These Badgers say that following a ritual can make all the difference on the field, court, or ice.
As sports fans, we’re drawn to games partly because of their unpredictability. At kickoff, tipoff, or when the puck drops, there’s no telling what will happen. Admit it, Badger fans: when Wisconsin played Kentucky in the Final Four, how many of you flat-out knew — not just hoped — that the Badgers would emerge victorious? That’s why we trekked to Indianapolis, congregated in bars, paced in our family rooms, and watched on the Internet from all over the globe on that Saturday night last April.
Student-athletes face the same unpredictability. But many know, from practice and preparation, that there’s comfort in repetition and predictability in routine. Some do it through food, others by the way they dress, the music they listen to, or how they prepare. Ritual and superstition offer a sense of control. And as long as the student-athletes are winning, those routines are hard to surrender.
Claudia Reardon ’01, MD’06, a UW assistant professor of psychiatry, says that ritualized superstition is prevalent among athletes for just these reasons.
“There is so much in sports that is beyond the athletes’ control. You can’t control what your opponent does, you can’t control the weather, and you can’t fully control the way you slept the night before,” says Reardon, who has treated UW and pro athletes for a variety of psychiatric issues. “But the ritual — that you can control.”
Reardon says the overwhelming majority of these superstitions are harmless and even helpful, but she warns that they have the potential to evolve into obsessive-compulsive behaviors.
“Athletes need to be aware of the trajectory of their rituals,” she says. “Do you become more and more rigid about the rituals? Maybe it starts with a ritual before the game, but then it takes up a whole day before the game or the whole week before.”
While some may find the rituals odd, they often say a lot about an athlete’s drive, Reardon adds: “The kinds of temperament that make it likely that athletes would engage in superstitious ritual are the kinds of aspects of their personality that make them successful — being really attentive to detail, perfectionism, and being wedded to routine.”
Back to Basics
Brittany Ammerman ’15 has tasted the power of a gluten-free chocolate brownie.
Before each weekend series, the forward on the women’s hockey team would whip up the same dinner — gluten-free pasta with pesto and chicken, topped off with a dessert of gluten-free brownies. And before every series, she would cut a brand new hockey stick to the perfect size. Dressing before a game, Ammerman made sure to put on her left skate first.
“I like to have a routine,” she says. “It keeps you focused and I think it does help.”
Where’s the proof? Last January, the Badgers were mired in a three-game winless streak, and Ammerman hadn’t scored in eight games when she decided to ditch her routine to shake things up before a home series against Bemidji State University. On Friday night, the UW lost 2–1 as Ammerman went scoreless again.
Before that Saturday’s game, she reversed course and fired up all of her long-held rituals. The brownies and all the rest were back. Call it coincidence or call it karma, but when she hit the ice, there was a breakthrough. Ammerman drilled a short shot past the Bemidji State goalie forty-six seconds into overtime to win the game. Her jubilant teammates mobbed her on the ice.
“I was like, ‘All right — back to pasta and brownies!’ ” she says.
Some student-athletes take pains to avoid developing a routine or slipping into a reliance on superstition. Badger basketball player Nigel Hayes x’17 discovered that superstition can become a burden, so he goes out of his way to be unpredictable. “The thing with superstitions is, if you miss doing it, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, boy, this could be a bad day.’ Then it can grow into something terrible,” he says.
As a wide receiver at Whitmer High School in Toledo, Ohio, Hayes’s superstitious rituals ballooned. Doing warm-up stretches, he would count to ten, but one day he counted to seven by mistake, and then felt like he had to continue that practice for the rest of the season. During Tuesday’s practice, he had to catch a pass in the corner of the end zone. On Thursdays, he stayed after practice to run routes. “You don’t want to do that to yourself,” says Hayes. “Now, I try not to get into a routine. I try to be as un-routine as possible.”
