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Published: June 04, 2019

Watch no. 2, the Spartans’ second baseman, long enough during a ball game, and you’ll notice a couple eccentricities.

He never steps on the foul line on the way in or out of the dugout. He won’t touch a baseball as it’s resting near the mound between innings. He’ll say a little prayer behind second base after his second warmup throw in the first inning … but only after his second throw, not the first.

Sports superstitions
The tics, tugs, bends, shuffles and flexes you might see at the free throw line or in the batter’s box are only momentary rituals that athletes use in an attempt to gain a competitive edge. Even more elaborate are the sometimes weeks-long superstitions that players, coaches and even entire teams engage in, all with the belief that it will help tilt the field, or the court, in their favor.

“I definitely try to abide by those laws,” said sophomore Drew Ehrhard. Besides hard work, which resulted in his being a second-team all-Sunshine State Conference player as a freshman, Ehrhard believes his success has come in part from rituals, most of which he started doing without realizing it.

And if he inadvertently touches that baseball or steps on a foul line between innings? “You might get a few looks from teammates, but hopefully the baseball gods don’t curse you for it.”

The tics, tugs, bends, shuffles and flexes you might see at the free throw line or in the batter’s box are only momentary rituals that athletes use in an attempt to gain a competitive edge. Even more elaborate are the sometimes weeks-long superstitions that players, coaches and even entire teams engage in, all with the belief that it will help tilt the field, or the court, in their favor.

Sound crazy? According to Margaret Tudor, an assistant professor of sport management at UT and a certified sport psychology consultant whose research interests include student-athlete motivation, rituals or routines help athletes be in the present and are directly tied to performance.

“I think it’s just something natural that as the more elite an athlete gets — so, the more history they have — they try to find things that work for them,” she said.

As a college softball player, she made sure to put on the left sock and left shoe first when dressing for a game. She said she encourages athletes to create such habits, because they can prepare them for the challenge they’re about to face — or forget the blunder they may have just committed.

Maybe that’s what the 2013 Spartans baseball team had in mind with their “hot bread” routine. It was created by pitcher Preston Packrall ’14, according to head baseball coach Joe Urso ’92, a former All-American player for UT. A toaster was put in the dugout that season and, if the Spartans needed a rally, or seemed on the verge of scoring some runs, a slice of bread would be toasted. As the Tampa Bay Times described it:

“It will toast as chants of ‘Hot Bread’ emanate from the dugout and reverberate through the Spartans supporters in the bleachers. Upon the rally’s end, a player will eat the bread. Urso even ordered T-shirts with #hotbread emblazoned on the back.”

That team won the sixth of UT baseball’s seven NCAA national championships (and UT baseball is currently in the national championship finals, aiming for an eighth). Of course, maybe that team would have won the national title without a toaster in their dugout. After all, they scored an average of eight runs per game and won 80 percent of their games.

There’s a widespread belief that routines can help relax athletes and improve their concentration.

“Rituals are an essential part of being a successful athlete,” said Ron Woods, a part-time faculty member who teaches courses on sports psychology and sociology at UT. “We teach athletes intentionally to do them to get them to the right level of focus and concentration.”

Woods explained that most of what we do in life is habitual and doesn’t require conscious thought. Similarly in sports, when athletes are getting ready to compete, they might habitually eat a certain meal or listen to specific music to get them in the right frame of mind.

“One of the key things you want to help athletes feel is that they have some control over their performance when they’re playing,” said Woods. “All these are skills that are designed to make an athlete feel confident they control the outcome. It’s not some magical lady luck or accident.”

That’s what Julia Morrow ’14, M.S. ’16 recalls on the softball diamond. A star pitcher for the Spartans, she led the nation in earned-run average as a junior and was the Sunshine State Conference pitcher of the year as a senior.

As a player, Morrow would always do high-fives with her catcher — strictly, once with bare hands, then once with the gloves — before taking the mound each inning. It was a “we’ve got this” confidence booster.

“I think if I didn’t do them, it wouldn’t really affect my performance,” Morrow said, “but I think doing them gets you in a good mind-space.”

Morrow said she didn’t consider herself superstitious. But she admits that her habit had been to wear a bow in her hair for each game — until that time during her junior year when she forgot it and threw her first perfect game. No more bows after that.

Sophomore tennis player Corbin Dorsey has her own set of rituals. As a freshman, Dorsey had an eight-game win streak and posted a 17-4 record in singles play.

Sports superstitions
As odd as they may seem from the stands, athletes’ game day rituals are essential to success.

