Being superstitious in sports: Effect of superstitious beliefs on athletes' cognitive and affective responses
Superstition can be defined as a person's unrealistic perception of control over behavioral outcomes in different situations. Although it is assumed that superstitious beliefs may help athletes prepare for a competition, they represent a rather unexplored area in sport psychology. The aim of the present study was to investigate the influence of superstitious beliefs on several performance-related dispositions, such as achievement goals, locus of control, self-handicapping and trait anxiety, and then examine the moderating role of athletes' age and years of competitive experience. The sample of the study consisted of 297 male basketball athletes (M = 23.86, SD = 4.63) participating in Greek professional leagues. The athletes completed a questionnaire regarding measures of positive and negative superstitious beliefs, self-handicapping strategies, internal and external locus of control and luck, achievement goals and trait anxiety. The results of the regression analyses indicated that positive superstitious beliefs significantly predicted self-handicapping and external locus of control. Negative superstitious beliefs were significant predictors of somatic anxiety, worry, and performance avoidance goals. Moderation regression analysis further indicated that the effect of superstitious beliefs on worry was stronger among athletes with less sports experience. The present study provides valuable information regarding the role of superstitious beliefs in better understanding athletes' cognitive and affective responses, and sets the basis for future research in this rather unexplored area. Paranormal beliefs reflect a person's belief in phenomena that contradict the basic principles of scientific thinking (Broad, 1953). Those beliefs include superstition (i.e.,black cats and breaking mirrors cause bad luck), precognition (i.e., psychics and astrologers can predict the future), extra sensory perception and a range of similar phenomena (i.e., some people can move objects with the power of their mind) (Dudley, 1999). In other words, superstitious beliefs reflect people's tendency to make causal inferences and offer explanations for several phenomena without necessarily taking into account, or even sometimes by contradicting, scientific evidence pointing to alternative and more scientifically-grounded explanations (Zebb & Moore, 2003; see Lindeman & Aarnio, 2007 for a more detailed presentation of superstitious beliefs' definitions). Past research has shown that superstitious beliefs are associated with adverse psychological outcomes, such as low self-efficacy (Tobacyk & Shrader, 1991), high trait anxiety and dissociative experiences (Wolfradt, 1997), irrational beliefs (Roig, Bridges, Renner, & Jackson, 1998) and external locus of control (Dag, 1999; Tobacyk, Nagot, & Miller, 1988). On the other hand, Dudley (1999) found that higher scores in superstitious beliefs can help improve performance in solving puzzles during instances of uncontrollability because they may prevent this lack of control. The evidenced effect of superstitious beliefs on task performance may have implications for the study of athletes' performance in sports. Nevertheless, research in this area is scarce. An early study by Neil, Anderson, and Sheppard (1981) showed that highly competitive ice hockey athletes were keen on adopting superstitious behaviours, such as rituals. In another study, Buhrmann and Zaugg (1983) suggested that higher scores in religiosity led to stronger superstitious beliefs among basketball players. Van Raalte, Brewer, Nemeroff, and Linder (1991) further indicated that people who believed they could control chance events through their actions were more likely to adopt superstitious behaviors. Ciborowski (1997) suggested that athletes tend to adopt superstitious behaviors as a way to improve their performance, without necessarily admitting a direct connection between the adopted behavior and their actual sports performance. More interestingly, he reported that if an individual believed that a particular behavior could improve performan e, that behavior should not be considered superstitious. Furthermore, Bleak and Frederick (1998) reported that the use of superstitious rituals varied across sports, and that the most frequently used superstitious behaviors were not necessarily the ones that were rated by the athletes to be most effective in improving sport performance. Finally, a more recent study (Foster, Weigand, & Baines, 2006) indicated that superstitious beliefs significantly affected performance in free-throw shot in basketball. Uncertainty and lack of control have been proliferated as important determinants of superstitious beliefs, similar to the experience of anxiety (Martens, Vealey & Burton, 1990; Spielberger, 1972), In fact, superstitious beliefs may increase during periods of ambiguity, uncertainty, or uncontrollability (Dudley, 1999), and soothe people by providing an illusory sense of control, or at least an explanation of why events are uncontrollable. In simple words, in the face of uncertainty, individuals attempt to achieve control by investing in irrelevant objects or actions, resting on the assumption that there exists a causal link between those objects or actions and particular results (Ciborowski, 1997; Wright & Erdal 2008). Despite anecdotal reports published in newspapers and magazines on the influence of superstitious beliefs on sport performance, there is only limited scientific evidence about sport-related superstitions (Foster et al., 2006). For instance, Ciborowski (1997) and Schippers and Van Lange (2006) found that elite athletes are more likely to employ superstitious rituals in high uncertainty and anxiety-provoking situations, as well as in important competitions. Additionally, anxiety was also associated with the use of rituals (Schippers & Van Lange, 2006). Athletes' skill level and task difficulty were also found to influence superstitious beliefs. Specifically, low skill athletes in an easy condition and high skill athletes in difficult condition had the higher scores in superstitious behavior (Wright & Erdal, 2008). Contrary to this evidence, Bleak and Frederick (1998) reportedthat the use of rituals was not associated with anxiety or perceived importance of success in collegiate athletes. © 2011 by Nova Science Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.