I Put a Spell on You: Embracing Your Superstitious Sports Self

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Magical consciousness is one of the great inheritances of human existence. In fact, it could well be argued that magical thinking is the first form of truly human thought.  Magic is thought--at least in the Western world--to be the domain essentially of very young children (e.g. ages 2-5). If magic is consigned to adults in Western society it's largely to the reading and watching of Harry Potter movies and so on.

But one area in which magical thinking is pervasively expressed is sports (by fans and as well shall by athletes alike). I believe sports is one of, if not the last, socially sanctioned arena of magical thinking in contemporary Western society. I advocate that we should all deeply embrace sports superstitions. I think it is a fantastic expression (and generally harmless) of early human consciousness. Now to be clear, I encourage people to embrace sports superstition in largely as if and humorous quality way. By that I mean imagining the world as if it were magically created while simultaneously not totally believing it to be so. The key there is the conscious choice of how to interpret a world (for a time magically) and thereby having the freedom to know when it is no longer appropriate to hold such a view.

For those seeking to reconnect with magical forms of their own being, this article will hopefully give you some great pointers.

The General Structure of Magical Consciousness

Jean Gebser described the development of human consciousness as moving from archaic to magic to mythic to rational forms of consciousness. [On mythic sports see the endnote below.]

Ken Wilber in his book Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality describes the magical structure of consciousness this way:

As the mind begins to emerge, the mental images and symbols themselves are initially fused and confused with the external world, leading to what [Jean] Piaget calls 'adherences'...Piaget refers to such magical cognitions as a form of 'participation'--that is, the subject and the object, and various objects themselves, are 'linked' by certain types of adherences, or felt connections, connections that nonetheless violate the rich fabric of relations actually constituting the object (pp. 220, 225-226).

It is this fused, confused, participatory nature of felt connections (what Wilber calls indissociation) that is the key link in magical thinking, across its main characteristic forms, each of which finds expression in the world of sports.


Typically magical consciousness is animistic in nature--that is spirits (animi) are said to inhabit all of reality, including what is normally considered non-sentient things, objects, or forms of nature. Examples include the idea that spirits or beings inhabit trees, rivers, rocks, and mountains. These spirits can be either benevolent or malevolent, usually depending on how they are treated by the individual. Since there is no true differentiation in magic between mind and the material world, the material world must be filled with mind (or minds).

Consider this animistic example from the great NHL goaltender Patrick Roy (from a CBC article on the top 10 athlete superstitions):

When he was just a rookie with the Montreal Canadiens, a reporter noticed that Roy seemed to get a lot of favourable bounces and the puck seemed to often hit the goalposts. That's because, Roy said, he talks to his posts during the game. "They are my friends," he said.

Roy saw the hockey rink (or at least the goalposts) as animistically charged entities who one gained benefit from by befriending and showing kindness.

[Note: Talking with some true hockey nuts--aka Canadians--I've found out this is a massively common practice among goalies.]

The flip side of animism in the magical world is the view that one can control the exterior world through inner focus and imagination--again since there is no separation between mind and external reality, mind must have power over the physical world.

Now compare that quotation to this story about Patrick Roy (CBC again):

Roy, who holds the NHL record for career wins by a goalie,, had a set routine before every game. During the pre-game, he would skate out to the blue-line and stare at the net, envisioning it shrinking. He would also consciously never step on the blue-line or red-line.

turk wendell

Many players in many sports refuse to step on various boundary markers (endlines, out of bounds lines, etc.)--an athletic equivalent to 'step on a crack, break your mother's back.' The lines mark clear lines of distinction, they separate zones of reality, and to step on them puts one potentially in violation of the space and therefore inviting bad voodoo into one's reality.

beardsA related theme in magical thinking is the wearing of special clothes or amulets. Legion are the stories of players (of all ages and talent levels) getting on a winning streak and wearing the same underwear, not changing socks for months, playoff beards in hockey, special types of food eaten before games, on and on.

If the world is animistic (filled with spirits) those spirits are thought to (or really do in this world) reside within the range of touch or the physical senses (like Roy speaking to or looking at the goalposts). The magical world is one in which physical objects are imbued with various forms of power--either positive (mana) or negative (taboo).

