Mind Games

By Amy Orndorff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 4, 2008

The sports world is full of curses and superstitions. Take the Madden curse: Any player on the cover of the Madden NFL video game supposedly will suffer a horrible injury or poor season. Remember Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis? After the Raven graced the cover, he missed a game with a broken wrist and recorded 15 fewer tackles. It was also the season that the former division champions failed to make the playoffs.

Then there's baseball. The sport claims one of the most well-known curses in history: that of the Great Bambino. The Boston Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees after winning the World Series in 1918, then toiled for 86 years before they won the championship again.

So how do athletes prevent a curse from overcoming them? They practice superstitions. Hockey players grow out beards during the postseason, baseball players don't step on foul lines during warm-ups and no one even thinks about saying "shutout" or "no hitter" to a pitcher in the midst of one.

Athletes are more apt to believe in superstitions than the rest of us, says Bradley Hatfield, a kinesiology professor at the University of Maryland who teaches a class on sports psychology.

"I think the reason they do is because they work under a lot more uncertainty, and they are accountable for their actions," Hatfield says.

It's those little routines, no matter how irrational, Hatfield says, that give athletes a feeling of control. But don't tell that to Washington Mystics guard-forward Monique Currie, who must shower, shave her legs and armpits, and take a nap before every game.

"I am a creature of habit when it comes to game days," Currie writes in an e-mail. "One game in college I scored one point -- yes, one point -- and I believe it was because I didn't take a nap before the game!"

So what do other top athletes in the area do to put a little luck in their lives? We checked in with a half-dozen of them to see what they do, wear and eat to get a bit of confidence. And if you want evidence of how superstitions affect a team's mojo, look no further than the Washington Nationals, who don't practice any interesting ones, according to Chartese Burnett, the team's vice president of communications. (Hmm, maybe if they relied on superstitions, they could get out of the basement of the National League East.)

Alana Beard

Washington Mystics guard-forward

Superstition: Beard's superstitions revolve around a certain pregame meal: a sandwich with peanut butter (has to be Jif) and jelly (strawberry Smucker's, please).

"I have to mix my peanut butter and strawberry jelly in a bowl before spreading it on my one slice of bread," Beard writes in an e-mail. "I can only use one slice at a time, folded over."

And that's just the start of the ritual. After a shower and hair prep, it's off to the game exactly at 4:15 p.m. Then she goes through a strict schedule of warm-ups and finishes with another treat: a Red Bull.

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