Change It Up
Like his teammate Nigel Hayes, basketball guard Zak Showalter x’17 also pooh-poohs superstition. “If I get into a ritual and miss it one time,” he says, “I won’t be able to get it out of my head. I try to change my routine for every game.”
Keeping Memories Close
Women’s basketball player Jacki Gulczynski x’16’s pregame ritual is always tinged with the sadness of a stinging personal loss.
“I eat, shower, relax. I like to watch TV and get my mind off of everything,” she says. “Then, I have to perfectly place my wristband on my left wrist. On the inside, I have my brother’s initials written out, because my brother Lenny was killed in Iraq.”
The R&B beats of Alicia Keys and reggae are often the backdrop for outside linebacker Vince Biegel x’16 as he runs through his game-day preparation. The hard-hitting Biegel avoids the aggressive rhythms that you might expect to be part of his routine. “I’ve got a fiery personality to begin with, and if you pour fire on fire, you’ll have a big storm there,” says Biegel, who also brings diet into the picture, eating pasta with shrimp or chicken the night before a game and topping it off with a bedtime snack of a cookie and ice cream.
Cayla McMorris and Michala Johnson
Eating to Win
These Badger women’s basketball teammates build rituals around food. McMorris x’18 goes for chicken Alfredo before games, a habit that was born at a restaurant in her hometown of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. And Johnson ’14, x’16 stashes food — such as apples, bananas, and protein bars — under her locker room chair, so she can power up during halftime.
“I would say that I’m pretty superstitious,” Drake says. “I like to eat at Panera [Bread] before the game, then come back to the Kohl Center and play eighteen holes of Tiger Woods golf on the Xbox with [my teammate] Grant Besse x’17. Then I take an hour-long nap and get up at the same time. Then I put on my gear from left to right.”
The Road Taken
Men’s basketball player Duje Dukan ’14, x’16 found comfort on his way to home games. Dukan, who finished out his Badger basketball career in 2015, says he made it a point to get to the Kohl Center two hours before each game to get taped and listen to music. Riding his scooter to the arena, he never varied his route. “It works, so I do it,” Dukan says.
Repetition is reflected in Drew Meyer x’16’s game-day playlist. On the bus ride to the stadium, the Badger football punter reads Bible passages while listening to hip-hop. When the team reaches the stadium, he switches to country music. In the locker room, Meyer shifts gears again, to classical music. “I just want to calm myself, because what I do is more like what a golfer does. I don’t need to be breathing fire,” Meyer says.
Go with What You Know
If clothes make the man, then cleats make the defender, believes Sojourn Shelton x’17, a cornerback on the Badger football team. Halfway through the 2014 season, Shelton got a new jolt of confidence from an old pair of shoes.
“I was struggling a little early last year,” Shelton says. “I had these cleats that I wore in my freshman year, and once I started playing in those cleats, I was playing a lot better. I’m probably going to have to stay with those cleats.”
That’s a Wrap
For UW volleyball player Taylor Morey x’16, injuries are a bugaboo. When people mention injuries, Morey knocks on wood. During the Badgers’ run in the 2013 NCAA volleyball tournament, which took them to the championship match, Morey scraped her knee early in the tournament and had it wrapped by the team trainer. But even after Morey’s knee healed, she continued having it wrapped throughout the tournament.
“I just couldn’t break the juju,” she says.
Put a Bow On it
Haleigh Nelson x’17 shares a ritual with volleyball teammate Taylor Morey. Without fail, they snap a cell-phone selfie together. Serious faces, funny faces, and goofy captions are all part of the mix. When Nelson had a chance to move her locker, Morey talked her out of it, figuring, why mess with the mojo?
Nelson has her own set of pregame rituals. She showers, blow-dries her hair, and has a teammate braid it. Then, she puts a bow in it.
“I don’t live and die by superstition, but I would never change my number,” Nelson adds. “It’s the luckiest number, isn’t it?”
Nelson, of course, wears number 13.
Published in the Summer 2018 issue