The superstitiousness of sports stars

Status is no bar. Even the most successful sports people tend to rely on some form of personal voodoo. By Barney Ronay.

From the way she ties her laces to how she bounces the ball, Serena Williams has intrigued Wimbledon with her strange rituals. She’s not unusual, sports stars are a superstitious bunch.

The golfer Gary Player once said: “The harder I practise, the luckier I get.” Serena Williams would no doubt agree with this, but perhaps only if she could add a footnote along the lines of “as long as I’ve tied my shoelaces the right way and remembered to have a shower in the same cubicle before each match”.

Coverage of Serena’s run to the quarter-finals of Wimbledon has been accompanied by revelations about how relentlessly superstitious the former champion is on and off the court. Her current match play rituals include always bouncing the ball five times before her first serve and twice before the second. She carries around a personal scrapbook of motivational jottings — stuff like “You R No. 1” — that she likes to pore over between games. Her sister Venus has denied the pair were witnessed chopping towels into “lucky” small squares in the locker room.

Another up and coming star Ana Ivanovic admits to bouncing the ball just once before serving and avoiding stepping on white lines between points. Superstition is rife in professional sport. Scratch the surface and at times it seems the whole supercharged global business is governed solely by its own secret juju of lucky beards, decisive urinals and mysteriously omnipotent R&B tracks.

The most likely explanation for all this is probably to do with the type of person who gets to be very good at sport.

There’s nothing particularly rational about devoting every moment of your youth to perfecting the ability to hit a ball inside a white line. Only those who can focus obsessively on honing a single, otherwise totally useless skill will ever succeed. Most of us have come across people like that once or twice. And, let’s face it, they are always a bit loopy.

Status is no bar. Even the most successful sports people tend to rely on some form of personal voodoo. Tiger Woods may have won 79 professional golf tournaments, but how much of this is down to talent and how much to the fact that he always wears a red jumper on a Sunday? Woods has rationalised his hokum by saying he associates the colour with “strength and assertiveness”, but he needn’t have bothered. Golf is, after all, the most fickle of sports, hostage to variables that lie outside the most punishing fitness regime or the most thorough tactical plan. We all need a bit of luck. But how do you get it, exactly?

Williams isn’t the first tennis player to put her faith in ritual. Bjorn Borg always wore the same pinstripe kit at Wimbledon and would let his beard grow prior to the tournament. Sports Illustrated once had a pre-Wimbledon Borg cover story captioned: “The beard has begun.” More recently, Russian player Marat Safin is rumoured to travel with a scary-sounding “evil eye” given to him by his sister to help ward off malevolent spirits.

Professional football has long been racked with fetish and fancy. England and Chelsea captain John Terry claims to have “about 50” pre-match superstitions. The most powerful of these involved wearing the same lucky shin-guards for over a decade. Disastrously, Terry lost them before the first leg of a 2004 Champions League tie in Barcelona. “Those shin-pads had got me to where I was in the game,” he said, not, apparently, joking. “I was thinking, ‘Fu… hell, I’ve had those shin-pads for so long and now this is it, all over.” Chelsea lost the match.

David Beckham, Terry’s predecessor as captain, has attributed his own rag-bag of pre-match routines to a form of obsessive compulsive disorder. Beckham always wears long sleeves and a fresh pair of boots for each game, while at home he repeatedly arranges his cola cans to face the same way in the fridge door and insists on buying exactly 20 packets of noodles on a visit to the supermarket.

In isolation, these might sound like the symptoms of a troubled individual; in football, they seem pretty much par for the course. Former England goalkeeper David James goes into the toilets before a game, waits until they’re empty and then spits on the wall. Fellow ’keeper Peter Schmeichel insisted on parrying exactly 100 shots before each game.

Paul Ince always left his shirt off until he got on to the pitch, a routine that even survived his career progression from whippet-slim tyro to bulky senior pro. Former Leeds and England manager Don Revie insisted on wearing his “lucky” blue suit even when, after several years, it had begun to fall into serious disrepair. Revie also had a fear of ornamental elephants and a distrust of birds as symbols — so much so that he eventually removed the owl from the Leeds club crest.

Fending off curses remains a preoccupation in football: the former Birmingham manager Barry Fry urinated in each corner of the club’s St. Andrew’s ground in order to lift a spell. Last season Manchester City coach Stuart Pearce kept a toy horse called Beanie on the touchline to help ward off a losing run. Beanie was eventually dispensed with after a 4-0 defeat by Wigan.

No sport is immune. The Australian cricketer Andrew Symonds relies on his scary, clown-like white sun cream, even wearing it during an indoor match in 2005. Fellow Australian Steve Waugh took to the crease with a corner of his lucky red handkerchief sticking out of his pocket. A section of the handkerchief has since been put on display in the Australian museum of sport.

No African Nations football tournament is complete without accusations over the unfair use of pre-match witchcraft. And the former Chelsea player Adrian Mutu, a Romanian, once declared, “Curses cannot touch me because I wear my underwear inside out,” tapping into a particular national trait: the entire Romania team bleached their hair blond during the 1998 World Cup, apparently to break a jinx placed on the team by a senior figure in the Romanian Orthodox Church.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007