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{The following excerpt comes from Matt Hoven, J.J. Carney, and Max Engel, On the Eighth Day: A Catholic Theology of Sport (Cascade/Wipf & Stock: Eugene, OR, 2022), 115-7. Used with permission from Wipf and Stock Publishers. Available for purchase at,, and elsewhere}.

The vast majority of elite athletes practice superstitions—despite the fact that both sport sociology and theological studies criticize their usage.1

Sport sociology defines superstitions as “actions, which are repetitive, formal, sequential, distinct from technical performance and which the athletes believe to be powerful in controlling luck or other external factors.”2 Examples abound. Athletes admit to wearing pink goggles from their childhood (swimmer Lydia Jacoby), inscribing a slogan on their underwear (karateka Ariel Torres), watching the movie Kill Bill the night before the big event (high jumper Vashti Cunningham), or “flipping off” his dad before a race (swimmer Santo Condorelli).3 Tennis superstar Serena Williams admitted, “I have too many superstitious rituals and it’s annoying. It’s like I have to do it and if I don’t then I’ll lose.”4 She explained, “It’s totally ridiculous because I have to use the same shower, I have to use the same sandals, I have to travel with the same bags.” As captured by Williams, the problem with superstitious routines is that they follow excessively rigid processes and time schedules. This contrasts with pre-performance routines (or PPR), which are focused on regulating intensity, enhancing concentration, and optimizing physiological and psychological states.5 Superstitions run the risk of acting as a scapegoat, where poor performance is blamed on incorrectly performing the superstition.6

From a theological perspective, it is understandable that athletes desire to amplify their perceived means of control, but their rituals can easily shade into problematic superstitious practices. Watching a movie the night before competing is a relaxing distraction, but it can become twisted into a rigidly performed superstition. Further, these rituals can digress to the point of athletes trying to control the sporting gods, who affect many sporting intangibles and can decide the fate of a game. Superstitions imitate an open encounter with God in the world but distort the potential and meaning of human rituals. Superstitions open people to manipulation and false security, and they ultimately take away players’ freedom, chaining athletes fearfully to habits because of the consequences for deviating from the superstitious practice.

The line between a meaningful, liberating ritual and superstitions can be blurred in sport, as is the case with the use of numbers. Numbers are prominent in sport: playing fields are carefully measured and jersey numbers can correlate to a specific player position, as with rugby. Strict numerical order in sport enables scorekeeping (and betting) while advanced analytical statistics find new ways to understand the game and even change game strategies. Certainty that comes with mathematics can produce numerical affections for fans and players alike, who desire a favorite jersey number or believe a number of a deceased player should be retired (like that of Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes’ One-Day International shirt).7 Similarly, peoples in the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman worlds assigned symbolic power to numbers: for example, “2” noted important pairs (e.g., left and right, heaven and earth, female and male), “4” modeled completeness (e.g., the four seasons and phases of the moon), and “7” were the number of celestial bodies known to Babylonians and used to order the days of the week.8 For biblical authors, numbers also symbolically expressed reality: for example, “1” is associated with God’s uniqueness, “6” marked the efforts of humankind (i.e., linked to the six days of creation) but that lacked the final completeness of sabbath rest, and “12” noted the months in each year and the number of Apostles.9

In sport, many still hold to belief in the symbolic power of numbers. Tim Tebow, a devout Christian who had a brief stint as a NFL quarterback, wrote with a white marker “John 3:16” on his eye black for a Denver Broncos’ playoff game in 2012.10 After throwing the winning touchdown pass in overtime, Tebow learned that he threw for 316 yards, averaged 31.6 per completion, that the opposition time of possession was 31:06, and that the end of the game registered a 31.6 overnight TV ratings.11 Tebow believed that the numbers showed that God had bigger plans for him than simply winning a football game; tens of millions of viewers googled the biblical passage. Believing that a lucky number symbolically connects a player to God or others seems reasonable, but sportspeople can take belief in numbers too far and lose perspective, falling into a superstitious mindset of control instead of a theological understanding that God uses the created world as an invitation to grace through human desires, thoughts, and feelings. People need coherence in the world—and numerical connections can signify this—but these can easily give way to misplaced trust to idolatrous sources.

A final point: superstitions are an example of contemporary materialists misinterpreting and then inadequately responding to the human desire to connect with transcendence sensed throughout the world. Many athletes and fans maintain superstitious practices that are flatly unscientific and irrational, yet simultaneously scoff at the possibility of divine transcendence from a secular worldview. Several fans explain their superstitious rituals as a means to influencing sports while watching from home: wearing a particular sweatshirt or lucky charm, turning off their screen for important plays, sitting in the right chair, or even avoiding a shower prior to the game so as to feel as dirty as the players.12 Ironically, at times sport superstitions are seen to be more acceptable than religious rituals, perhaps because their superficial nature is more accommodating to an immanent worldview that restricts belief in God.

