From green sports bras to peanut M&M’s–the strange habits of Olympic athletes
By Emily Thompson | BSU at the Games
Olympian Anna Tunnicliffe is not like other superstitious sailors. Most wouldn’t let anything the color green near their boat, but Tunnicliffe has green on hers at every major competition.
An old sailing tale claims the color is bad luck on a boat, and Tunnicliffe and her teammates were always careful not to chance it. But before one competition, Tunnicliffe forgot to change out of her green sports bra beforehand. She won and decided it was lucky.
“So I wear that on finals day, but don’t tell [my teammates] that,” Tunnicliffe says.
“I do wash it.”
Tunnicliffe, whose team lost in the quarterfinals of the Elliot 6m sailing race Wednesday, hasn’t been the only 2012 Olympian with a quirky habit. Many of the athletes who have competed in London have routines, rituals and superstitions, from peanut M&M’s to specific warm-ups. But Sean McCann, United States Olympic Committee (USOC) senior sport psychologist, said it’s important to make clear distinctions between the three.
“I’m a big fan of routines, rituals make me nervous, and superstitions I actively discourage,” McCann says.
McCann said routines can help keep athletes on track before a big event like the Games.
“Routines are really useful because under pressure at the Olympic Games, it’s so easy to get distracted from the normal business of doing your sport,” he says. “It becomes a way of helping the mind actively flow into the action, as opposed to stopping and thinking and potentially getting in your own way.”
For some, routines come naturally.
“I am a pretty routine type of person by nature and by personality,” said cyclist Dotsie Bausch, whose team won a silver in the team pursuit.. “So I tend to do the same process the night before [a competition], which involves a certain type of music, then I go into a meditation, then I go into prayer time and then a music time. I pack my bag the same, and it helps with calming.”
When setting up a routine, McCann said athletes should start with the moment they’re in action and work backward.
“Virtually every athlete can control the last 10 seconds before they do something,” he said. “That’s a good place to start a routine, to get your mind in the right place, whether it’s using imagery or visualization or a specific cue word that reminds you about technique, for instance.”
Boxer Joseph Diaz Jr., who lost in the men’s bantam round of 16 in the 56kg weight class, said right before a fight, he tries to pump himself up mentally.
“To stay focused, I just think positive thoughts,” he said. “I think about me winning; I think about my family.”
Rituals are not as clear-cut as routines. McCann said some rituals are harmless, while others can interfere by making the athlete anxious if he or she can’t complete the ritual. The difference is how much control athletes have over the outcome of their rituals.
“A ritual might be something like, ‘On game day, I need to put on my right sock first, then my left sock,’” the psychologist said. “That sort of thing becomes more magical thinking, in terms of, ‘I need to do something the same way.’”
One of the examples of a popular ritual McCann gives is food.
“I won’t travel without eating Peanut M&M’s on a plane,” Travis Stevens, who lost in the semifinals of the 81kg class in judo, said. “It started from finding it at every airport in the country. It was the one thing that I could always find, so it’s my staple when I travel.”
Diver Brittany Viola, who is competing in the 10m platform diving this week, is very specific about her diet surrounding her sport. She likes to have salmon the night before a big competition.
On the other hand, some athletes prefer not to eat at all the day of a major event.
“I don’t like to feel very full, so I usually don’t eat breakfast on the days that I compete,” diver Nick McCrory said, who won a bronze with partner David Boudia in the 10m platform synchronized diving and has individual competitions this week. “Then I’ll snack on a protein bar and drink water later.”
Rituals can also come in the form of a familiar item.
“I travel with my pillow everywhere because it’s something that’s consistent,” Boudia said. “I sleep in a lot of different beds all around the world, but one thing I can have from my own bed is my pillow.”
Unlike rituals, which can sometimes be harmless, McCann says that superstitions put athletes in the wrong mindset.
“Superstitions are to ward off bad things from happening. Or if something happens, like a black cat crosses your path, then you’re worried that something bad will happen,” he says. “Right away, it engages your brain in thinking about bad stuff that could happen. So I really try and discourage people from having outright superstitions.”
Diver Kristian Ipsen admits to being superstitious.
“I do certain things before a dive, and if a dive goes well, I will keep doing that,” said Isepn, who won a bronze in the 3m synchronized springboard competition. “And if it doesn’t go well, I will switch something up. I won’t wear this one red suit that I wore at one of my college meets because I had a terrible, terrible meet. And for finals, I usually wear a black suit because I dive well in a black suit.”
Gymnast Logan Dooley, who was Olympic alternate who didn’t end up competing, tries not to be too superstitious but says he gets freaked out if he bounces on the trampoline.
“It’s OK if you bounce and you stop, and then you recollect your thoughts and go,” Dooley said. “But if that happens to me, I’m very superstitious about that. I think that it’s always bad luck.”
According to McCann, many athletes’ habits stem from all of the pressure they face.
“It’s not only natural, but it’s probably advantageous, to have a certain level of nervousness and anxiety for competing,” he said. “You do need to be a little on-edge so you’re focused, but that also exposes some of this stuff, and it makes some things that should be a small deal become a bigger deal.”
Because there’s so much stress surrounding the Olympic Games, McCann said he encourages athletes to stick to routines instead of getting caught up in everything that could go wrong.
But regardless of McCann’s advice, Tunnicliffe wore her green sports bra under her sailing uniform at the Games. Some athletes may even have a lucky rabbit’s foot, a horseshoe or a four-leaf clover.
Behind many athletes’ tough exteriors, they need some sort of comfort, just like the rest of us—even if it doesn’t produce a gold-medal result.
Emily Thompson is a senior magazine journalism major at Ball State University and features reporter for BSU at the Games. Follow Emily and the BSU team at@ekthompson2410, @bsuatthegames and www.facebook.com/bsuatthegames.
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