Why Athletes Need Rituals and Superstitions

NBA player Caron Butler must stop chewing straws, but will it hurt his focus?

February 26, 2010, 7:09 PM

March 1, 2010— -- If not for their talent, the athletes' longstanding rituals and superstitions would either disgust most people or drive them crazy.

LeBron James can't stop chewing his fingernails. Baseball Pitcher Turk Wendell used to brush his teeth after every inning. National Hockey League goalie Patrick Roy confessed he talked to the goal posts during the game. Croatian tennis player Goran Ivanisevic often wants the same ball back after he hits an ace.

These players were all allowed to have their little quirks, and sports psychologists say such annoying habits really do help an athlete focus.

But NBA player Caron Butler, currently with the Dallas Mavericks, has been banned from his famous ritual. Butler chews up to 12 soda straws during each game, according to an interview he gave to the Washington Post. He grabs handfuls at a time from local fast food restaurants -- Burger King or MacDonald's, but not Wendy's -- and chews them until they "start getting a little stringy."

This week the National Basketball Association told Butler he had to stop it with the straws for safety reasons, according to ESPN.com.

Butler's agent did return phone calls requesting an interview about the straws, but sports psychologists say robbing any player of his or her ritual could have a temporary effect on his concentration at game time. They contend these rituals are different than most people's ideas of superstition.

"When you work with athletes, you notice most high-level athletes have their own routine," said Jonathan Katz, a licensed psychologist and founding partner of High Performance Associates (HPA), which consults with athletes.

Katz said there is a fine line between a comforting routine and a superstition. Take Kevin Rhomberg, an outfielder who played for the Cleveland Indians between1982 and 1984 would feel compelled to touch every person who touched him during the game.

Superstition? Perhaps, but Butler's straw-chewing probably isn't, in Katz's estimation. Nor are the strange meals athletes eat, or the disgusting clothing that they wear.

Difference Between Superstition and Ritual?

Wade Boggs, a third baseman for the Boston Red Sox in the 1980s, used to be known as "Chicken Man" for his ritual meal of chicken before a game, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. NBA star Mike Bibby, of the Atlanta Hawks, has the habit of clipping his fingernails during the game.

Katz said these rituals provide "a level of comfort and a way for someone to control a situation."

In sports, Katz said that so much of what comes from opposing players -- whether it be a pitch or a pass -- is completely out of the athlete's control. Finding some sort of routine helps players feel they are in the right mental place to perform.

Sports psychologist Jack Llewellyn has a similar take.

"One of the things the great athletes do, is they try to keep their environment consistent," said Llewellyn. "One of my philosophies is that your environment either enables you to win, or enables you to lose."

Llewellyn views rituals as a way to block out "psychological noise" in the environment.

Rituals may even be a distraction paradox. Katz said that by distracting themselves with straws, with fingernail clippings, or something else, athletes are actually finding ways to tune out the larger distractions that may come with the game.

"My hunch is that taking this [chewing straws] away from him will cause some distraction," Katz said of Butler.

But Katz doesn't think the straw-less games will distract Butler forever. Neither does Llewellyn.

"It might be frustrating for a short period, but he would find something else to take its place," said Llewellyn.

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