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How Superstition Works - Stuart Vyse - The Atlantic


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The popularity of sport combined with the fact that its participants are a traditionally superstitious group make athletes, particularly professional athletes, the most famous of all superstitious people. Journalists have delighted in revealing the curious habits of the heroes of the playing field. Former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly forced himself to vomit before every game, a habit he had practiced since high school. NBA star Chuck Persons used to eat two candy bars before every game: two KitKats, two Snickers, or one of each. Former New York Mets pitcher Turk Wendell, named the most superstitious athlete of all time byMen’s Fitness magazine, would brush his teeth between innings. Wayne (The Great One) Gretzky, former star of the New York Rangers hockey team, always tucked the right side of his jersey behind his hip pads.

Uncertainty is an integral part of most sports. In basketball, the best professional players make only half their shots from the field. Quarterbacks in the National Football League complete, on average, only 61 percent of their passes. Because the motivation to win or perform well is quite strong, it is not surprising that athletes resort to magic in an attempt to alter these percentages. Interestingly, superstitions within a particular sport are generally restricted to the least-certain activities. George Gmelch, an anthropologist and former professional baseball player, noted that the most capricious parts of the game are batting and pitching. Because winning depends on scoring more runs than the opposing team, a pitcher can perform very well and yet lose the game, or can give up several runs and win. A great pitch can be hit out of the park, and a bad one can become a crucial third strike. In batting, a 30 percent success rate makes one a “premier player,” whereas 26 percent is only average. In contrast, fielding is a more reliable enterprise. Infielders have approximately three seconds to prepare for a ball hit toward them, and outfielders have even more time. Few things can intervene to alter the ball’s trajectory from bat to glove. As a result, when the ball is hit toward a fielder, the player successfully catches it or throws the batter out an average of 97 percent of the time. In the “safer waters” of the playing field, there is little need for magic.

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