The Butterfly Effect: Superstition and Sports

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Stonn the Invincible, waiting for the season to begin

Ivan Cole and I were talking of this and that as we drove out to camp last Sunday. One of the topics which surfaced was sports superstitions. At the time I filed the idea in the mental Rolodex—an increasingly unreliable storage device—and promptly forgot it, until I saw this article  on the Steelers website.

It is part of Bob Labriola’s “Asked and Answered” series, and the following question was raised by an Alabama Steelers fan:

Bob, I need your help. Back in the 1970s, my grandfather gave me a Terrible Towel for Christmas. I don’t remember the exact year, but my dad always told me it was the first year the Terrible Towels were sold. The problem with mine is that it seems like every time I’ve pulled it out over the last 8-to-10 years, the Steelers have lost, no matter the opponent and how overwhelmingly impossible it seemed they would lose – the 4-12 Oakland Raiders in 2012, anyone? My question is, what can I do to shake the bad mojo out of this Towel so that I can fly it on Sundays without having to feel like it’s my fault the Steelers lose? I KNOW that it’s not really my fault, but being the superstitious former athlete I am, I can’t help but think my Towel is a jinx.

Bob Labriola’s reply:

First of all, it’s Craig Wolfley who’s the Monarch of Mojo, and so I hesitate to delve too deeply into his realm. I do know this: your Towel is old, a relic from a bygone era. And while it has sentimental value and still should be treasured by the superstitious former athlete you are, it should be retired. Someone might own a Civil War-era rifle, and it might be his most prized possession, but he would have to understand he couldn’t depend on that gun today. It’s time to upgrade to a newer model Towel. A sleeker, updated version Towel with an untapped Mojo reserve. It’s time. Deep down in your superstitious former athlete bones, you know I’m right. It’s OK. Not even a Terrible Towel can defeat Father Time.

I am a person who has been married for 37 years to a scientist. I have a reasonably trained mind and a master’s degree. And I am most definitely not a former (or current) athlete. I should therefore be immune to things such as thinking which Terrible Towel you wave during a game has an effect on the outcome.

Yet last week I was listening to the Pirates game on the radio while I cleaned up some stuff in my basement. (Okay, it was the cat boxes.) I was wearing a tie-dyed “Let’s Go Bucs” t-shirt which I love, but about which I have harbored some suspicions.

And sure enough, things were going from bad to worse for the Buccos. So I decided I was too hot. It was, after all, rather dank in the basement, and cleaning those boxes involves also mopping, hauling around large heavy bags of litter and such, and I was working up a sweat.

I took off the “Let’s Go Bucs” shirt, turned off the radio, and didn’t check the score until a good bit later. Lo and behold, the Pirates had rallied and won the game. I guess I can only wear that shirt when they have days off.

I mentioned this to Ivan, who felt it was entirely plausible there was some tiny change in the system created by my taking off the shirt and putting it in the laundry basket. Which reminded me of the so-called “Butterfly Effect”.

Most of us know what this is, I suppose, or think we do. The question posed is, can a butterfly flapping its wings in Africa somehow be part of the millions of factors which culminate in a tornado in Oklahoma? I certainly don’t know. Nor did I know where this idea come from. Here’s what I found.

The butterfly effect is one facet of something called “chaos theory,” which seems pretty appropriate. As expressed in the Wikipedia article

[T]he butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. The name of the effect, coined by Edward Lorenz, is derived from the metaphorical example of the details of a hurricane (exact time of formation, exact path taken) being influenced by minor perturbations such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier.

Lorenz discovered the effect when he observed that runs of his weather model with initial condition data that was rounded in a seemingly inconsequential manner would fail to reproduce the results of runs with the unrounded initial condition data. A very small change in initial conditions had created a significantly different outcome.

So there you have it. I find it interesting the original paper launching this theory used a seagull as an illustration rather than a butterfly—apparently even chaos theorists aren’t immune to poetic values. In the interests of full disclosure I should mention not all weather scientists agree with the theory. You can read about their objections in the same article linked above. However, it has apparently been demonstrated at the quantum level, where little weather takes place.

Is it in fact possible the direction my Steelers garden gnome is facing on game day has any influence on the outcome of the game? Not that I would have a Steelers garden gnome…. oh wait, I do. Or whether or not my cat is sitting next to me, or which way I’m holding the towel, or whether I use the black formal towel, the informal original towel, or the championship towel, or one of any number of little things?

It looks incredibly silly written out here in black and white, and I don’t actually believe these things, (I think,) but somehow I find myself responding to them.

If we as fans are like this, I can only imagine what the athletes are like. And indeed it was easy to find examples of superstitions held by players.

This one is hilarious or disgusting according to taste. There are nine other examples in the article, which you can find here

While his hitting power has cooled in recent years, Colorado Rockie Jason Giambi was a pitcher’s worst nightmare in his prime. But even in his heyday the Giambino was prone to slumps. His solution for turning things around? A golden thong. That’s right.

Whenever the 6-foot-3 first baseman found himself in a funk, he’d slip his 240-pound frame into a tiny pair of butt floss before playing. More often than not, Giambi’s weird superstition actually worked. In fact, his bikini bottoms became so well thought of, the five-time All-Star’s teammates would often borrow them to break out of their own slumps.

