Why Do Sports Make Us So Superstitious?

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A ghost in the machine? You mean something beyond whatever higher power occasionally allows Tim Tebow to complete a pass to something other than the turf?

Nah. Don't think so. I simply don't believe. Not in unseen forces. Not in superstitions. Definitely not in Touchdown Jesus, because really, what has He done for Notre Dame lately?

Of course, this is why I'm not a professional athlete.

Don't get me wrong: The main reason I'm not a pro athlete is because I'm spectacularly unathletic, a member of the can't throw, can't run, can't dunk, can-operate-a-remote-control-and-flip-to-the-NFL-RedZone-channel 99 Percent. But there's also the itsy, bitsy, not-insubstantial matter of belief.

Crazy, irrational, unwavering belief.

Athletes have it. Even the insecure ones. Which, deep down, is most of them. They know the odds are against them. They know the deck is stacked. They know that talent alone isn't enough, that timing, circumstance and the sheer dumb luck to not have Gerald Wallace fall on your knee all play a major role in just making a roster—never mind actually starting, or, you know, excelling. Marcus Dupree could have been the greatest running back ever. He wasn't. Len Bias was poised to challenge Michael Jordan. He didn't.

Athletes aren't dumb. They grasp this. So do coaches. General managers, too. Owners, even. Pretty much everyone in sports. Fact is, when Malcolm Gladwell writes books about Outliers, he doesn't write about losers. Because—to borrow a line from the great, criminally underrated Darcy Frey—losing in sports is commonplace, like a shrug, and heartbreak the order of the day. Bill Belichick's Cleveland sojourn is the norm; the New England years are the exception; every spring, 67 men's college basketball teams walk off a court dejected.

And yet: they all still believe. They ignore the size of the casino—not to mention the size of Steve Wynn's art collection—and push their chip stacks forward anyway. Give me Tebow's ungainly throwing motion, and I'm wondering: (a) how many teams need a fullback; (b) where to included "Heisman Trophy winner" on the resume I'm about to hand in at Starbucks. But give Tebow that same motion, and he thinks he can quarterback the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl on the sheer force of willpower, ball and juice.

To put things another way: I'm absolutely sure that eating chicken before every game didn't help Wade Boggs rack up 3,000-plus hits. But I don't fault him for thinking otherwise. After all, the guy was crazy enough to think he could hit a major league fastball in the first place.

–Patrick

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of this month's Atlantic cover story, sit down with Hanna Rosin to discuss the power of confidence and how self doubt holds women back. 


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