Thursday, June 24, 2010

Player's Superstitions

To be a top class goal scorer a player needs not only to be able to score when the opportunity presents but even when there is only half a chance. Scoring from the slenderest opportunity places an exclusive band of goal scorers far above the average striker. On a simple goal tally it is obvious more goals are scored in the modern game than was the case in early times. How much of this relates to improved soccer boots and ball technology remains unknown. Players are however, by nature, very superstitious and will go to extraordinary lengths to maintain their run of luck. Most of their actions defy common logic and some so bazaar as to be noted here. Whilst most admit to being superstitious and doing silly things, like soaking themselves and their new boots in a bath before allowing boots to dry around their feet, many are as quick as to dismiss these beliefs. When the accumulation of coaching, training, skill development and fitness are complete all that is required is for the player, is to go out and play. Or so you might think. The surreptitious nature of the game and likelihood of suffering an injury combined with the abject fear of public disgrace particularly when seen by 37 million people puts intolerable pressures on the players. According to Morris (1981) these factors contribute to why soccer players are so superstitious. They are not alone in the sporting fraternity. The power of superstition is all in the mind and for some players the magic rituals take on astonishing intensity. In the main team mates respect each other's rituals and all avoid tempting fate. Ritualistic behaviour starts days before the game. Many well known players will only wear certain shoes and socks, and like a young bride, place a sixpence (lucky coin) in their shoes. Some personally polish their playing boots in preparation before the match. This menial task is usually reserved to apprentice players or boot boys. Alcohol, usually spirits, plays a role, and Desmond Morris, the anthropologist described one player who insisted on dosing the tips of his boots, one with whisky and the other water. Players will be careful to travel to the stadium observing all taboos as a means of not tempting fate. The most intense time for ritualism is in the changing rooms. Rigidly observed procedures involve those connected with changing clothes. Lucky shoes, socks, and even laces all form part of the rituals, religiously followed by those seeking the good fortunes of fate. The manner the clothing is put on often become ritualistic. Some players are known to put on socks and boots and nothing else well before the game. They sit quietly psyching themselves up to a peak performance. This might involve a nip of whisky or their favourite tipple to further concentrate their mind. Some players insist on eating and Billy Bremner (former captain of Leeds United and Scotland) was famous for eating a plateful of baked beans before every game. Putting on the left sock first before the right, or the right boot before the left. Lacing boots can become a ritual with players lacing and unlacing their boots multiple times before the game. Morris reported the clothing of others could also become a focus to the superstitious. For example some players needed to see their coach wear socks of their lucky colour before they would take to the field. This fetishism extends to the shoes worn by the coach and the author described a ceremoniously fastened of the coach's shoe by one of the players as pre match necessity before the team would leave the dressing rooms. Some players insist on entering the changing rooms in a particular way most of, which involves walking through the boot room. Players will carry lucky charms including a rabbit's foot or lucky heather. The absence of pockets in playing kits and restrictions on wearing jewellery for safety mean the talisman are slipped into the shoe, or in the case of goal keeper such paraphilia are tossed into the back of the goal. Players are ritualistic even in the tunnel leading to the pitch. Some players will head or kick the ball a certain number of times or bounce it off the wall before running onto the field. Once on the pitch another set of ritual behaviour might take place. Players will take their boots off and put them back on again. Many insist in replacing the boots and some even kiss their boots for luck. Players will roll the chewing gum they have been chewing into a ball and attempt to kick the ball. A successful contact means a good game but when the player misses then bad luck will follow. Why so many superstitions involve boots remains unclear but such behaviour as preferring the right or left has been known since antiquity. In Roman and Greek times the left side was considered lucky with one exception and that was when entering a home. Only the right foot could cross the threshold if good luck was to prevail. In rich domiciles there were servants whose sole function (excuse the pun) was to direct all visitors to use their right foot first. They were called footmen and position is still with us today. By the Middle Ages the left side was more associated with bad luck. The origins of "By the left quick march" for example refer to a clear indication no mercy will be extended to the enemy. Soccer players may be extending the same charity to their opponents. For most people left sides are weaker. This is partly explained by neonatal compression of the left leg against the mother's spine in the womb. Attendance to the right foot first may be to favour the stronger side. This would be reversed in the case of left-footed players. One other reason to explain the boot ritual may be the misfortune awaiting those who place their right foot in a left shoe. History records this happened to Augustus Caesar.
"Augustus having an oversight
Put on his left shoe for his right
Had like to have been slain that day
By soldiers mutinying for pay."

An old Jewish custom was to put the right shoe on first without tying it, then the left sock. The ritual required taking the right shoe off and putting on the right sock, left shoe on tied and back to the right shoe. This is seen occasionally when players will come onto the field and during pre-match warm ups and are observed taking their boots and putting them on again. Players prefer to play in boots that are broken in. Not so strange when hidden seams can burst causing painful blisters as well as cuts and abrasions to their feet. Some players prefer to remove design logos from their boots to get an all black appearance. Manufacturers are aware of this and incorporate weaknesses such as hidden seems which tear easily once the company's logo are removed. In 1908 when goal-scoring ace, George Hedley played for Wolverhampton Wanderers he scored a goal against Newcastle causing one of his favourite boots to split. Despite being offered a new pair Hedley steadfastly refused and saw the game to completion with one tattered boot. The player had his favourite boots patched up at least 17 times before eventually and somewhat reluctantly parting with them. Superstitious ritual in sports people is well documented and thought by many experts to be a means of stress relief. Performance is dependent on training, confidence and physical conditioning; all athletes feel they need to be in control and often observing superstitions provides this means. Athletes can only partially regulate their physical conditions but can have total control over their superstitious practices before and during a contest. (Becker 1975) . Observed superstitions cause them to experience less anxiety than they would if they did nothing. When something appears to work, prior to success, then it is common not to change that routine. To minimise conflict between the need for a talisman in an environment where such practice is opposed the superstitious behaviour usually becomes covert.

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