Athletes, Luck, and Superstition on St. Patrick's Day

Published on: March 17, 2012 | Written by: Meredith Hornsby

Since it's St. Patrick's Day and all of those shirts at Target are reminding us to “Get Lucky” today, I’ve been thinking about the many things that people do for luck, like carrying four leaf clovers, special jewelry, saying ritualistic words or quotes and the like. As the NCAA tournament marches forward and favored teams like Mizzou and Duke are dropping like flies, many people are busting out the rabbit's feet in hopes of keeping their team alive, or wishing for a Cinderella story to emerge.

Most sports fans have some sort of tried and true tradition that they follow prior to games to bring their team good luck.Since everyone who reads this website is a die-hard fan (or a supportive family member - Hi, Dad), I figured you guys have some interesting rituals ofyour own. I took to Twitter and Facebook this week to ask my followers what their lucky routines are, and here are a few of the answers.

Ellen Irvine talked about decorating her house.  “I have a ratty old UA banner that I hang on my porch during every game. I have newer things I put out also, but I always take them down and hang up the old faded banner before game time.”

Stannon Banks, also a UA fan, said, “Starting with the 2009 season, I have to be eating a grilled Conecah with honey during the kickoff of the first Bama game of the season. I’m batting .666. Not too bad.”

Auburn graduate Terrell Stoves said that he MUST wear his AU shirt to work the day before any big game.  “When I don’t, we lose to Clemson…..”  (There you go Auburn fans – now you know who to blame).

My best friend Jessica Gunnin, the biggest Patriots fan I know, said, “If the Pats lose, I put the Tom Brady bobble head that normally sits on my desk at work in my filing cabinet. He doesn’t come back out until the Pats win again.”

Many people have rituals where they refuse to wash items of clothing until a loss. Preston Jones is one such Bama fan, whose jersey admittedly smelled like dirty gym socks by the end of this season.  Who would have thought that sweat and grime could be the sweet smell of victory?

I myself have several things that I do for good luck, the most important being the wearing of the Lucky Shirt.  When I first arrived on campus at the University of Alabama many moons ago, I immediately went to the student supply store and bought a “Game Day T-shirt.”  I wore that shirt to the first football game of the season, and Bama won.  I wore the same shirt to the next game, and again, Bama won. Clearly, it was me and my shirt that launched theTide to victory in those opening games, thus my Lucky Shirt tradition was born.

The Lucky Shirt system works as follows: If my team wins, I must wear the shirt I have on for every game day until they lose. If the team loses, I cannot simply wash the shirt and try again the next week. Oh no.  The tarnished clothing must be retired and a brand-new, never-lost, ultimate winning shirt must be bought.  I wear the new one until another loss, then have to buy yet another new shirt.

Needless to say, I spent a LOT of money on t-shirts during the Shula era.

But it was all worth it, and after Shula gave up on the head coaching business, the Tide turned once again. Thanks to a combination of Saban’s coaching, great players, and my fantastic Lucky Shirts, Bama has won 2 National Championships in three years.

As fans, we truly believe what we are doing helps push our team to victory. It makes us feel like a part of the team, gives us a boost of energy before the start of the game, and helps us deal with the agonizing feelings of defeat – and it does the exact same thing for the players themselves.  The psychological science behind rituals and traditions that are thought to be good luck is that it gives both the fan and the athlete a sense of control. No one ever knows exactly how a game will play out, and that leaves us as human beings nervous and uncomfortable. The wearing of special clothing, eating certain foods, and completing behavioral steps in a specific pattern give the fans and players alike something predictable to depend on in the unsettling hours prior to game time.

As I discovered, fans have some interesting things that they do for the love of the game, but the freaky strange stuff that the actual athletes do is sometimes mind-blowing. 

Many athletes are well-known for having game day rituals or items that bring them luck. Tiger Woods always wears a red shirt in tournaments on Sundays. Michael Jordan wore his University of North Carolina basketball shorts underneath his Bulls uniform shorts. LeBron James always puts powder on his hands before tipoff and then throws the excess up into the air. Nomar Garciaparra did that annoying fastening and unfastening thing with the straps of his batting gloves while tapping his toes in the home plate dirt. 

Those are lucky traditions we are all pretty familiar with –but did you know that NFL linebacker John Henderson would have an assistant team trainer slap him across the face as hard as he could before each game to get psyched up when he played for the Jaguars? I mean, I’d need something major to psych me up for playing for the Jags too, but that seems a little extreme.

I asked OKTC’s own, former Carolina Panthers (now free agent - let the bidding begin!) offensive tackle Geoff Schwartz what he does to get ready for a game. Schwartz doesn’t beat himself up, but his wrists MUST be taped a certain way, and the tape cannot have even one single wrinkle in it. He’s not violent, but he’s certainly OCD.

NASCAR drivers have a weird thing about peanut shells. You can find peanut M&Ms, Snickers bars, and other items containing the legume in the NASCAR garages, but absolutely NO peanut shells, as they are said to be bad luck. The thing is, even though a few theories are out there – and I've personally asked several drivers - no one really knows why.  Also thought to be bad luck in racing is to have a green paint scheme on the car. The first racing accident that ever killed a driver was in the 1920s, and the driver was reportedly in a green car. This superstition is one that most NASCAR drivers these days seem to overlook if a sponsor throws the right amount of cash their way (cough...Junior...cough cough...).

The NBA’s Caron Butler used to chug a 2 liter of Mountain Dew just before playing, until doing so was banned by the Wizards for being an "unhealthy practice." The NBA then cracked down on Butler’s other game-time quirk: chewing on fast-food restaurant drinking straws. Why drinking straws, you ask? Your guess is as good as mine.

There are many, many other good luck charms and rituals that athletes turn to for one reason or another. But these next two are by FAR my favorite.

Major Leaguer Moises Alou somehow managed to keep his freakiness relatively quiet for a long time. Most people would never know that the former slugger believed the best way to avoid calluses was to PEE ON HIS OWN HANDS. Yes that’s right – HE PEED ON HIS OWN HANDS. Alou had an aversion to wearing a batting glove, but thought pissing on his palms before a game was a great idea.

NBA baller Jason Kidd made it a point to blow a kiss to his kids for good luck before every free throw attempt.

Awwwww! So sweet.