sports psychologist & clinical psychology

THE POWER OF SUPERSTITIONS IN THE RUNNING

Newsday – Jun 12, 2006 – John Hanc – Several people said, ‘I felt so much lighter on my feet. Where can I buy this stuff?

Gina Gelman can’t remember exactly when she got the earrings. All she knows is that they probably weren’t very expensive, that they’re nothing really special to look at – and that she can’t possibly run a race without having them on.

‘I don’t feel completely dressed without them,’ says Gelman, 42, who started running more than 20 years ago. At some point – she doesn’t exactly remember when – she began wearing the pair of clear, crystal ball earrings whenever she was going to compete in a race. ‘I guess I didn’t want to go out with earrings, and needed a pair that was not going to get in the way, and still look a little feminine,’ she says.

One year, on the morning of the Long Island Half Marathon, the post fell off. ‘I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t go without them,” Gelman recalls. ‘I dabbed them together with Krazy Glue. That night, when I went to take them off, they were stuck to my ear.’

Lest anyone think that this is a woman who walks around all day quivering in fear that a black cat might cross her path, it should be noted that Gelman has a graduate degree in management from Stony Brook University, works in corporate communications for MetLife and is, by any measure, rational and logical.

Except for those earrings.

‘It’s just one of those things,’ she says. ‘Some people wear the same T-shirts, eat the same things before a race. I wear my earrings. People get their motivation from different things.’

Sometimes those ‘things’ involve not lucky earrings and T-shirts, but supplements or training aids that someone claims are effective, yet which really have no value. This is the ‘placebo’ effect, and it has long been used in testing the value of new drugs and medical procedures. The placebo often proves effective, despite its inherent worthlessness.

Common in sports Both superstitions and placebos are common in sports – even Michael Jordan had his lucky shorts – and the power of both derives from the same source: belief. ‘Whether it’s a rabbit’s foot that you believe will bring you luck or a sugar pill that someone tells you will make you faster, they both fall within the area of superstition or erroneous belief in the power of an object,’ says Dr. John F. Murray, a sport psychologist in Palm Beach, Fla.

Even those athletes who sincerely believe that God guided their touchdown pass may be tapping into something similar. ‘It goes beyond sports to religion,’ says psychologist Dr. Richard Lustberg, who practices in Rockville Centre and Commack. ‘Belief and faith supersedes all.’

The power of such beliefs in sport has been demonstrated in a new University of Wisconsin-La Crosse study, where researchers used ‘super-oxygenated’ water (enriched with oxygen), under the assumption it would give the body greater energy, to test the placebo effect.

‘We’d done two studies on the effectiveness of super-oxygenated water and saw absolutely nothing,’ says the lead researcher, exercise physiologist Dr. John Porcari. But researchers heard claims to the contrary from many who swore by the stuff. ‘That made us think, ‘Wonder if we can fool people into thinking this works?”

‘Astounding’ results To that end, the researchers created a video espousing the so-called ‘science’ behind super-oxygenated water and showed it to a group of 32 adult recreational runners of various abilities. ‘We really sold them a bill of goods,’ Porcari says. The runners – who had been timed earlier in a practice run – were then given some of the ‘super-oxygenated water’ (actually, plain tap water), to drink before a 5K (3.1 mile) time trial. The results, Porcari said, were ‘astounding.’

The subjects improved by an average of one minute, 23 seconds – an enormous improvement in the 5K. What’s more, the people who had previous 5K times of greater than 20 minutes – generally, the less experienced runners among the subjects – made the biggest improvements: an average of 2 minutes, 22 seconds each. Many of these runners were convinced that the difference in time was the ‘super’ water (placebo). ‘Several people said, ‘I felt so much lighter on my feet. Where can I buy this stuff?’ They thought it was liquid gold. And we’re trying not to laugh, knowing they just drank tap water.’

What the study really showed, Porcari says, is ‘the power of the mind.’ And the question it raises is, If people believe in a placebo – whether it’s super-oxygenated water or the latest infomercial product – and they perform better, then who cares? Is it really wrong?

‘If a placebo effect is working for someone, I don’t usually jump quickly to change it,’ says Murray. ‘Why remove helpful belief, even if it is based on a faulty or erroneous assumption?’

If it helps, go with it Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise, which sponsored the placebo study, agrees. ‘Logically speaking, you say not to put your faith in those silly things,’ Bryant says. ‘If it’s helpful, however, to you psychologically and it’s not something illegal or harmful to the body, it’s really your prerogative.’

The power of superstitions, Lustberg adds, comes partly from the fact ‘the person is part of the solution. They’ve found it, they’ve come up with the idea.’ The lucky shorts or pre-game rituals may not always work, but they do so enough to convince you of their effectiveness.

‘If you believe it works, it just might,’ Bryant says.

Which may be why Gelman continues to wear her ‘lucky’ earrings. Not that she’s getting any faster, with or without them; it’s simply that they give her a sense of reassurance. ‘I’m like, ‘If I don’t wear them, something’s going to happen.”

Besides, she adds, with a laugh, ‘I was born on Friday the 13th. I guess I have to be a little superstitious.’

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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