Superstition, confidence and performance (Issue 18, 2012)

AthletesIt is widely acknowledged that an athlete’s level of self-belief or confidence has a major impact on performance. However, according to La Trobe University Sport Psychologist, Dr Paul O’Halloran, for most athletes this self-belief is not fixed, it can fluctuate both within and between performances.

‘Performance athletes are forever searching for something that will lift confidence and provide that winning edge. Some athletes will attempt to lift their confidence and thereby improve their performance by “talking themselves up”.

‘This strategy results in varying levels of success as there is evidence from psychology that we are more likely to believe things that we say ourselves.

‘But, some athletes make the error that just because this strategy works for them in domestic competitions it will also work for them on the world stage at the Olympics. The pressure experienced for most athletes during Olympic competition far exceeds that experienced during state and national championships,’ says Dr O’Halloran.

Increased self-pressure means some athletes find themselves over anxious, have difficulty sleeping and are left fatigued during competition.

‘Athletes will gain confidence from the things they do to prepare for competition,’ says Dr O’Halloran.

Although this involves physical training and diet, Dr O’Halloran says it can also extend to the little superstitions that athletes have about competition.

‘Some [Australian Rules Football] AFL footballers will make sure they are the last to run through the banners on match day, for other athletes it can be a particular meal that they must have prior to competition. I have even worked with athletes who must wear a particular pair of underwear prior to competition. Many athletes swear that following these little superstitions gives them both confidence and the edge,’ says Dr O’Halloran.

Why do these things work? One likely factor is the association the athlete has formed between these “lucky charms” and previous successful performances.

‘The other factor is that they provide the athlete with a sense of control. Regardless of the scientific basis for these links – athletes will often follow the dictum if it works keep using it,’ says Dr O’Halloran.