Athletes' weird rituals can actually help them win

Kate Hansen dances on the Sochi plaza.
Kate Hansen dances on the Sochi plaza.Today

It’s one of the most meme-able moments from Sochi so far: American luger Kate Hansen, dancing her adorable Southern California heart out before she competes.

Her personal soundtrack, she told NBC in a post-race interview, is “strictly Beyonce. My girl, B! She just gets me fierce and I get stoked. I've got good mojo on, so it's how I roll."

During the broadcast earlier this week, former American luger Duncan Kennedy didn't seem impressed by Hansen’s dance moves. “I would like to see something a little more sports-specific from her … Because the start has to be a powerful, explosive movement,” Kennedy said. “And while that might be a very good, general warm-up, I’m not sure it gets the job done for medal contention.”

This might seem like a sound, if stodgy, opinion. But there is actual scientific evidence—decades of it, even—that sides with Hansen’s pre-race move-busting. It seems irrational at best, slightly crazy at worst, but the thing about athletes’ pre-game rituals and superstitions is, as silly as they may seem—they actually work. 

The skeptic’s explanation would be that superstitions or rituals don’t do much more than provide athletes with a perceived sense of control. “In contrast, we find that rituals can have a very real influence on the experience of performance anxiety and subsequent performance,” Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School who is currently conducting research on pre-performance rituals, said in an email.

Dance party in the Sochi Orange Room Today

Hansen’s dancing likely improves her concentration and gets her body pumped and ready to race. Rituals also boost athletes’ confidence and even create feelings of good luck, Brooks said. In Brooks’ own research, which is not yet published, she and her colleagues have found that rituals reduce pre-performance anxiety and even improve the subsequent performance—and this doesn’t just apply to athletes. The same principle applies to regular-folk things like job interviews or first dates. 

And while Hansen didn't medal in Sochi, she wasn't expected to, either, and the 21-year-old finished her first Olympics appearance in a solid tenth place. She also earned herself a shout-out from Bey herself.

Decreasing the physiological symptoms associated with anxiety—racing heart, sweaty palms, increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol—is tough to do, because those responses are automatic, Brooks said. 

“But across a series of experimental studies, we find that enacting a random pre-performance ritual—even when it consists of a few simple steps that are imposed by another person—can actually reduce heart rate and make performers feel less anxious," she said. "Lowered anxiety, in turn, improves subsequent performance on tasks.” 

So there you have it. Keep dancing, Kate! Because of science