4 min read

Why are sportspeople so superstitious?

Routine and rhythm help performance, but sporting superstition begs a question, writes Jonny Reid. Who do we really think is in control?

Jonny Reid leads the communications team at Christians in Sport. He also plays club cricket. for Cumnor and is a leader at Town Church, Bicester. 

A rugby ball sails towards a player in a striped jersey from the foot of a kicker who has a leg and an arm extended out.
England v. Argentina, RWC 2023.

Guinness’ Rugby World Cup advert commands supporters: “Don’t Jinx It!” The advertiser explained:

“All of Ireland will be supporting the team with every fibre, but our campaign urges fans to remember that their actions are as important as the team on the pitch, they need to play their part too, don’t jinx it.” 

Superstitions on the pitch are just as prominent as those off it. England legend Jonny Wilkinson always wore the same t-shirt under his match shirt as a lucky charm, the Welsh side used to ritually vomit before games and for decades club side Bath played without a number 13. 

So why is it that sport is so fill of superstition?  

A longing for control 

We feel like we’re in control until a sudden injury or a major pandemic arrives and we realise that we may be less in control than we’d like. 

Indian sports psychologist Ashis Nandy thinks this may be why cricketers are so superstitious. In a game full of failure, which has a high degree of luck, it is inevitable that players will turn to superstition to help regain a sense of control: 

'No wonder cricketers lean on superstition as a crutch. They cannot accept the awful truth - that the game is governed by erratic umpiring decisions, random tosses and unpredictable seam movement - so they invent a coping strategy to persuade themselves they are in control.'

We want to be in control but we know we’re not.  

Whether it’s a snapped Achilles tendon at a random training session, a contract not renewed at the end of a season or point deductions due to mismanagement by owners - sport is littered with examples which remind us we’re not in charge.  

It’s worth saying that routine is different to superstition. US soccer psychologist Tim Perrin argues that routines are integral for the elite sportsperson. “Performance is about routines—they take us into performance, and superstitions are very much a part of that,” Perrin said. “They are a way we can very habitually, automatically, and unconsciously take ourselves into performance mode.” 

Repetition and routine are a key part of sport. Not only do they improve our skill levels (think of the 10,000 hour theory) but they also help ease the mental pressures faced by athletes. As Perin explains, the emotional demands and strains of sport can be lessened by routines that “allow certain things (to be done) on a mechanistic, repetitive nature” and can thus be “put on autopilot.” 

This is the reason for Jonny Wilkinson’s famous pre-kick routine or the even more extreme Dan Biggar’s version which has become known as the ‘Biggarena.’ His idiosyncratic routine once proved an Internet sensation

When does routine tip into superstition? It’s when it becomes irrational and when a change to that routine leads to distinct mental torment or a level of discomfort.  

Superstition, as we observe it, in the stands or the pub or on the pitch provokes questions for all of us: Is there a way I can be in control? Or am I actually under control from a higher power? 

Who is in control? 

When things don’t happen as we’d like, it’s easy to feel pretty disillusioned. But do our superstitious tendencies point towards something bigger? 

Among Christians there is the belief that we humans are created in the image of God and that he gave us the weighty responsibility to live in the world and also to shape it. While we have responsibility for how we live, we only have penultimate agency. Ultimate power over events lies in hands bigger than ours.  

The trouble is we chafe at our limited role in all this. 

Dan Strange, in his book Making Faith Magnetic says:  

“deep down we know we’re not divine and that we need something greater than us in which to find meaning and legitimacy. So we still invest in other things that can give us a sense of ultimate meaning and purpose.” 

This could be our partner or family. It could quite easily be our sporting career. We load them with an unbearable weight of responsibility, that none of these substitutes for God can handle because they too are penultimate not ultimate. 

In the book of John, Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd” - the one who guides the flock of sheep, whether they are aware of it or not. 

The world is not controlled by luck or energy or even random chance, it is in the hands of a loving God, a loving shepherd who leads his sometimes reluctant flock to where they need to go. 

In the stories of Jesus we see someone who exercises an extraordinary control over the world - over nature (walking on water), over disease (healing blind people) and over evil powers (exorcising the .disturbed) He shows us a world which isn’t just defined by fate or by an angry impersonal Deity but one in which there is a sense that we are both in control and under control.  

Far from living in a world of randomness and luck, maybe after all we live in a world where a good God works through the details of our lives and is with us in the ups and the downs, in the injury, de-selection, contract confusion, dip in form and in the cup wins, record breaking, peak-performing moments of our sporting careers.  

Routine and rhythm can help sporting performance but superstition ultimately leads us to ask a question. Who do we really think is in control? 

5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?