New York Magazine:
In his acclaimed book The Game, Hall of Fame NHL goaltender Ken Dryden described some of the various superstitions he picked up over the years, from nodding at a particular Montreal Forum usherette before home games to shooting a puck off a certain part of the boards at the start of pregame warm-ups. “I don’t tell anyone about them, I’m not proud I have them, I know I should be strong enough to decide one morning, any morning, no longer to be a prisoner to them,” he wrote. “Yet I seem helpless to do anything about it.”
Dr. Paul van Lange, a professor of psychology at VU University Amsterdam, is the co-author of a paper called “The Psychological Benefits of Superstitious Rituals in Top Sport: A Study Among Top Sportspersons,” published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2006. Among other things, that study found that commitment to rituals is greater for especially important games, like a league’s finals or even playoffs in general. Over email, he explained that these rituals serve as a sort of psychological placebo. “They help people cope with uncertain outcomes in the future, especially if these outcomes are important to them,” says van Lange. The paper van Lange co-authored contends that this can be beneficial to the athlete. “Our argument is that they strengthen feelings of control and confidence that may otherwise be lacking,” says van Lange.
A 2010 article published in Psychological Science found that this perception of increased self-efficacy, as researchers call it, can apparently lead to real-world increased performance. Researchers used a series of experiments to show that activating good-luck superstitions improved performance in tasks like putting a golf ball, and that those performance benefits were, in fact, the result of increased confidence.
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