Consider this example from Major League Baseball stars Steve Finley and Darin Erstad (CBC source):

Forget steroids – Finley and Erstad have delved into the world of mysticism [edit: natch--magic not mysticism] to generate performance-enhancing powers. The Anaheim Angels teammates have both worn a little leather pouch containing various minerals around their necks to ward off injury and slumps. Finley got the mysterious pouch from Craig Counsell, then a teammate with the Arizona Diamondbacks, in 2002. He gave it to the injury-prone Erstad this season. Apparently, the necklace has worked for both players. As soon as Finley received it three years ago he went on a hot streak, hitting over .350 for the next three months. Right after he received it from Finley, Erstad went on a hitting streak and was injury free through the first month of the season.

Another example of this trend is the obsession with lucky numbers, particularly those worn on jerseys. Many teams retire the numbers of their greatest heroes as the numbers are now possessed of such mana that they cannot be touched or worn again. The LA Lakers Staples Center is adorned with the jerseys of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabar, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, James Worthy, and Gail Goodrich (and someday Kobe Bryant). The place is like a sports Valhalla. It is the abode of basketball gods whose mana is powerful.

lebron james

Iconic numbers however can be worn to infuse one's being with the power of its original holder, like a superhero who takes up the mantle of a dead superhero by donning the outfit (e.g. Wally West, The Flash). The most obvious example of that practice in today's sports world is LeBron James who wears #23, the number of the greatest player to have ever played the game, Michael Jordan.

We see then how magical thinking crosses a line between what we normally consider the division of things material and immaterial (or physical and spiritual).

Wilber shares this quotation of Jean Piaget's regarding magical consciousness. Here's Piaget:

Closely akin to this participation is magical casuality, magic being in many respects simply participation: the subject regards his gestures, his thoughts, or the objects he handles, as charged with efficacy, thanks to the very participations which he establishes between those gestures, etc. and the things around him. Thus a certain word acts upon a certain thinga certain gesture will protect one from danger; a certain white pebble will bring about the growth of water lilies, and so on.... (SES, p. 225, bold mine).

We've already seen the use of lucky charms or amulets in sports. But compare the bolded words of Piaget's above with the great baseball (and great magicalist), Wade Boggs (CBC piece):

If you want to know about superstitions in baseball, Boggs is a perfect case study. Known as the "Chicken Man," Boggs would eat poultry before every game and was obsessively compulsive about his routine. He took exactly 150 ground balls during infield practice and had a fixation on time. He entered the batting cage at exactly 5:17 p.m. and ran wind sprints at 7:17 p.m. Before each at-bat, he would write the Hebrew word "Chai" – meaning life – into the dirt of the batter's box. Between pitches, he had a habit if he was playing defence: he'd swipe the dirt in front of him with his left foot, tap his glove two or three times and adjust his cap. And those are just a few of dozens of Boggs's superstitions.

The emphasis on food, routine, numerology, but also the use of the magical word (Life). Boggs' writing of the word is a kind of mantra, a word with magical power that brought good luck to the batter's box--an almost shamanistic ritual of setting the space of his (bodily) prayer.

The Magical Beliefs of Fans

Now so far we have covered the magical beliefs of the athletes themselves, but fans are as equally (if not more so) magical in their thinking. In talking to friends and others about this article (mostly guys), I heard story after story of fan superstitions. Sports fans reading this one will I'm sure relate (and can share in the comments their own):

spell hands

Classic examples:

1. If a person goes to the bathroom and something big happens during that time, they have to return to the bathroom. This rule applies whether the big thing in question (goal scored, touchdown, home run, etc.) was good or bad for the team in question. I've definitely spent whole quarters of games, having to listen to the audio across the hall because of bathroom occurrences. This rule applies so much that some will willingly go (without being forced to do so)--someone told me such a story in his case the other day.

2. The belief that not watching the game will cause your team to lose. This applies for a whole game (say you have to work and can't watch the game) or if you even step away from a few minutes and things go badly (see point #1 above).

3. Lucky clothes or lucky seats wherein one watches games, e.g.0 the lucky sports bar. If you go to a place and your team loses there, DO NOT return to watch another game of your team at the same place. It's got bad juju (for you anyway).

4. Doing "magic fingers" to put a hex on the other team or on various players. Magic fingers is when a person putd both hands out, palms down, all fingers extended and starts making the fingers as if casting a spell.

Personal Example:

I myself am a lifelong Ohio State Buckeyes fanatic. [This has been a tough year given the scandals of the football team.]