Dorsey will use the same tennis ball for up to three points in a row, but always changes it out on the fourth point. She also always tucks the left side of her skirt under her shorts, and when she’s serving, always holds the racquet with the manufacturer’s name facing up. And before every serve, she adjusts her hat.

“I’ve done the skirt ritual and holding the racquet a certain way for as long as I can remember, and the rest of them I just started once I got to college,” said Dorsey. “These rituals have just become a habit now, but I feel like something is off, or I have a greater chance at losing the point if I don’t do them.”

A little more superstitious is Elena de Alfredo ’17. She is currently a graduate student and graduate assistant on the UT women’s basketball team, as well as a former captain of the team. At 14, while growing up in Spain, she cried for days after losing the red headband she had worn for every game, fearing she had “lost my powers.”

She hadn’t, of course, but while playing at UT, de Alfredo leaned on several pregame rituals, including a 20-minute nap followed by a 5-minute cold shower, putting on the right shoe before the left and always being the last player to walk onto the court. “I was a little crazy; I’m not going to lie,” she said.

At the same time, de Alfredo said she always understood that her hard work was what would determine her success, not missing a step in the pregame routine. The routine, she said, merely helped focus her concentration. “It kept me in the zone,” she said.

At perhaps the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to superstitions is Adrian Bush ’95, who has been the UT men’s soccer coach since 2005. Here, too, there is a record of success: In 13 seasons under Bush, the Spartans have won 61 percent of their games and gone to the NCAA tournament seven times.

But to hear the coach describe it, none of it would be possible without scrupulously following superstitions. If he accidentally takes the “wrong” turn on the way to work, he’ll go back home and start the drive over. One time Bush made a friend drive his lucky hat that he’d forgotten from Tampa to Boca Raton — 230 miles — in time for a match.

Sports superstitions
"Rituals are an essential part of being a successful athlete," said Ron Woods, a part-time faculty member who teaches courses on sports psychology and sociology at UT. "We teach athletes intentionally to do them to get them to the right level of focus and concentration."

Just listen to Bush:

“I’ve had them as a player, and it seems like it’s only gotten worse with me as a coach. It’s almost to the point where it affects my daily routine. If I have something to eat on the day that we win, you better believe I’m going to eat the exact same
thing before each game until we lose. I’m really bad about it; my assistants, it drives them crazy.

“I have good clothes, and I have bad clothes. I have gotten rid of clothes that have brought bad luck. My wife has learned: I do all my laundry at my house, and it’s for that reason. I don’t want anyone else even touching the stuff that I’m wearing.

“Years ago, on the way to a game the bus driver went the wrong way. We won the game. So, the next game, we made the bus driver go the same exact same route that he went before. He wasn’t lost — but he had to get lost for that game.

“We’ll never eat as a team at Carrabba’s ever again. It’s really eliminated me from going there. We lost a real big game after eating there once, and it stung.”


Tudor said these types of superstitions are more dependent on a player’s or coach’s own personality. They are OK, too, she said, as long as they don’t go too far. Losing a lucky sock, for example, shouldn’t be so upsetting that it distracts your concentration on the field, she said.

Woods agreed and cautioned against athletes putting too much stock in superstitions, which he defines as things people attribute their performance to that are typically irrelevant, such as not washing your socks or not stepping on certain lines.

“It’s dangerous for athletes to rely on superstitions, because it means that they don’t really have control of their performance,” he said.

Bush acknowledges that superstitions can be overdone, but he’s a believer, nonetheless.

“It can almost be something that kind of takes over, but it goes into confidence, it’s a mental part of it. I do think strongly it works,” he said. “I associate things with winning and losing.

“UT athletes, for me, are winners, champions,” he continued. “When you put that jersey on, you’re expected to win. And whatever led you to win, you keep on doing that.”

Ryan Thompson ’10, who played for Bush and was a two-time All-America goalkeeper for UT, said he was fine with Bush’s extreme rituals, because superstitions, as well as religion, were so common in Jamaica, where Thompson grew up.

Thompson is now an assistant coach and player with the Austin Bold FC soccer team in Texas. That means he’ll resume his pregame ritual at the goal. Thompson said he bends down to kiss both poles in the goal and says a prayer.

“I feel like once I repeat those words, I get that sense of calm,” Thompson said. “It just reassures me that I have done my best during the week in practice — because I’m a firm believer also in doing the work, which I commit to every single day — and I believe beyond my work, what do I need to do? I need to make sure the spiritual side is satisfied, as well.”



By Tom Kertscher
Illustrations by Phil Wrigglesworth

Read more stories like this in the Spring 2019 UT Journal.