When people use routines to try to manipulate or control their relationship with the mystery of God, they become superstitions. It is not uncommon for religious people to fall prey to superstitions, where they turn prayerful practices into rigid rituals based on fears and obsessions.13 These seemingly religious acts become something they were unintended to be, namely mere psycho-social interventions performed by athletes. Properly constructed, however, religious behaviors can provide a wide range of psychological benefits, give holistic meaning to sporting experiences, and endorse ethical action and moral growth.14


  1. Katerina Bartosova, et al., “Rituals in Sport,” 5–13, Kinesiologia Slovenica 23.1 (2017), 6.
  2. Bartosova, et al., “Rituals in Sport,” 6.
  3. Sophie Dodd, “Olympic Athletes Share Their Pre-Competition Rituals and Superstitions,” People, July 27, 2021.–4166-a7c2-e8302fb14c00#f883268a-f789–4166-a7c2-e8302fb14c00.
  4. Dodd, “Olympic Athletes Share.”
  5. Bartosova, et al., “Rituals in Sport,” 7.
  6. Bartosova, et al., “Rituals in Sport,” 8.
  7. Hughes was struck by a ball and died during a match.
  8. Martin McGuire, “Numerology.” In New Catholic Encyclopedia, edited by Berard Marthaler, 475–76. Detroit: Thomson/Gale, 2003.
  9. H. J. Sorensen, “Numerology (In the Bible),” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, edited by Berard Marthaler, 476–78. Detroit: Thomson/Gale, 2003.
  10. The verse John 3:16 reads: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
  11. Adam Schefter, “Tebow Phenomenon Gets Eerie,” ESPN, January 13, 2012.—adam-schefter-10-spot.
  12. Susan Eastman and Karen Riggs, “Televised Sports and Ritual: Fan Experiences,” 249–74, Sociology of Sport Journal 11 (1994), 260 and 266–68.
  13. Bartosova, et al., “Rituals in Sport,” 10.
  14. Anthony Maranise, “Superstition and Religious Ritual: An Examination of Their Effects and Utilization in Sport,” 83–91, The Sport Psychologist 27 (2013), 89.

Matt Hoven

Matt Hoven is the Peter and Doris Kule Chair in religious education at St Joseph's College, University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. He is the lead editor of Sport and Christianity: Practices for the Twenty-First Century. He is co-author of On the Eighth Day: A Catholic Theology of Sport (Wipf & Stock, 2022), available at,, and elsewhere. He writes at the intersection of faith, sport, and education. Learn more about him at

Max Engel

Max T. Engel is Associate Professor of Education and Theology at Creighton University. He is the lead author of Your School’s Catholic Identity: Name It, Claim It, and Build on It. He is co-author of On the Eighth Day: A Catholic Theology of Sport (Wipf & Stock, 2022), available at,, and elsewhere.

J.J. Carney

J. J. Carney is Associate Professor of Theology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He is the author of multiple books, including For God and My Country: Catholic Leadership in Modern Uganda. He is co-author of On the Eighth Day: A Catholic Theology of Sport (Wipf & Stock, 2022), available at,, and elsewhere.


  • Brian Howell says:

    There is a classic anthropology article, “Baseball Magic” by George Gmelch, still read in many intro to anthropology classes. Gmelch would point out that there’s a magic ontology behind many of these practices, and that the practices can be divided into various sorts – fetishes, rituals, taboos – that all operate with different “rules” but rest on similar cosmological premises. Magic and religion have been juxtaposed in anthropology since the days of Bronislaw Malinowski, but it’s very clear that this sometimes-helpful analytical division is often elided in real life. Even Christian prayer can take on magic ontologies when people become committed to specific forms, postures, and language as efficacious in moving God’s action. What I wish the authors would also notice is how these rituals, practices, and materials connect people to one another, to communal identities, and allow people to participate in the lives of one another. This is something that shouldn’t not be simply ridiculed, but rather understood and perhaps built upon by those in the position to welcome such energy into the life of Christ.

    • Matthew Hoven says:

      Thanks for noting Gmelch’s “Baseball Magic” article–I agree that these rituals and fetishes aren’t something to be ridiculed but tell us something about the innate religiousness of human beings.

      Our article is an excerpt from our book, On the Eighth Day, where we devote an entire chapter to ritual and prayer and unpack the material, communal, and relational elements of sporting rituals. If you like, send me an email at and I can forward you the entire chapter.