Thursday, September 29, 2011

Very Superstitious

I was in a near state of panic. It was 4:50 a.m. – time for me to hustle off to my 5 a.m. CrossFit class – but I couldn’t find either of my favorite sweat-wicking skull caps. And there was no way I could leave the house without one.

A decade ago, when I briefly flirted with running, I purchased two identical skull caps from the New Balance store near my office. During exercise, my scalp produces a prodigious amount of sweat, and the wicking fabric stretched over my head kept the rivers of perspiration from dripping into my eyes. Plus, it protected my unsuspecting fellow runners from the fine, salty mist of sweat that sprayed out with every turn of my head. The benefits were undeniable: Without the annoyance of sweat cascading down my face or the fear of social ostracism by drenched running partners, I felt that I could run faster and longer.

And when I moved on to other athletic endeavors – including CrossFit – the skull caps came with me. Even on the hottest days, I knew I could kick more ass if I pulled one of my black fabric caps onto my head before getting down to business.

Me & My Favorite Skull Cap, Post-WOD

But I only have two of them. New Balance stopped making this particular model, and although I’ve tried versions by Zensah, Nike and others, they’re just not the same. They don’t have the power.

My irrationality is not lost on me. As I scrambled around in the dark last Wednesday, desperately rifling through the laundry to find one of my special skull caps, I knew full well that I was acting like a crazed idiot. I remembered the SICFIT article from last spring about superstitious CrossFitters. But it didn’t stop me from throwing all the contents of my sock drawer on the floor so I could get down on my hands and knees in search of a ten-year-old New Balance skull cap.

At least I’m no Wade Boggs, I tell myself. Throughout his baseball career, the Hall of Famer was a slave to his OCD-like pre-game routine. As Peter Gammons wrote in a Sports Illustrated feature (25 years ago!), Boggs’s preparation for each home game invariably began with a 2 p.m. chicken dinner. He left his apartment at precisely 3 p.m. so that he’d be at his locker and could begin changing at exactly 3:30. At the end of fielding practice (during which he’d field exactly 150 ground balls), Boggs “steps in order on the third-, second- and first-base bags, steps on the baseline (when he goes to his position each inning, he steps over the line), takes two steps in the coach's box and lopes to the dugout in exactly four steps.”
He runs his wind sprints at 7:17 -- when Bobby Cox was managing Toronto, he tried to foul up Boggs's routine one day by having the Exhibition Stadium clock go from 7:16 to 7:18. When Boggs gets to the on-deck circle in the bottom of the first inning, he arranges the pine tar, doughnut and resin, then applies them, in that order. When he gets to the batter's box, he draws the Hebrew letter Chai.
All the great players have their routines, Boggs said. “Mine’s the same as theirs – only it takes a little more than five-and-a-half hours.

I’m nowhere near this obsessive about my skull caps. When forced (i.e., when the laundry hasn’t been done), I grudgingly throw another brand of sweat-rag into my gym bag and head out to get my WOD on. But I don’t like it.

And I’m not alone. When it comes to athletic endeavors, people hold onto lots of irrational superstitions. CrossFitters, in fact, are a highly superstitious bunch. Some can’t lift unless they’re wearing their special socks or until their favorite collar is clamped onto the barbell. Others have a “lucky” spot on the pull-up rig or insist that they can’t lift unless their compression pants are on.

Why do we hold on to these superstitions? Answer: These rituals give us a sense of control. Placebo or not, our familiar routines and lucky charms help reduce our performance anxiety. As Taylor Clark writes in “Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool,” superstition is “a tool to help us manage fear: if we believe that eating chicken will tip the future in our favor, we’ll be less anxious about it, even if there’s no actual cause-and-effect relationship.”

CrossFit WODs can unnerve the best of us, and anything that helps get our minds right before the clock starts is a good thing. So I’m going to keep sporting my stanky old black skull caps to class.

Assuming I can find them.