As practitioners of the grappling arts we all have heard or participated in some of the superstitious rituals which surround the sport. An example would be not washing one’s belt in BJJ so as to preserve the mojo of accumulated performance over time. Another example is the color of rash-guard worn by a competitor to gain an advantage. With regards to such practices, have you ever wondered what the underlying intent behind the act itself is? What it may say about you and your self-perception in a sporting context may be surprising.
First let’s us define superstition. Merriam Webster defines Superstition as:
"…a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation"
For simplicity sake, let’s refine the fundamental attribute of superstition to a basic defining quality as "The illusion of control, which stems from the idea that something can cause another thing to happen or exist" preferably in our favor. Do you even Voodoo bro?
Stay with me grappler.
The role of superstition in grappling, and sport in general, can take many forms and guises, but the crux of ritualistic involvement lies in the foundations of how we perceive ourselves and our abilities to carry out task oriented goals in an unknowable outcome. The premise behind the proposed definition of "the illusion of control" may stem from our self-perception, or in short, our confidence. What does your self-perception say about your confidence and overall performance? Researchers say a lot.
According to studies (Burger & Lynn, 2005; Feison & Gmelch, 1979; Vyse, 1997) superstition appears to arise from these circumstances of perceived unpredictability. There is a sacred weave through the mats of our domesticated version of the arena where "Two man enter, one man leave". A virtual sum game zero where one person must win and the other lose to complete the circle. This is for some, the lure and appeal of grappling and other individual based sports competitions. This is also where superstition may find purchase and starts to win the grip battle on you.
Have you ever ran into the individual that microanalyses every detail of their involvement with their training, be it in the form of diet or color of rashguard that they wear? How about the way some people tape their fingers pre-match or perhaps a certain meal or warm-up ritual before they perform? Does any of this sound familiar? Taken individually out of context, some of these superstitions can seem pretty odd or outright borderline nuts! In the broader picture of our individual goals and desires within the sport of grappling however, these practices can be indicators of our desire to achieve control by investing one’s belief into objects, actions, or rituals. Simply stated, the more one desires a preferable expected outcome, the more he/she is willing to believe that there is a link between one type of superstitious act and the result. This may also be a barometer between the casual grappling hobbyists from serious competitors as well.
A simple study was conducted on a group of college students to test the correlation between superstition, the ability to control an unknowable outcome, and self-perceived level of skill. Participants were first asked to fill out a short (voluntary) form with regards to their abilities to carry out a specified task, in this case, putt a golf ball into the cup at varied lengths. Next they were asked to take two sets of putts on a simulated putting green of predetermined length. The first putt length was of 3 feet to the cup and twenty opportunities were provided. The second putt length was of 9 feet and twenty opportunities were provided as well. The "superstition" element was instigated into the test by adding colored golf balls as an option to putt with. The results were revealing and insightful.
The "low skill" participant’s demonstrated greater superstitious behavior in the easy condition (the 3 foot putts) than in the difficult condition (the 9 foot putts); whereas, the high skill participants demonstrated greater superstitious behavior in the difficult condition than in the easy condition. What was this superstitious behavior across the board according to self-perceived skill level? The low skill players on the easy condition putts (3 feet), as well as the high skill players on the respective difficult condition putts (9 feet), were more likely to use the same color of golf ball that they previously made putts with.
Read between the lines of this research (Sport Superstition as a Function of Skill Level and Task Difficulty, Perry B. Wright and Kristi J. Erdal) lies the correlation of how we perceive our athletic abilities and the level of our willingness to believe in superstitious rituals and/or individual totems. If the belief in our confidence is at a lower level ability, we are more likely to partake in "illusion of control" superstitious behavior in "easier" skill oriented tasks. While subsequently, lower level practitioners tend to not be as superstitious in "higher" skill oriented tasks which is led to be derive from learned helplessness (Gmelch 1974). Flip the coin, and if your confidence is at a higher level of ability, you may tend to not "need" the belief in superstitious activity in the easier skill oriented tasks column as you may see the desired results on this level as a right of access. However, those with a higher level of confidence may tend to find the necessity to call upon superstition as the skill of orientated tasks increase in difficulty along side our aspirations of control over the situation intensify.
How many times have you heard of someone saying that they need "a little luck" or "the planets need to be aligned" to win a bracket and advance to reach the podium at a tournament? Heck, who wouldn’t want the random "banana peel" to help them out of difficult match-up at some point?
The stronger that we believe in our abilities, the more likely we are to adopt some form of superstitious behavior to achieve the level of outcome that we desire. These acts of superstition may not truly be magical in the sense that it endows us with powers beyond the normal range of human ability, (don’t go grow your locks just yet Samson), but they may reinforce the inherent existential confidence that we have nurtured on the mats through good old blood/sweat minutes. Work harder now and reap the rewards of confidence built upon a solid framework of conviction and your belief in anything is an act of supplementation to tangible input. Making the intuitive leap between superstition and knowledge is grounded in self-assurance. Only the individual can cement this bridge with good old hard work and determination.
At the end of the day, a closer inspection of ones confidence and how we perceive our abilities on the mats may say a lot towards what we think of ourselves and superstition going forward in the future. As individuals in life the correlation between the two are undeniable.
Now go wash your belt, buy a new lucky rash-guard, and toss some chicken bones before training starts, osss!