Can Dirty Socks Increase Your Performance?

Photo of Peter Hartmann
August 18, 2016
Reading time
3 minutes

From being the last one on the field to growing out scraggly beards, sports stars engage in all kinds of crazy rituals. Do they work? The answer may surprise you.

Jabra NWoL blog 11 - Rituals_FINAL

Tennis star Serena Williams wears the same pair of socks throughout an entire tournament.

Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo gets a fresh haircut before every football match.

Baseball’s Wade Boggs ate chicken before every game – and always fielded exactly 150 groundballs during infield practice.

These and many other sports star rituals are enough to make you wonder if athletes are little nuts.

The answer, it turns out, is no.

What they’re doing is engaging in performance-enhancing rituals. These bizarre-looking routines may be humorous, annoying, perhaps even a little disgusting at times. But they serve a vital function by getting athletes into “the zone” – that glorious place where they’re immersed in the here-and-now and laser-focused at being their best.

Many sports psychologists believe that rituals act as lucky charms for athletes, both inspiring and motivating them to do well during competition.

How? Usually through the placebo effect. It’s something we’ve all heard of, where a fake treatment or inactive medication can sometimes improve a patient’s condition simply because the patient expects that it will. Rituals tend to act almost the same way for athletes. By truly believing that their ritual will help them perform better, the athlete will indeed likely perform better.

Rituals help athletes reduce their nervousness and anxiety, feel like they’re doing something tangible to bolster their performance and focus on the present. And that ability to stay focused on the present moment is a huge factor in performance success.

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But What About Us Non-Athletes?

So if rituals are effective at getting professional athletes into the zone, can they work for us non-athletes too?

It sure looks that way, and they’re not just limited to athletic performance. Whether it’s studying, painting, playing the piano or tackling a long day of work, if you feel as though a little ritual helps you perform better, it probably does.

I hope so, because even though I’m not a star athlete I engage in a ritual too. Before heading out for a run, I always tap my earbuds twice while they’re in my ears – and not just to make sure they’re in securely.

Sure, it probably looks a little crazy, but I now realize that it’s my little way of psyching myself up to take on task ahead of me.

And that, sports psychologists say, makes it the textbook definition of a ritual. This little routine offers me a sense of structure and helps me feel focused, empowered, energized and confident in my abilities. In other words, it puts me in the zone.

So as long as I keep running, I’ll keep trying to boost my performance by tapping my earbuds beforehand.

As for the sweaty socks… well, I think I’ll leave them to Serena.

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