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Ability, Not Superstition, Wins the Game

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

Since this is a column about science, you might ask, "how come this article deals with sports?" Fair question. Answer: it seems everyone else is Utah is talking about and writing about the Utah Jazz, so why not I? Actually, the reason is that I want to get something off my chest. So, here goes.

Why do so many sports participants, both players and fans, feel the need for superstitious behaviors? Just look around whenever the tournament comes, and you will see the strangest things. Some players ware the same socks for days on end, others don't shave, some mumble to themselves as they shoot foul shots, they might even tatoo "power symbols" on their bodies, or paint their hair flamboyant colors; and fans-even coaches-might not watch as foul shots are thrown up. Coaches might have elaborate routines for little things they do and don't do on game day, and you hear the most outlandish things come out of the mouths of what appeared before to be reasonable people: "When the game starts I always sit in this certain chair-it isn't really comfortable, but it is my lucky chair-wearing my lucky T-shirt that I haven't washed since the Jazz lost that one, left shoe on and right one off, eating a special brew I always make the morning of the game-I don't taste very good, but I believe it helps-and I don't get up for anything until the game is over-not for anything. Once I did get up and the Jazz lost that game, so now I stay put until the very end."

Is it really possible that well educated people act this way? It is, and even sports psychologists-yes there are such professionals, and their salaries are high-say this is good because it results in positive attitudes and confidence. It is healthy, they say, to feel that by performing strange rituals we have power over things when we really do not. Now, I do not doubt that anything that makes one believe in ones abilities, going into a contest with positive attitude, leads to peak performance. But why can't this be accomplished without hocus-pocus and mumbo-jumbo? It is, after all, the knowledge, abilities and skills that make a great performer in anything. Can't we believe in our hard-won capabilities because we know we have them? Can't a team believe in their group competence without resorting to magic and ritual?

I suppose there is some value in not bathing and wearing stinky socks and shirts in a game pitted against others; it just might help keep the opposition away, but how can they feel good about themselves under such conditions?

What finally brought this to a head with me was a little piece recently on the local evening news about a very young Jazz fan who had acquired a hat that had sat on the head of Carl Malone himself, a wonderful keepsake if not valuable collectable. The highlight of the interview with the boy was that he was not watching the games this year. Why? Because the last time he watched the Jazz lost. He really seemed convinced that if he watched they would lose again. The jinx would be broken, he said, after this season, then he could watch his favorite team again. My oh my, what confidence this lad has in his favorite team and their abilities! Can he actually believe that the game hinges on whether or not he is watching? If this were so, all those who watched when the Jazz had lost should not watch again. Very quickly no one would be watching. Wouldn't that be great? And how does he explain games the Jazz lose when he isn't watching? Such unfortunate behaviors probably got reinforced by that bit of news coverage, at least for the boy involved.

I wonder what goes on in the minds of such people when they go into their school classes? When they study scientific method designed to foster critical thinking, do they put that in one part of their brains separated from their superstitious beliefs? Which do they believe most firmly, science or superstition?

Now I suppose that if pressed most people who engage in sports superstitions would say that they do not really believe them, but their actions show that there is more belief present than they are willing to admit. Often, they do not want to discuss the matter.

Have we learned nothing at all through the lessons of history?

Hard work, honing desired skills, creates legendary artists and athletes. The gold metal comes with years of consistent, dedicated work, ever rising to higher levels until new records are set to become goals for those to follow. Knowledge has always been the driving power of civilization. Science and technology, wisely applied, bring advancement and understanding. Superstition, on the other hand, demonstrates ignorance, lack of conviction in ability, low esteem, meager commitment to ourselves and weakness.

As fans of the Utah Jazz (or any other activity) lets celebrate the amazing skills we know the members of our team have and the marvelous way they have demonstrated it through the year, learning to work together for a greater team skill than any one of them could possible possess. It is applied art and science when they work the ball with dazzling dance on hardwood, then through the air to win the basket! Fans and coaches, watch the games, including foul shots! Cheer the team! Believe in their abilities, not their dirty underwear. We know their hard work has made them experts, well prepared for the game, and they will show us just how good they are regardless of what clothes we wear, how we comb our hair, what we eat, or whatever else we do on game day. By word and example, lets teach our children about the art, science, health and social aspects of sports, about what it takes to gain those amazing abilities demonstrated on the court. Go Jazz! Focus on what you know you can do, without complicated feelings of whether or not you did some wacky ritual correctly this time. Lets all throw sports voo-doo away and act like the intelligent people we have worked all our lives to become.

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