This article, by Anna Tomasulo, first appeared in our March/April 2016 edition.
helpful? harmful? semi-ridiculous
Last month Shalane Flanagan secured her spot on the U.S. marathon team for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. In the midst of some marathon-trials-inspired procrastination, I came across a 2010 New York Times blog post on pre-marathon superstitions held by elite and non-elite runners. According to the article, the number eight holds good luck for Flanagan. The number was on her bib in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where she won a bronze medal for the 10K, and also on her bib at her 2010 marathon debut in New York City where she placed second. At that same race, her water bottles were on table number eight, and she roomed on the eighth floor of her hotel the night before. Flanagan isn’t alone. Meb Keflezighi will also be representing the U.S. in the Olympic Marathon this summer. The same New York Times article explains that Meb tries to eat spaghetti with red sauce before every marathon. One of the non-elite runners interviewed cited a need to eat Ethiopian food pre-race (thinking it will help him run like the great Haile Gebrselassie), while others explain that their green underwear and purple rubber bracelets bring them good luck and prevent them from injury. Of these superstitions, Flanagan is quoted as saying that they are “semi-ridiculous.”1
My gut tells me that these beliefs are not just semi-ridiculous, but totally ridiculous. Why? Why do I think they are ridiculous, when I myself practice certain rituals—albeit none running-related—that I believe, despite logic and rational thought, will have an impact on future performance.
Olympian Paavo Nurmi, the Flying Finn, once said, “Mind is everything: muscle—pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind.”2 (qtd in Will-Weber). Nurmi won twelve Olympic medals. The idea that running is “mental sport” is a common one. Australian distance runner and Olympian, Derek Clayton once said, “The difference between my world record and many world class runners is mental fortitude. I ran believing in mind over matter.” (qtd in Will-Weber). Commentary on the not-fully-understood psychology of endurance sports has taken a footing in the literature. Recently, sports psychologists have started to explore the notion of “mental toughness,” or the attributes that buffer an athlete from elements or circumstances that would normally hinder performance. In a 2002 study in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, Graham Jones sought to learn how mental toughness is defined, and what attributes one needs to be a mentally tough athlete. Through interviews with elite athletes, Jones proposes twelve components of mental toughness: “(1) having an unshakeable self-belief in your ability; (2) having an unshakeable self-belief that you possess unique qualities and abilities; (3) having an insatiable desire and internalised motives to succeed; (4) bouncing back from performance setbacks; (5) thriving on the pressure of competition; (6) accepting that competition anxiety is inevitable and knowing you can cope with it; (7) not being adversely affected by others’ performances; (8) remaining fully-focused in the face of personal life distractions; (9) switching a sport focus on and off as required; (10) remaining fully-focused on the task at hand in the face of competition-specific distractions; (11) pushing back the boundaries of physical and emotional pain; and (12) regaining psychological control following unexpected, uncontrollable events.”3
So, the question I am grappling with is this: if performance in endurance sports, such as running, depends on some amount of mental toughness, why do athletes—particularly runners—maintain superstitions? Isn’t there some contradiction in performance that requires an “unshakeable self-belief in one’s ability” and attributing your performance to something external and supernatural?
It’s not just elite athletes, either. A Boston University psychological study by Deborah Kelemen et al. asked physical scientists to accept or refute teleological explanations (I had to look this up. A teleological explanation suggests that the reason something exists is because of the purpose it serves. Example: trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe.) for natural phenomena with and without time pressure. In short, what they found is that when pressured, scientists were more likely to accept these explanations (i.e. superstitions) when there was a time limit to their response.4 By virtue of their professions and interests, one might guess that scientists, like mentally tough athletes, would always reject teleological explanations or superstitions. It seems that believing—even by the smallest of degrees—in some superstition, or something we also know not to be true, is common, despite what our everyday and academic experience tells us.
So what does this matter to runners? Are superstitions harmful, beneficial, or benign? Arguably, superstitions can be all of the above. For those arriving at the starting line only to realize that they forgot their purple bracelet or green underwear, I hope that they remember to put some stock in the hours of solid training done on the roads, in the gym, in the beating sun, or in the freezing cold. That preparation shouldn’t be undone by a negative mindset brought on by a failure to complete a pre-race ritual. At the same time, for those who arrive at the starting line with their lucky charms stowed away in their shorts, and with a smile on their faces, and a positive mind set, more power to them. If practicing a pre-race ritual helps you maintain focus, a positive attitude, and confidence in your preparation, then I say keep practicing it. And for the non-believers, Stevie Wonder has you covered:
Very superstitious, writings on the wall,
Very superstitious, ladders bout’ to fall,
Thirteen month old baby, broke the lookin’ glass
Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past
When you believe in things that you don’t understand,
Then you suffer,
Superstition ain’t the way… Ω
Anna Tomasulo lives, writes, and runs in Providence, Rhode Island. She thinks Nurmi was on to something.
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