sports psychologist & clinical psychology

ATHLETES THANK THEIR LUCKY STARS

St. Petersburg Times – May 9, 2006 – Brian Landman – At times last year, Florida State’s Elliott Wood looked down the track toward the first hurdle and could have sworn it was growing.

That would at least explain his inexplicable struggles clearing it. A couple of times, he clipped it with his left leg so forcefully that he tumbled over in a frustrated and red-faced heap.

“It became like a mental barrier and I’d almost balk at it,” said Wood, 22, a sophomore.

He had to change something, do something. So one day, as he walked back toward the starting blocks after his warmup, he put two fingers to his lips and ever-so discreetly planted them on that particularly irksome obstacle.

Moments later, he smoothly soared over the hurdle. And ever since, Wood, the ACC’s 400-meter hurdle champion in 2005 who is ranked sixth nationally in the event, has paused by that first hurdle to give it a kiss.

“I know it kind of sounds silly,” he said, “but it calms me down.”

Even though it’s pure superstition.

But don’t knock Wood. He has lots of superstitious company at FSU, as he would at any sandlot or school yard or big-league ballpark, where athletes of all sports and all talent levels adopt rituals that might seem irrational or inane.

“At some point, we’re all big kids and we like to have a bedtime story, we like to have something to hold onto that we think will help us play better the next day,” said Dr. John Murray, a noted sports psychologist. “We like something to fall back on that’s comfortable and simple.”

Ytai Abougzir, 23, a star junior on FSU’s NCAA Region-bound tennis team, doesn’t deviate in the way he stretches before matches, and sticks with the same warmup partner.

“I try to keep my routine the same so I don’t have anything else in my head,” he said.

Murray, who has worked with NFL players and top college athletes, said being consistent and systematic in “pre-performance routines” tend to pay off with successful results. But it’s a fine line, he said, between that and attributing a strong showing to something “irrational” such as how one ties his or her shoes.

“In the old days, if it rained, we said the gods were mad at us,” he said. “We fill in those blanks. … The line could be very fuzzy for athletes, indeed.”

Crossing the line? Not Abougzir.

Touching them is another matter.

Ever since he was 12 and enjoyed some success, he realized he was touching the chalk lines on only one side of the court. That footwork became part of his game.

“If I touch the wrong line,” he said, “I’ll freak out a little bit and I’ll try to fix it.”

FSU junior tennis standout Nicola Slater has a thing about being the first one to touch a newly strung racket, and keeping a new wrapper on the racket’s grip until the last minute before she uses it.

When someone suggested she was obsessive compulsive, she took a moment to reflect.

“Oh wow. Maybe I am,” she admitted.

In her mind, there are some things she does to maintain a regimen and others that are pure superstition. As a teenager, she wouldn’t shave her legs as long as she was winning in a tournament. But she didn’t like the look and after recognizing that she also suffered some tough losses, she sought out the razor as she normally had.

“I realized that wasn’t for me,” she said with a laugh.

But these days, she will wear the same outfit if she won in it the previous match. If she wins a critical point, she’ll insist on getting the same ball for the next big one.

“You just try it out because at that point, something’s got to happen, something’s got to work or go in your favor,” said Slater, 21. “You think, “Maybe this will work. Maybe it’s the same ball or touching the line with your racket.’ ”

Athletes usually exude a supreme, unwavering confidence in their ability to make a shot or sink a putt or clear a hurdle, so it may seem incongruous that they would credit a superstition for achieving it. Murray, however, said it actually makes perfect sense.

“We see these guys on TV, we’re talking about a lottery winner,” he said of how rare an athlete’s gifts are compared to the population. “Who the heck can play baseball? Only the top 1,000 guys out there. That’s a hugely bizarre occurrence and to become bizarre, you have do things in an extreme fashion and that lends itself to being superstitious.”

Triple jumper Rafeeq Curry started wearing a black headband, a gift from his brother, in high school. He forgot it before a meet a few years ago at FSU and a teammate rustled up a garnet one for him.

“I PR’d (set a personal record) and ever since then, I’ve been wearing that one,” said Curry, 22, a senior, a three-time All-American outdoors who’s ranked No. 1 nationally in the triple jump and fifth in the long jump.

Not just in meets. He rarely takes it off for photographs. He’s one of eight Seminoles on the cover of the 2006 team media guide and the only one with a headband.

“It’s grown attached to me,” he said with a laugh. “If I don’t wear it, I just feel naked without it. If you compete in something and do well, you want to wear the same shoes, the same uniform again.”

If you think it works, you don’t question it and stick with it.

‘Cause superstition is the way.

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.

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