Superstitions in sports


By Adeena Nagib

Before every floorball match, 22-year-old Muhammad Khalis Rizauddin will put Ray Jones Jr’s Can’t Be Touched on repeat to get him in the mood for the game.

“When I listen to it, I feel unstoppable,” said the NTU floorballer, a second-year School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering student.

“I can relate to the lyrics because I play as a defender, and it reminds me that I can’t be touched, can’t be stopped and can’t be moved,” he added, mimicking the song’s lyrics.

For Khalis, listening to the chorus helps him to focus and toughen up the moment he steps onto the court.

“Once, I didn’t have time to listen to the song and I didn’t play well. I wasn’t ready nor at the top of my game.

“Since then, I have never played a game without listening to it,” he said.

While Khalis’ pre-match ritual may raise an eyebrow or two, it is not uncommon for athletes — both amateurs and professionals — to habitually perform such routines as they believe it helps them perform better.

Even British runner and four-time Olympic gold medallist Sir Mo Farah routinely shaves his head and drinks a cup of coffee 20 minutes before each race.

Superstitions like these are almost always arbitrary and discovered by accident, but are a crucial part of an athlete’s preparations before they compete.

These consistent and purposeful actions, ranging from what athletes eat, do, listen to or wear, are calculated to best prepare their mental and physical states. In turn, this has been believed to translate to a better performance in matches.

While some routines, like consuming carbohydrate-heavy food the day before a match to boost one’s energy levels, are backed up scientifically, others such as putting on one’s right boot first before the left, have inconsequential results.

Despite this, athletes continue to perform their pre-game antics to achieve a sense of control.

Hockey player Hannah Tan Ismail, 20, does not wash her shin pads until after the end of a season.

The second-year Nanyang Business School student, who represented Singapore at the Southeast Asian Games this year, adopted her superstition from her secondary school teammates and has stuck by it for the past six years.

“It feels like I’ll be washing my hard efforts from training away,” said Tan.

NTU women’s football team captain Fatin Aqillah, 22, ensures she eats a plate of nasi rawon before each match. Nasi rawon is an Indonesian dish comprising white rice and beef stew.

“The first time I ate nasi rawon before a match was against one of the top teams in the Women’s Premier League. My teammates were amazed at how well I performed,” said the final-year student from Sports Science and Management (SSM).

“When I don’t eat it, I feel weird and like something is missing.

“I know it’s psychological but in games, once your body gets tired, the mind needs to be strong. Nasi rawon gives me that sense of comfort,” added Fatin.

Dr Nick Aplin, a senior lecturer at SSM, found superstitions such as the one Fatin holds to be “fairly typical”.

“It’s not unusual with sportsmen because it’s all about re-creating a successful mindset,” said Dr Aplin, who conducts lectures on the sociology and history of sports in SSM.

He added: “The idea of a superstition is part of a sensible cognitive strategy that helps athletes be prepared, focused and even confident.”

Dr Aplin encourages athletes to continue practising their quirky pre-game routines, only if they help in performance.

“It doesn’t matter how inconsequential one’s superstition is because it acts as a trigger. The actual significance of the action is not the most important, but the effect is,” he said.

That said, for Hall of Residence 3 softballer Tan Yi Zhen, 20, superstitions will not affect her game.

Tan, who used to play for the Singapore Combined Schools — a team comprising the top school players in Singapore — said: “It’s quite ridiculous if someone loses confidence should they misplace a hat, for example.”

The second-year student from the School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences added: “ If you’re fully prepared, you wouldn’t need the extra luck.”