Mind Games

Pre-game Rituals And Superstitions May Not Help You Become A Better Player, But Why Take Chances?

Left shin pad, left stocking.
Right shin pad, right stocking.
Then breezers.
Left skate, right skate.
Shoulder pads, elbow pads
(first the left, then the right). Finally, the jersey,
with the right side tucked into his pants.

Wayne Gretzky dressed himself the exact same way throughout his Hall of Fame career.

Did it have anything to do with him becoming the NHL’s all-time scoring champion? Probably not, but it did put him in the right frame of mind before stepping onto the ice, where even the greatest player in the game can’t control everything.

Pregame rituals or superstitions usually begin innocently enough, with a player linking an on-ice success to a totally unrelated moment before a game.

“I never get my hair cut when we’re on the road,” Gretzky said during his playing days, “because the last time I did, we lost.”

Before long, those same rituals or superstitions tend to morph into something a player simply cannot live without.

“I was awful,” goaltender-turned-broadcaster Darren Pang admitted on ESPN.com. “I found the pressure was just incredible, especially playing at home in Chicago. I would go through the morning skate and everything was fine. I’d get back to the house for lunch and take a nap. The minute I woke up from my nap I was so narrow-minded, no one would talk to me.

“When I got to the rink, the guys could tell immediately if I was playing or not. It was left pad on first, left skate on first, left everything on first. Then you tape your sticks the same way, standing in the same place. It gets to the point where you lose your mind with the superstitions. You almost want to lose a game to change things up because it drives you nuts if you forget something.”

Peter Haberl, a sports psychologist with the United States Olympic Committee who has worked with the men’s and women’s Olympic hockey teams, makes a clear distinction between rituals and superstitions. Rituals become part of a routine, and an athlete has complete control over them. Superstitions, on the other hand, might actually get in the way of performance, because athletes cannot control them.

“When it’s part of the routine, it helps you focus on the task at hand and gives you a sense of control, and it often adds confidence,” Haberl said.

“But the rituals can’t be too rigid. You have to be flexible with them, because sometimes there will be circumstances out of your control. If the bus breaks down or is stuck in traffic, you might not be able to do your routine the way you like it. You just have to do your best when you get there.”

The routine might include a breakfast of oatmeal, toast and a glass of milk at the same time every game day. Or a plate of spaghetti exactly four hours before game time. Or a cup of tea for relaxation.

For Freddy Meyer, a National Team Development Program graduate now with the NHL’s New York Islanders, the routine begins as soon as his alarm clock rings after a good night of sleep. From that moment until the drop of the puck later that evening, he focuses on his performance.

“It’s a full-day process,” Meyer said. “It starts with the pre-game skate and pre-game meal, followed by a nap. When I get up from my nap, it’s game time. I have two hours to think about what’s going to happen on the ice and what I can do. It’s kind of a whole day process.”

Mark Stuart, an NTDP alum now with the Boston Bruins, prepares himself mentally as well as performing the ritual of putting his equipment on the same way each game.

“I usually just picture myself making plays and doing stuff exactly right,” he said. “That usually doesn’t happen but it’s what I think about.”

Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy meticulously placed each piece of his equipment on the dressing room floor before strapping it on in exactly the same order each game. Most players tape their sticks in the same pattern or rely on a “lucky” T-shirt, no matter how bad it smells or how ratty it looks.

That’s where rituals can cross the line into superstition. Chris Chelios has worn the same pads for decades and insists on being the last player in the dressing room to pull his jersey on.

“A superstition can take away from that focus, especially if it’s not there,” Haberl said. “If you believe you play your best when you’re wearing your red socks, what happens when you forget them for one game? It takes away from your focus because you have a prophecy that something bad will happen during the game. Or, if two players have the same superstition of being the first one out of the locker room, you’re going to have a mad dash to the door, and that could cause problems.

“You rationalize with superstitions. You try to make the uncertain certain, and we can never do that. It’s impossible to control sports because so much of it is out of your hands. Hockey players are on par with athletes in other sports as far as rituals and superstitions go. Except goalies, they’re a lot more prone to them than most other athletes.”

When a superstition gets out of hand, Haberl simply appeals to an athlete’s logical side.

“You show them the evidence,” he said. “You talk about the time when they played well and that superstition wasn’t there. Keep it positive. When you show them it’s not the superstition that’s helping them play well, it’s a lot easier for them to let it go.”

The key seems to be moderation.

“A few superstitions are harmless enough,” according to Leonard Zaichkowsky, a professor of sports psychology at Boston University, although he warns that “too many can take over a player’s life.”

“I spent time with the B.U. [ice] hockey team, and they had a goalie with so many superstitions that he spent most of his time checking to see if he’d done all his routines, and if he had all his good luck charms in place,” Zaichkowsky recalled, laughing.

“Meanwhile, the pucks were all flying by him.”



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