October 3, 2013

It's Not All Hocus Pocus

Rituals and superstitions have a place in your pregame prep

by Clare Lochary | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Check out Clare Lochary's monthly "Her Space" column in Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Don't get the mag? Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription.

Halloween is a fun time to believe in things, even when you know they aren't true.

Last October, I went to this place called Markoff's Haunted Forest in Dickerson, Md. I thought it would be dumb, like a middle school haunted house with cotton-ball spider webs and your lamest teacher wearing a Freddie Kruger mask.

Instead, it was a freaky carnival with fire-eaters and zombies lurching around a path that wound through a creepy wooded area where some talented set designers and performers scared the bejesus out of me and the rest of my party. It was genuinely scary, like the basement in "The Blair Witch Project," or Buffalo Bill's basement in "The Silence of the Lambs," or various other terrifying cinematic basements.

Even though I knew in my brain that the cloaked figure moaning and lurching toward me over the railing of a bridge was probably an out-of-work actor who'd been lectured at length on Maryland's liability laws and why he couldn't actually touch the customers, my fear that he would pull me into a watery grave was, briefly, very real.

Anyhow, it's fun to believe in things — scary stories, ghosts, horoscopes, superstitions and all the rest. They impose structure on a chaotic world. We decide that something has the power to frighten, entertain or motivate us, and so it does.

Athletes are famously superstitious, and fans always want to know the ins and outs of their heroes' odd habits. "What is your pregame ritual?" or "What's on your pregame playlist?" are the go-to questions on lots of athlete Q&As these days, including ones that appear in Lacrosse Magazine.

Sometimes this curiosity is just that — curiosity. It's cool to know your favorite midfielder's favorite song, or how a great goalie gets her head right before a game.

Other times, there's some magical thinking at work, where you believe if you listen to the exact same playlist, eat the exact same meal and wear the exact same number, you will play exactly as well as the person you're emulating.

That's not really how it works, of course. The very best athletes put in hours of wall ball, weight training and film sessions to perfect their games.

There's little to no luck involved, with the exception of the roll of the dice that is genetics. That's why I've always found it curious when top athletes are superstitious.

When you work so hard, how can you believe that putting your socks on a certain way or wearing a lucky ribbon will improve your performance or help secure a victory? Will God or Yahweh or Allah or the Creator or Xenu or the Flying Spaghetti Monster really care either way? Why would anyone believe such a thing, even for fun? Why value witchcraft over work?

The truth is, these "superstitions" often are a part of the hard work of mentally preparing for a game. If you're all scatterbrained five minutes before the lineup is called, digging around in the bottom of your stick bag for a spare mouth guard or thinking about a fight with your parents, you aren't thinking about the game. Keeping track of a good-luck charm means you've got things organized; so does carving out a few moments to listen to a favorite playlist or do some visualization.

A pregame ritual, like braiding your hair a certain way or painting on a particular eye-black formation, is a physical way to signal to yourself that it's game time. We decide that something has the power to frighten, entertain or motivate us, and so it does.

In that way, believing in a superstition is the same thing as believing in yourself, and that's something you should do every single day.

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