Canada's Mikael Kingsbury became the most successful freestyle skier of all time after winning a World Cup dual moguls title in Finland last December.
He's the best of a top-five list that also includes iconic Canadians Jean-Luc Brassard and Alexandre Bilodeau. In January, Kingsbury broke his own record, winning his 31st World Cup at a competition in Calgary.
What's his secret? Boxers and a T-shirt.
The 23-year-old from Deux-Montagnes, Que., wears the same T-shirt under his uniform at every major race. He picked up the shirt, which reads, "It's good to be the king," before his first World Cup win in 2010. Since then it's become tradition. "I only wear it on competition day," Kingsbury explained. "Even if I do badly, it's still got some magic."
Kingsbury is far from the first athlete — or person, for that matter — to use superstition to boost confidence. In 2010, researchers at the University of Cologne showed that superstitions improved subjects' performances in various tests. They putted better with a "lucky" golf ball than with a random ball, and subjects carrying a lucky charm performed better in memory tests than those without one.
The researchers concluded that increased self-belief boosts performance.
Team Canada coach Ron Kober calls Kingsbury the most consistent athlete he has ever seen, and he attributes this consistency to one thing: Confidence.
Superstition vs. Ritual
Sport psychologists tend to discourage superstition, as it gives power to a specific, irreplaceable item and is based on a belief, rather than knowledge or reason. When a superstition starts to fail, or an item is lost, damaged or destroyed, it can create a mental slump that's difficult to shake.
That's why they favour ritual. As an Olympic rower, these defined patterns of behaviour also filled me with confidence. I wore a beaded necklace to race, for instance. Although the style and look of my necklaces changed, the extra weight around my neck gave me a feeling of power. I also made food a ritual. I would eat scrambled eggs and oatmeal the morning of race day. I still embrace this same ritual before high pressure events in my professional life. The "champion's" breakfast fuels my confidence.
Brands boost self-esteem
Being flexible is one way to avoid the pitfalls of relying on superstition for confidence. Take Kingsbury: Starting in 2010, he wore the same spandex undergarments in competition. When they wore out he enlisted his mom to sew and re-sew the elastic bands. In spite of mom's loving care, the repeatedly revitalized boxers eventually fell apart. But by sticking with the same brand, he found that replacement shorts still strengthened his self-belief.
There may be more to Kingsbury's boxer flexibility than practicality. New research published in the Journal of Consumer Research demonstrates that "strong performance brands can cause an effect that is akin to a placebo effect," writes author Frank Germann of the University of Notre Dame. In his study, participants experienced a noticeable bump in task-specific self-esteem when using high-performance sport brands that claim technical superiority.
Interestingly, expensive fashion brands had no effect on sport performance. Individuals must believe they are wearing high performance gear to gain a boost in confidence.
The magic is you
Ultimately, the key to winning with superstition and ritual is knowing that the "magic" comes from deep inside you. It's the ritual of activating the placebo effect — rubbing the rabbit's foot, kissing the medallion, putting on the T-shirt — that boosts self-esteem. Not the object itself.
When asked about his superstitious objects, Kingsbury laughed. "This is just to make me feel good," he said. And what if his boxers or T-shirt are lost, damaged or destroyed? "It doesn't matter," Kingsbury said. "I'll still perform."
Four tips for winning with superstition and ritual:
- Recognize that it's in your head — and that's OK. Your superstition is magic because you have chosen to make it magic.
- Wear something that makes you look and feel like a boss: It could be a high-visibility sunglasses, a magenta pair of wicking tights or an undershirt that makes you feel powerful.
- Know your placebo will not defy any known laws of nature. Don't put on your anti-gravity socks and then go running off a cliff. I know you were thinking about it. You can thank me later.
- Your placebo must be affordable. Buying a $10,000 power suit may not be in your budget. Try buying new cufflinks or a tie instead.