NBA and Stanley Cup playoffs show superstitions are linked to success

We are in the midst of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and hockey newbies like me are catching up on decades of rivalries, but as I learn about what a puck going where means, I also need to educate myself on the equally important rituals.

In 1980, the New York Islanders grew beards during their playoff run and won four straight championships with their facial hair, so now naturally, all players won’t shave off their playoff beards until their season ends. Every team wants to know the winning formula to another team’s success, and they will do anything, even growing some scraggly fuzz, to get there.

Above all, you won’t catch any NHL player touching the Stanley Cup, the holy grail for every team, until they’ve actually won the Stanley Cup. Some captains won’t even touch or lift the lesser conference trophies like the Prince of Wales Trophy or the Clarence Campbell Bowl out of superstitious fear that to do so would seem presumptuous. It’s gotta be Stanley Cup or bust.

Any ritual around success gets our attention, so we took a look at some of the more popular ones in sports — but we urge caution if you try these at work.

Fan superstitions include throwing an octopus

As a fan, you start to pour your hopes and anxieties onto these players. When they win, you say “we won.” If you tie enough of your identity into these games, you’ll start participating in player superstitions too. That’s why many hockey fans won’t touch the Stanley Cup either until their team has won the championship. Game-day rituals can include wearing the same unwashed jersey to keep your team’s winning streak going, and donning whatever apparel that will make you feel like you have some control over the game’s outcome.

Some rituals can be more bizarre.

In 1952, two Detroit Red Wings fans started an enduring tradition after they tossed an octopus onto the ice rink. The octopus’ eight tentacles represented the eight wins Detroit needed to win the Stanley Cup that year. (This season, the power of the octopus failed —the Red Wings missed the playoffs for the first time in 26 seasons.)

Superstitions prevail in every sport with demanding performance tasks. With the 2007-08 Celtics, Kevin Garnett started playing well after he had a hankering for a peanut, butter and jelly sandwich.

Now, the whole NBA league is engaging in elaborate pregame PB&J rituals as if the cafeteria snack was a performance-enhancing Gatorade. During the Kansas City Royals 2016 playoff run, a praying mantis showed up in their dugout. That night, the Royals won, and maintaining the newly dubbed Rally Mantis became outfielder Billy Burns’ duty, who would kiss the insect’s plastic home for good luck.

With all of these rituals, you’re searching for positive meaning in an industry filled with unfair breaks and daily heartbreaks.

The science behind superstitions —should you indulge them at work?

Is believing in superstitions helpful or not?

Critics would say believing in them is a sign of an irrational mind. But a 2010 study found that when participants did superstitious rituals like saying “break a leg” or crossing their fingers, their “subsequent performance in golfing, motor dexterity, memory, and anagram games” would improve.

By knowing that the odds were in their favor, people’s self-confidence would get boosted and they increased their “belief in their ability to master a task.”

The participants who did rituals were also more persistent with their tasks than those who didn’t engage in the rituals. The more people believed in their good luck, the more optimistic and hopeful they would act. Success became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As long as you aren’t hurting yourself or others to maintain your superstition, it’s fine to believe in these higher powers. Keep eating your peanut butter and jelly sandwich before every game. Throw a dead octopus onto a hockey rink. Wear your rally beard and faux mohawk. Whatever external force is keeping the belief in yourself going, keep at it. This world and these games are built for heartbreak; superstitions can ease the burn.

Just remember that the clock will reset, and we will all begin anew tomorrow.