Tag Archives: sports rituals

Main Piece: Tennis Court Lines

Background: The informant grew up playing tennis every single day after school. She and her family members were professional players, and there was an expectation that everyone becomes an expert at the game through endless hours of training and tournaments. She played tennis in college and once she graduated, she coached players on the tour. She is very well respected in the tennis world. The rituals she performed as she was playing competitively never faltered. One of which was the belief that she could never step on the lines of the tennis course. This is a custom that is practiced by many players today because stepping on the lines is a sign of disrespect and bad luck. Player’s go out of their way to ensure that they never touch the white tape in between points.

Context: “As a tennis player, all of my life, I never stepped on the lines of a tennis court. If you watch tennis on TV today, I am in the majority. It was always something- it was something superstitious for many tennis players. It started with John McEnroe and I know that Roger Federer also does not step on the lines. Certainly, Rafael Nadal- I mean would pull a hamstring to step over the alley so he didn’t have to step on the lines… he’s psycho. Do you know what it was…it was more that it made the moments when you weren’t in the point and when you weren’t in the mindset of competition-it made when you didn’t have a lot of control in the point more bearable because the time in between points seemed like they were controllable, right.”

Thoughts: I think that this folk ritual and superstition signals that you respect the game and know the sport intimately enough to practice this custom. Moreover, as the informant explained, became a strategic, calming tactic as well. Having the power to deliberately step over the line and make a decision on the outcome of your movements gives the player a sense of control and is grounding when in such a high-intensity state. The folk tradition has many beneficial implications and has become more popular as more and more players step over the lines. It is interesting to watch how careful some players are never to touch the white lines, and now that I understand this ritual, it is so obvious when watching a game. 

Pre-Game Water Polo ritual

My informant is my roommate and she was a high school and college athlete and has had many years of sports-related rituals. She was recounting to me a high school experience.

Me: “So, being a college athlete, you are pretty intense, do you have any rituals or superstitions before a game?”
CB: “Before a water polo game we would all huddled together and the shower inside of the locker room we all hold hands and say the Lords prayer, then the captains would give a small little speech about what we are looking to do in the upcoming game after the speech we would put our arms around each other shoulders and we would do this cheer three times, louder each time that  would go “oh I feel so good, like I knew I would do, I feel so good a little bit louder now.”
Then after we would do the cheer three times we were basically screaming like all the parents could hear us outside the locker room then we would say SFA just go fight win on three and then we would all run out of the locker room super pumped for the game.

Sports has an incredible about of rituals, especially in team sports, because there is a lot of the game which is out of the player’s immediate control and which they desire to take back control through ritual. Pre-game rituals like this are designed to bring good-luck to the team and to promote confidence for the game as pre-games are rife with anxiety and fear of the unknown outcome of the game. In this case, the ritual was for an entire team, creating good luck through ritual. Additionally, the team prayed the Our Father before, this is a common occurrence in many sports pre-game. This may be a case of putting the game’s outcome in heavenly hands or asking for God’s help in the upcoming game. This can be attributed to again the uncertainty of a sports game, and many occurrences may seem like divine intervention. This ritual’s purpose is to boost confidence, unite the team and to dissipate any uneasiness about the upcoming game.

Sports rituals such as these are learned through participation on a team, outsiders usually don’t participate in them, therefore it is restrictive to a particular team. Knowing such rituals and their purpose is a part of their identity as athletes, performing them solidifies their team identity and loyalty.

Kicking the lamppost on gameday

DK is a junior at the University of Southern California, and is originally from Denver, CO.

DK had some more USC folklore to share with me:

“Football season is a huge production at USC, and probably the most obvious time when the whole school gets together…on gamedays, everyone usually tailgates on campus, setting up tents and hanging out together hours before the game even starts. Once kickoff is approaching, everyone sort of migrates away from campus to cross Exposition and head to the Coliseum…if you go with everyone else through the south entrance of campus, there are these huge light posts at the exit, and for some reason everyone has to kick the base before they keep heading to the Coliseum. Honestly, I have no idea why people do it, and no one I talk to seems to know either. But there’s always backup once you get there, because everyone’s standing around this lamppost waiting to kick it.”

