Superstitious Minds


by Michael Grey
Piping Today #50, 2011.

I’m not a hugely superstitious person. But then again, I’m not not a superstitious person. You won’t see me walk under a ladder. That’s just crazy. What harm’s a little salt over the shoulder when I’m in a spilling way, and, yes, it’s true you won’t ever see me put new shoes on a table — touch wood. Okay. Maybe I am superstitious.

I’m in good company, though. Like sports pros and actors, pipers are among those who tend to have an irrational belief in things to come. Consider Laurent Blanc, current head coach of the French football team. While he was a player, he was famous for his superstitious need, before every game, to plant a kiss on the head of his goalkeeper, Fabien Barthez. To Laurent Blanc, at least, the team’s 1998 World Cup win is a testament to the power of pre-game head-snogging.

Then there’s the famed virtuoso, pianist Glenn Gould, who could only perform concerts while sitting 14 inches above the floor, perched on an old chair his father had made. He continued to do this even after the chair was worn beyond good repair.

It’s thought that superstition is one of those things that come to be after the fact. For musicians — like pipers — a day’s great performance is almost always analysed in hindsight. The search for clues for the causes of the winning effect almost always ends up as the root of a person’s superstition. We’re all pretty good at connecting the dots and creating meaning from our actions — and what happens as a result of them.

I once had a cat named Jack (now there’s surely a line from a hardcore country song). Now Jack had some magic. At least he did as a kitten; for a time I was sure of it. Early one hot July morning I got out of bed to ready for the games. Kilt, jacket, sporran, hose, I gathered all the necessary accoutrements. Brogues? Of course, only this morning one of them had been filled with cat doings. Undaunted, and after some cursing and a quick clean-up, I was off to the games — a big contest: one of the biggest in my part of the world.

Anyway, I had a great day; one of my best ever. And naturally I credited Jack’s early morning ‘gift’.

Forget hard graft and preparation — I credited the cat. At the contests that followed that summer, in a vain attempt to recreate that fragrant day, I tried my damnedest to get Jack to help me make my mark -— by making his in my brogues. Each Friday night I’d place my size 11s conveniently and encouragingly beside the cat box. But he never again obliged. Happily, Jack helped prove the importance of hard practice and preparation.

The philosopher Francis Bacon said that “the root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses”. That feels true to me. We aim to recreate the conditions that create purple patches but it’s less common for us to bother assigning superstitious roots to ruts. Who’s ever heard of the “lager korma” superstition? That’s the one that relates to pipers breaking down in solo piping events on a Saturday after a Friday night of nine pints and a late night Indian. I’ve never heard of it either. But if a pre-contest night like that assured wins and not chokes, well, I suggest it might well be a superstition.

It appears that when it comes to superstition and high performance, there’s more logic in the whole equation than anything obsessive compulsive — or crazy.

A study by scientists at the University of Cologne, recently published by the Journal of Psychological Science, found that superstition can boost a person’s confidence — and by extension, their performance.

One of their experiments looked at the idea of “lucky ritual” in a sporting context.

Their test saw 28 volunteers try to sink 10 golf putts. Half the group were told they had a “lucky” golf ball.

The end result saw the “lucky” ball group sink 6.4 putts on average. The control group hit just 4.8 of the 10 putts.

So there you have it. The world needs more lucky balls.

The lesson in all of this is clear. The next time you’re at the line with the band and find yourself furtively reaching down in your sporran for the reassuring (tattered and slightly discoloured) support of your treasured and über-lucky 11-year-old Hello Kitty key-chain, feel no shame.

Be happy. Be confident. And whatever you do: break a leg.