Don’t bet on the grey. Never wear something new in a horse hunt or competition. Steer clear of the colour green at the track, whether it’s the jockey’s colours or the horse’s saddlecloth.

All sports include some sort of ritual or superstition to bring luck – and horse sports are no exception. Whether it’s horse racing, eventing or other equine sports, you’ll hear about plenty of things that are said to bring good or bad luck.

They can be tricky to follow and come with exceptions: if it’s a rainy day, then you do bet on the grey. The colour green is okay on St. Patrick’s Day.

Sometimes, the superstitions even turn out to be flat-out wrong: grey horses can and do win races. So why do these superstitions exist – and do they actually affect anything?

As it turns out, they just might. Rituals like following the same race-day routine may actually have an impact on the competition’s outcome.

Read on to find out how mindfulness differs from superstition – and what role they both play in influencing performance.

Rituals for Success and Good Luck

There are plenty of rituals that people may perform in sports, whether it’s to gain good luck or avoid bad luck. For example:

  • picking lucky numbers
  • knocking on wood
  • making racing picks in horse racing
  • spitting into your hand before picking up the bat in baseball
  • bouncing the ball before taking a foul shot in basketball
  • wearing the same clothes to continue to a winning streak
  • throwing back your first catch when fishing
  • carrying coins in your pocket when playing golf
  • don’t say “shutout” in a locker room before a hockey game
  • avoid stepping on the court lines in tennis

All of these are seemingly arbitrary, but they persist as superstitions in many sporting cultures, including horse sports. But is it possible these superstitions could be beneficial?

How Can These Rituals Do Any Good?

There doesn’t seem to be any reason why something like knocking on wood should be anything but meaningless superstition. However, research has found positive connections between these types of actions and performance, including decreased anxiety, increased confidence and sense of control, and feeling secure in a routine.

Decreasing Anxiety

One benefit of rituals could be decreased anxiety. Performing rituals can help our brains create a buffer against uncertainty and anxiety, which in turn can help improve performance.

Rituals can be used to reduce anxiety in almost any high-pressure endeavour, including sports. According to sports psychologists, pre-performance rituals may help athletes with better execution and reduction in anxiety levels.

Increasing Confidence and Sense of Control

In addition to reduced anxiety, rituals can also help us to improve confidence and feel a greater sense of control, particularly in sports. A recent series of investigations carried out by psychologists found that rituals can enhance people’s confidence in their abilities. Even simple rituals can help bring a feeling of predictability in uncertain situations, and they can help convince our brains of constancy and predictability.

Feeling Secure in a Routine

Routines are extremely important in sports, and having a strong routine can enable athletes to be completely ready, both physically and mentally, to perform at their best. A simple ritual can fit into a routine to help enhance the effects. For example, making sure your lucky outfit or saddle pad is ready for the day of competition might help you go into the ring, arena or track feeling more secure and better prepared to give it your all.

The Role of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is achieved by focusing your awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting your feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. The benefits of practicing mindfulness and being focused fully in the moment can include:

  • improved cognitive ability
  • reduced stress and anxiety
  • increased a sense of well-being
  • help with pain management

The benefits are clear, but when you’re in the midst of a competition, race or event, trying to practice mindfulness can be really hard! However, rituals – however arbitrary in their direct influence – can go far in increasing mindfulness and therefore impacting performance.

Rituals are “done with deliberate intention and focus,” and require “intent and engagement.” They also often involve different elements and actions that can help us to focus and centre ourselves in the moment.

By performing rituals, we can improve mindfulness – which may be particularly helpful in the hectic, noisy atmosphere of a warm-up ring or racetrack.

Can Rituals Support Performance Directly?

When it’s listening to the same pre-game song every time or mentally visualizing your path around a course of jumps, rituals can both impact outcomes and how we feel about outcomes.

Rituals may help improve performance “by making people feel like luck is on their side,” and can they can also decrease the neural response to performance failure, by minimizing negative feelings about errors or failure. In addition to helping athletes feel better about mistakes, this could also help them to shake off mistakes faster and continue on towards a goal.

Rituals can also have social benefits. For example, many sports teams and/or athletes may engage in the following rituals:

  • team huddles
  • chants
  • handshakes
  • saying a prayer together, whether before a football game or the Cowboy’s Prayer before a rodeo
  • hearing a victory song after a win

While they may seem arbitrary, these rituals could help with team bonding and give athletes something they can control. They can also causally enhance physical or mental readiness while further delivering simple mindfulness benefits.

While superstitious behaviours tied to sports may seem purposeless, having rituals might help you feel more prepared and can result in more positive outcomes.

Maybe your ritual is taking a minute before you enter the show ring to centre yourself, or a specific warm-up routine between trainer and rider before a race. What’s important is finding something that works for you, and helps you feel your best for the moment when you step into the ring.