Psychologists Say Olympic Athletes' Weird Rituals Are Actually Effective


Very little of Serena Williams' 22 Grand Slam wins and four Olympic gold medals depended on luck. Like all great athletes, Williams' excellence is the product of discipline, perseverance and hard work. 

But psychologist Stuart Vyse, who authored a book on the psychology of superstition, says pregame rituals — like Williams', which are rumored to include wearing the same socks for the duration of a tournament and bouncing her tennis ball five times before her first serve — could give pros the confidence boost they need to edge out competitors.

"Even though this ritual can't possibly directly affect what's going on, it gives the person a sense that they have a bit more control over the outcome than they would otherwise have," Vyse told Quartz

In a 2011 interview with ESPN W, sports psychologist Kristen Dieffenbach said she even coaches athletes into finding the rituals that are right for them. She said the key is to create habits that don't rely heavily on objects (like a lucky coin, for example) that can be forgotten or lost, leaving athletes "out of sorts."

"I coach athletes to make their pregame rituals effective and useful for performance," she told espnW. "You should be in charge of your pregame ritual, not the other way around."

Vyse emphasized there's nothing "magical" about any ritual — it's pure psychology. But that's the point. 

"It's not that the lucky charm or the luck has a direct effect on performance," Vyse told Quartz, "but it does have a psychological effect that's positive."

If Williams is any testament to the power of the placebo effect, sign us up.