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Saturday, Jul 20 2013 11:04 PM

Michael McCarthy: Superstition? Habit? Why athletes have elaborate routines

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    By Brita Meng Outzen

    Michael McCarthy

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By MICHAEL McCARTHY, Contributing columnist

One of the most popular questions asked by reporters and fans is, "Are you superstitious? Do you have any game-day routines?"

Baseball is a notoriously superstitious game. From Wade Boggs' pre-game chicken feast to Nomar Garciaparra's elaborate batting glove adjustments between pitches, each player has a way of preparing themselves to succeed.

But what for? Why do so many players, especially in baseball, feel they need these rituals to have success? Is it physical? Mental? Spiritual? Is there no way to succeed without it?

While I don't personally know Wade or Nomar, I have been around baseball and athletes a long time. The one commonality amongst them all is that they perform consistently at a high level and they have some sort of pre-performance routine.

These routines are what prepares their body and mind to execute the task at hand at the highest level. This is the reason a basketball player has a set routine at the free throw line or a golfer has a pre-swing approach. These set movements are paired in their mind with success at the given task they are about to perform.

So how do they come about? Why does a basketball player make three dribbles at the free throw line? Why does a hitter make four taps on the plate when entering the box? Why does a cellist practice his/her scales 10 times before even starting practice?

This is the priceless question that only that performer can answer. Somewhere along the way they made a routine that helped eliminate distractions and harness their attention onto execution.

But it still doesn't make sense. Why do all this preparation for something you do every day? Do you really need all this preparation to succeed? You don't have a preparation for making a right turn in your car or chopping potatoes for dinner, right?

The answer is in the task. The more challenging the task, the more mentally focused one frequently must be for a more elaborate routine.

Recently "Sports Science" on ESPN did an analysis of Ray Allen's 3-pointer in Game 6 of the NBA Finals to tie the game that led to the Miami Heat eventually winning the NBA Championship. If you have not seen it, I recommend you go watch it to better understand the variables that go into a shot -- but especially a shot in such circumstances. The most remarkable piece of information is that the allowable variance at release for him to make it is less than the width of a piece of hoop netting while he is backpedaling to the 3-point line.

Now imagine when Gyasi Zardes (soccer) kicks a ball from 25 yards out while running at nearly full speed or Mariah Alvidrez (volleyball) makes a dig as she dives for a ball sinking just over the net? Imagine the concentration that it takes to handle such a difficult play yet they make it look so easy.

This is no different than a heart surgeon who prepares for a surgery or a singer who prepares for a performance. It is essential that they be in the right mental and physical state to perform at their highest level. Their routine helps get them to that place.

While Nomar's batting glove adjustments and Wade Boggs' cuisine choice may seem excessive from the outside, it is clear these routines help make them one of the best respective shortstops and third basemen in their generation.

Superstition, routine or just simply habit, these small actions make each performer the best at what they do because of the physical and mental state they reach.

Michael McCarthy is a former Cal State Bakersfield player who was drafted by the Boston Red Sox and is playing for the Class AA Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs. E-mail: mmccarthybaseball@gmail.com

Twitter: @mmccarthy35

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