Andrew McCutchen was mired in a longer-than-usual early season slump this year, and one day after yet another unproductive at-bat he went back to the dugout, threw himself on the floor, and engaged in some sort of exorcism. Sure enough, he hit a double in his next at-bat. Since it’s MLB.com I don’t know how to embed the video, but click the link—the article is entertaining as well as the video.  

The Business Insider published a list of sports superstitions, including this one: 

Bears All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher is a finely tuned machine made up of muscle and instincts. And cookies.

It would be fair to call him the “Cookie Monster of the Midway.” 

Urlacher will eat two chocolate chip cookies before every game.

I presume, to qualify as a supersition, it has to be exactly two, no more, no less, probably the same brand (or, if he is or has a gourmet cook, recipe.)

And the Guardian detailed these:  

It would come as no surprise to anyone even loosely acquainted with baseball that America’s pastime has overflows with superstition.

Kevin Rhomberg’s fame for quirky behavior far outstripped that of his playing deeds in 41 Major League games. The former Cleveland Indian refused to turn right while running – ever, which provided for some interesting moments on the field. He also suffered from a compulsion to touch anyone who’d touched him, even mistakenly, no matter whether they were a team-mate or opponent. Needless to say, he was picked on mercilessly by other players.

Pitcher Turk Wendell also gained quite a reputation for his strange habits during games, which included the ritualistic chewing of four (not three or five) pieces of liquorice as he pitched, after which he would brush his teeth in the dugout between each and every innings. That superstition led to one of the best baseball cards of all time, an Upper Deck one bearing a photo of Wendell enacting his infamous teeth-cleaning routine.

Oddly enough, it appears superstitious rituals actually do help the athletes:

In his acclaimed book “The Game,” Hall of Fame NHL goaltender Ken Dryden described some of the various superstitions he picked up over the years, from nodding at a particular Montreal Forum usherette before home games to shooting a puck off a certain part of the boards at the start of pregame warm-ups.

“I don’t tell anyone about them, I’m not proud I have them, I know I should be strong enough to decide one morning, any morning, no longer to be a prisoner to them,” he wrote. “Yet I seem helpless to do anything about it.”

Sports are full of superstitions, from athletes who perform a specific routine before every game to ones who consider certain items to be lucky or unlucky. Hockey, especially, is rife with these sorts of baubles and rituals, especially in the playoffs, when players grow beards until their team is eliminated and often refuse to touch the trophies awarded to the conference champions.

In addition to these broad, widely agreed-upon rituals, individual players have their own idiosyncratic practices: Corey Perry, the star winger of the Anaheim Ducks, has an eight-step ritual he goes through before every game that includes twirling his stick a certain way and tapping the ice before going into the locker room to put his pads on. Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ two-time MVP, has a number of superstitions as well, from wearing one sweat-stained hat per season after games and practices to putting his equipment on in the same order (always right-to-left).

These all may seem like strange, inconsequential beliefs, but research shows that superstitions can actually be linked with improved performance — in short, because they grant players a psychologically important illusion of control over events that often come down to random bounces here and there.

George Gmelch, a professor of anthropology at the University of San Francisco who has studied superstition in baseball for decades, says that superstition indeed tends to be more prevalent in areas where there’s a lot of uncertainty — a big test in school, a job interview, or a first date, for example.

And so sports — in which every night brings a new competition to be won or lost — are a natural incubator for them.

“What they’re really doing is giving themselves confidence,” says Gmelch. “If I do these little rituals, then I’m gonna feel confident going into this activity, and I can succeed and do well.”…

Obviously this doesn’t apply to us, the fans. Or does it? Read on, from the same article:

Deep down, athletes generally understand that certain actions don’t really affect the outcome of a game. But once the idea that these actions might affect their performance is lodged in their heads, they may choose to do them anyway, because there’s little downside.

“They often know that superstitious rituals are ‘not rational,’ but since on a top level the differences are so small, they think they cannot afford to take the risk to abandon the superstition,” says Dr. Michaéla Schippers, an associate professor of leadership and management at Erasmus University’s Rotterdam School of Management and van Lange’s co-author on the paper on sports rituals. “In my research, I found that these rituals have a tension-regulating function.”

And there I think you have the answer—for me, at least, it’s a way of dispelling just a bit of the tension which builds up when things aren’t going so well, or even for pre-game jitters.

Interestingly, in my day job as a performer, I don’t have these sort of rituals. I do rather obsessively check whether my music is actually in the car, even though I just put it there, especially when I have a 45-minute drive to the hall. And really, that’s about as reasonable as a borderline OCD behavior can be. But since I am in control of a lot more of how things go than, say, a football player is, I guess I don’t feel the need.

Conversely, as a fan I feel completely out of control. And since I didn’t choose to root for a team which is either generally comfortably ahead or invariably behind in games, I suppose these things help.

But just in case they actually help, I’m tuning up the garden gnome during the preseason. I have to find out which is the best direction to aim him, after all! So far, I apparently haven’t found it…

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