I asked DK what her best guess was as to the origin of the ritual:

“Maybe we’re kicking at our opponents? I don’t know how threatening that is.”

My analysis:

Sports rituals are very common for college and professional teams, and are probably even more prevalent during home games. The entire process of gathering together on campus to tailgate, then migrating together to head to the game, and stopping to perform this ritual without even knowing the meaning demonstrates the strength of USC pride and how it indoctrinates us best on days like gamedays. When school spirit is running high we’re more willing to participate in the most random of activities, because all of it is bringing us together.

The OJ Simpson Metaphor

The informant (A.H.) comes from a Black Christian family. A.H. does not identify with Christianity.

Now well retired from the game at 54 years old, A.H. played football in the NFL from 1983 to 1987; first drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, then transferred to the Seattle Seahawks, and finally the San Francisco 49ers. Since then he has coached youth football teams, and works now as a financial analyst. A.H. was over house for dinner one Monday evening, and after our meal I interviewed him for football specific occupational folklore. I asked about the superstitions, traditions, and legends A.H. had come across during his career as a professional player.

A.H.: “I remember growing up I was a huge OJ Simpson fan. I think every kid my age that grew up in my area that wanted to be a running back wanted to be OJ. And I remember reading in an article somewhere that he never ate before games. He had said somewhere that he wanted to know what it was like to be hungry, and he thought that it would transfer over into games. I think I might have been in high-school when I read that. It affected the way that I ate, like I would never eat the night before the game or morning before the game. The interesting thing is when I coached, I passed that on to the players that I used to coach. He said something like, if you didn’t eat it would make you like a hungry dog. You would play better. Every guy has his superstition before the game… So I saw one of the kids on Facebook that I used to coach… A lot of those kids are coaches, and they’re passing that stuff on now.”

I found A.H.’s story compelling, because what began as Simpson’s individual superstition was perpetuated by his success, and eventually A.H.’s success. As seen with the OJ Simpson metaphor, a young generation of football players dons the occupational superstitions of their predecessors as a rite of passage in the hopes to achieve similar success on the field. A.H. was well spoken, and seemed to enjoy revisiting memories of his time in the game. He was equally, if not more enthusiastic about the legacy he left behind as a coach.
Not only does A.H.’s story provide an occupational superstition, but also a new interpretation of a popular metaphor. Specifically, in English speech, ‘hunger’ serves as a metaphor for desire or motivation. In this particular superstition, the hunger metaphor is associated with the desire to win the game. For a popular example of the hunger used as a metaphor for motivation, see Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games.

“Baller Rituals”

I’m not very original or exciting, so at least for this year, it was always taking a nap before games and practices. But to list some other ones…

Before games, always show up exactly an hour and half early to get warmed up, stretched, relaxed before the game… listen to some really pump-up music, and… before the game starts, always make two layups and a free throw. I always wore the same spandies and bra, and one teammate always took a shower before a game. I knew one girl who just had to shave her legs before each game. Even if there were multiple games in a day, she’d shave before each and every of them. One teammate always drank only red Powerade during games, and had to have an apple during the game. Most of my teammates, their superstitious things that they do are just coming in and shooting around before each game.

Most of the time it’s just because it something you know that worked in the time before another game, and then you grow into it like a habit. Like in high school I never had any of these. You take these more seriously the more serious your sport becomes. Like compare a middle school/intermediate game with NCAA sports or… the Olympics… then there’s this crazy, elaborate list of rituals, things you just do out of habit/routine.

I had a coach that used to eat a quarter pounder with cheese before the game, just to show how ridiculous these things get… I feel like in all my experience most people fall into the category of eating something or wearing something that “worked” before in the hopes that it will again.


How did you come across this folklore: “This is kind of a culmination of “rituals” that I’ve come across/picked up in my personal experience, over 15+ years of playing basketball at clinic, intermediate, high school varsity, and college varsity levels.”

This collection of rituals can be interpreted as protection, and both contagious and homeopathic magic. With these techniques, athletes and coaches aspire to protect themselves and their teams from loss/injury, inherit the winning properties of something that was done before and for whatever reason was attributed to victory, and induce a like outcome with a like setup.