My family can attest to a special touchdown dance I do after every Ohio State touchdown. I sorta frenetically bound around a room or two arms gyrating up and down in a kind of punching motion, while humming a version of the Ohio State marching band theme song as if I was on speed. If the game is particularly close and tense and a touchdown is scored the dance can be shortened (by performing it at an ever higher speed, both running/dancing and humming). And just in case anyone was wondering, when I attended Ohio State and went to the football games I couldn't exactly do this dance as it was too crowded, so I did a modified form of the dance while standing and cheering in the stands.

A Beams & Struts Example

The first two times I ever watched Vancouver Canuck (hockey) playoff games with Brothers Andrew and Trevor, the Canucks lost in overtime. Both times. I will now not watch a Canucks playoff game with them as the three of us are jinxing the team.  I've since watched games at my house with friends from church and are 3-0 in that formation.  


The magical structure of human consciousness is deeply self-centered.  As Wilber and Piaget show, the rising mental reality of an individual is not yet completely separated from one's natural surroundings--this is what causes the 'adherences' between inner mind and outer world that Piaget speaks of.  These adherences give rise to the thought that the individual can control (through thought or certain actions) the outer world.  Hence magic.  In young children this is a perfectly natural response.  In adults it's potentially quite harmful.  But nevertheless this is a dimension of our collective human inheritance.  The reason I think superstition holds such weight in the sports world is that it gives expression to this native, egocentric impulse in all of us.  For the athletes there is a way in which they are obviously controlling the outcome of the game and yet there is always 'luck' or 'chance' or 'bad breaks' or the inevitable strangeness of life that intervenes and can change the outcome of a game.  And for the fan, what is the point of simply observing or watching games if one cannot come to be emotionally invested in their outcome?  What better way to gain such investment than by the belief that one can alter its outcome by her participation?

The post-postmodern impulse is ultimately to be deeply inclusive of the entirety of our human experience (in its best sense).  Therefore, I think taking up various kinds of sports superstitions (with a sense of humor) is a great way to (re)connect with one's magical being.  There is however an ethics to this that I seriously stress.  Superstition also gets expressed in human society through gambling (e.g. "magic or lucky numbers") and sports gambling--particularly in an age of instant online access--can be very destructive.  So there are lines.  In magical reality the practicioner often draws a circle of protection around himself.  In this context, that circle I believe is one that creates a clearly humorous and 'as if' quality (playing the game while realizing that one is not in fact altering the outcome by such measures and yet still doing it for fun) in a free, harmless manner.


1. Endote Magic and Mythic Sports:

It's important to separate magical from mythic thinking (they are related but distinct). Beams and Struts has covered a great deal of mythic thinking--largely in the form of various analysis of the Myth of the Hero in contemporary society. (e.g. here).

When it comes to mythic existence, many have written on the tribalism of sports--how by donning various colors or jerseys one creates an 'us' and a 'them', the good guys and the bad guys. Professional wrestling has been the most obvious user and abuser of the myths of heroes and villains (in fact it's the driving force, a kind of macho guy soap opera as the actual sport is faked). Similarly, in the mythic realm, there are classic descriptions of invoking God or the gods to aid one in a game. Those analyses are also valid (as sports is expressing a whole range of human consciousness-es simultaneously), but for this piece I want to focus on magical consciousness in sports.

Magic fades into myth when the individual realizes he or she can no longer control the exterior world. One needs a god or gods to come to their aid. The belief is still egocentric, but now admitting the existence of a higher power to effect change. This view in sports was most famously spoofed in the great character of Pedro Cerrano (played by a young Dennis Haysbert) in the film Major League. Cerrano, from Cuba, practices voodoo and invokes the aid of his god Jobu to hit curveballs, prompting in the scene below a mythic level debate over whose god is the greatest ("You tellin' me Jesus can't hit a curveball?"). Watch and enjoy and note the great emphasis on how the [animistic] baseball bats are afraid of the curveballs.

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1 comment

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Wednesday, 25 May 2011 06:34 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Did you see today when Henrik Sedin (captain of the Vancouver Canucks hockey club) wouldn't touch the Campbell Bowl (that the team was just awarded for winning the conference finals). How's that for superstition... wouldn't want to jinx your chances for the Stanley Cup!

    Also, my old man told me today that he's been waking up early the past two weeks so he can get out of bed at exactly 4:46am. Apparently this was the time he woke up on the day the Canucks beat Nashville, so he's been keeping it up to help them win against the Sharks.

    Go Nucks!

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