Opinion: are sporting superstitions psychological mechanisms against the fear of defeat or just plain old nonsense?

Superstitions are beliefs that help people to gain control of an otherwise unpredictable future. Within a sporting context, superstitions offer a coping mechanism for dealing with the stress of a competitive situation.

Many sporting superstitions are shrouded in secrecy as individuals are often reluctant to admit their own match day behaviour or even recognise that they have one. Here, though, are some instances of superstitious behaviour by GAA players and managers.

One of the most prevalent superstitions with players is to do with their gear and putting it on in the exact same way every time. Down goalkeeper Rory Burns ensures that his wrists are taped underneath his gloves and he never wears new boots on match days. Tipperary's Brendan Maher always put his left sock on first and left boot next. Kerry's Paul Geaney follows the same routine. Neither player has confirmed if this is followed by doing the hokey cokey and shaking it all about.

From the GAA, players talk about their pre-match routines and superstitions

The Canning family have long been associated with Galway GAA. Ollie, Joe and Deirdre enjoyed successful careers in hurling and camogie and a constant ritual throughout was their late mother Josephine stitching miraculous medals into the back of their shorts. 2018 Hurler of the Year Joe admits to being "a little bit superstitious" and remarked on how people he would meet on the street would often give him a miraculous medal out of the blue.

Another superstition with a religious aspect is one former Waterford hurling manager Derek McGrath would fulfil before every championship game. McGrath would go into the cathedral in Waterford city, stand in front of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and say "make us be the best we can be". After this, he would light candles and arrange them in the same formation of the team to line out that day.

Many players only admit to having superstitions after they retire from the game

In 2008, the Tyrone footballers stopped shaving their facial hair until they won the Sam Maguire. This phenomenon started in the NHL with the 'play off beard' in the 1980s and was picked up in baseball and American football as well. The notion that overgrowth meant intimidation of the opposition proved successful for Tyrone as they beat a more clean-shaven Kerry team in the All-Ireland final.

Perhaps the most superstitious gesture of all was the entire cancellation of Gaelic bames on the unluckiest day of the year, Whit Sunday. In the past, tradition dictated that Irish people should not venture out on the seventh Sunday after Easter as it was believed that pure evil was present on earth that day so it was best to avoid all dangers and activities that could cause accidents. One of the measures put in place to protect people on this day was the postponement of hurling and football fixtures.

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From RTÉ Sport in 2014, friends and players celebrate the life of Páidí Ó Sé

Páidí Ó Sé's superstitions when he played for Kerry were substantial in comparison to many. For instance, he insisted on wearing the same suit to every match and he also wore the same togs. However, Ó Sé got his family to adhere to his superstitions as well. When he was an intercounty manager, Ó Sé's children were obliged to take the same train and eat the same food in the same cafe before every match he was involved in at Croke Park.

His family also had to sit in the same place in the Hogan Stand. On one occasion when they were seated in the Cusack Stand, Páidí’s side lost and according to his daughter Neasa, "that was the end of that".

There is little scientific evidence for the effectiveness of superstitious or repetitive behaviour

There is a thin line between superstations and ordinary match day routines. The Mayo footballers have their own seats in the dressing rooms and the Monaghan footballers have their own seats on the team bus. While there is little scientific evidence for the effectiveness of superstitious or repetitive behaviour, it can be useful for individuals in decreasing anxiety and brings a comforting sense of familiarity to match day routines.

Acknowledging the existence of superstitions may have a downturn on their effectiveness and many players only admit to having one after they retire from the game. Superstitions can also transcend to supporters, who believe their absence or presence can affect the outcome of a match.

For some, superstitious behaviour develops out of sudden success and the repetition of actions carried out during that successful period is used as a psychological mechanism against the fear of defeat. For others, it's just plain old nonsense. Still, I doubt you’ll find a player who’d willingly walk under a ladder or break a mirror before they line out on All-Ireland final day.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