light, “If the rest of the lights are green, it means we’ll win…”) We hear stories of famous athletes wearing the same knickers after winning matches (Michael Jordan always wore his blue North Carolina shorts under his bulls uniform), having ‘lucky’ things –whether it be equipment or clothing (Tiger Woods always wears red on the last day of a golf tournament), and even just pre-race rituals that are bordering on neurotic (Red Sox baseball player Nomar Garciaparra gets dressed the same way every day, makes sure to step on each dugout step with both feet, and tugs at his batting gloves and taps his toes during each at-bat. Check out this for more of these!

When you spend so much of your life doing very real and very hard work to get the desired outcome, why bother with the intangible?

When there are high stakes involved, we all want to ‘capture’ those behaviours that might lead to success. If there is any chance at all that wearing a blue pair of shorts will help you win, why not do it?

There is a pretty funny experiment that was done with a pigeon… The pigeon was kept in a cage, and fed every 15 minutes by an automated feeder. If the pigeon happened to stand on one leg and tilt it’s filthy little head to the right just before the first 15 minute feed, the scientists found that it would repeat this exact movement until it got it’s second feed. There is a bit of a jump from rewarded behaviours to superstitions, but it’s not that far of a leap. If you get a result that you want, you can attribute it to something that can be repeated –whether it be wearing your blue shorts under your uniform or a head tilt to the right.

The pre-race rituals is really just habit forming, and rather than being seen as superstitious, it is just a comfort that keeps you grounded in a high-pressure situation. Eating the same breakfast, listening to the same music and doing the same warm-up are things that will put you at ease and remind you that while the stakes may be higher, it really is just another race. As long as you don’t freak-out when one of these ‘superstitions’ can’t be performed, there is no real harm. It can be a good break for your mind and body to shift some responsibility to the cosmos for a couple of minutes.

After all, when you are competing at the Olympics, there is no question of the mental and physical effort that has gone and will be going into racing. And we still won Head of the River even though I got that red light…

 

A guest post from Rowing Chicks Blog of the Australian women rowing squad

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