So, Those Weird Olympic Athlete Rituals Do Work

Photo: Mark Reis/Colorado Springs Gazette/TNS via Getty Images

You may have heard of Usain Bolt. The Jamaican sprinter won his third consecutive gold medal in the 100-meter dash Sunday night, winning with meme-inspiring confidence. Before that race, just like every other time, he pointed to the sky. Though he’s peerless in speed, Bolt is like many other Olympians in having a pregame ritual, whether it’s Rafael Nadal alternating water-bottle sips in just the right way, gymnast Danell Leyva camping out under his lucky towel, or Michael Phelps blasting Eminem to focus up (a tradition also shared, apparently, by Barack Obama.)

Dismissing these habits as nervous tics or useless superstitions misses the point. As Olivia Goldhill writes at Quartz, the rituals give athletes a method of self-soothing during the lulls between warmups and the starting gun. In their consistency, the rituals provide reliability, and while they can’t have a direct effect, one psychologist says that the rituals give the athlete “a sense that they have a bit more control over the outcome than they would otherwise have.” Similarly, as one anthropologist explained to Science of Us, superstitions surface most in the parts of life that people have have the least control over, like a first date, a job interview, a huge test in school, a big presentation at work, or a stage performance. (Break a leg, if you would).

Indeed, research indicates that rituals become more pronounced for athletes the higher the stakes are — if it’s the championship game, you’ll attend to the rituals that (may have) helped bring you there very closely. As found in one experimental study, the rituals give a touch more confidence, which can be crucial in a competition where wins come down to milliseconds or millimeters.

A useful framework for understanding how that works, psychologically, is called “locus of control.” If you have an external locus of control, then you think that the events in your life are the result of outside forces, like the will of a deity or the universe. If you have an internal locus of control, you claim greater authorship of your life events. (Part of why it’s related to academic achievement and mental health.) In athletics, the external view would say that you win by luck, the internal that you win by effort. From the sky-pointing to the bottle-sipping, the athletes are internalizing their locus of control, which has been linked with more creative problem-solving. That’s why so much of Marines’ training now is focused on shifting an external locus of control to an internal one. With rituals like these, you put yourself a little bit more in the driver’s seat, and maybe turn up the Eminem when you get there.