Thought From the Olympics — Do Athletic Rituals Work?

If you’ve been watching the Olympics, you may have noticed some athletes engage in certain pre-competition rituals.  For example, sprinter Usain Bolt always points to the sky.  Why?

An article on the Quartz we15-usain-bolt-ritual.w710.h473.2xbsite written by Olivia Goldhill ( tries to answer that question.  So much of what athletes undergo is beyond their control, like there can be a long lull between warming up and the actual event.  A ritual can give an athlete at least the illusion of some control over the outcome.  It can provide a calming effect, the same as developing a superstition concerning the parts of your life you can feel helpless about, like a job interview.  And the greater the reward, the more important the ritual.  If it’s the Olympic finals, following the same routine can give an athlete a sense of confidence; no need to change something that seems to be working.  And if the winner is decided by milliseconds,….

Psychologists call this a “locus of control”.  [See How Your ‘Locus of Control’ Drives Your Success (]  With an internal locus of control, you feel like you’re more in charge.  Thus a ritual can help shift that locus from external (relying on outside forces like a deity) to the result being more up to you.

Personally, I’m very careful about what I wear before a running event, but I don’t do anything that borders on superstition or a preparation ritual.  Maybe that’s why I’ve never qualified for the Olympics.


Photo: Mark Reis/Colorado Springs Gazette/TNS via Getty Images, copied from “Science of Us” website, Aug 15, 2015.  View it and the original article at

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