Performance pyschology is to a large extent about the ellimination of doubt. In many circumstances doubt is a rather sensible thing. If someone’s trying to flog you an insurance policy it makes sense to doubt whether what they are saying is true. But, in sport .. doubt is catastrophic. If you don’t believe you are going to nail a landing or hit a trajectory exactly right you’re almost certain to miss. That’s why visualising a perfect performance is so important .. it can help to eliminate doubt. Superstitions can do the same kind of thing .. they provide reassurance and boost self belief.
Superstition is an interesting phenomenon, particularly in sports psychology, because what we’re saying is that thoughts become things. What we think affects the way we feel. The way we feel affects the way we behave. Ultimately, in a sporting context, how we perform.
A similar kind of thing happens in the field of medcine; a sugar pill containing no pharmacology what-so-ever can have incredible effects reducing pain and anxiety, even eliminating nausea, as long as you believe it will.
Jonathan Edwards put it into a slightly different context .. any belief can have astonishingly powerful effects, providing it is held with sufficient conviction.
‘Maybe that’s the key here, you need to find something that works for you. Every athlete is an individual; you can take out the training manual, the sports psychology book and you can say ‘Michael Johnson did this, Carl Lewis did this and Mohammed Ali did that’ and go on and on and on through the greats but none of them are you and you must find your own way’.
Delivering under pressure is a rather brutal thing but also a profoundly subjective one. Many athletes are overcome with nerves. Others are afflicted with terrible self-doubt. Is it any wonder that they reach for the particular ritual that makes sense to them, that provides a sense of reassurance and control? Prayer, superstition, visualisation .. take your pick. What is certain is that the minute difference between victory and defeat, on the biggest stage of all, is often to be found not in skill, not in effort but in the recesses of the mind.