ON SUNDAY Oxford and Cambridge will battle each other on the river and on the football pitch.
It’s the 160th boat race as well as the annual Varsity football match. But what will be on display? Raw talent, of course, but superstition and ritual will also play a part.
I’m going to Craven Cottage, Fulham’s home stadium alongside the Thames, to watch both events because a member of the family is part of Oxford’s Varsity football team.
He told me some of his team-mates were very precise in how they dress for the big match. They always put on the right shoe before the left, and the left knee guard before the right. When they run out of the dressing room on to the pitch, they have to hit the ceiling of the stairwell a specific number of times.
What’s this all about? Athletes develop habits and routines from constant repetition. That’s what skill development means. So this obsession with repetition is part of an athlete’s DNA in the muscle, so why not the mind?
The symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) seem to mimic the habits of some athletes. David Beckham won’t take off his football boots without practising his free kicks for hours and hours. He’s apparently been diagnosed with OCD.
But closer to home, what’s it like on the football pitch with Oxford United? According to my BBC colleague, sports editor Jerome Sale, it can be strange. “I’ve met players who had to be last out of the dressing room when entering the pitch.”
This could prove a bit of a problem if another team player has the same OCD. Jerome also spotted “managers who would wear the same clothes on match-days if the team was winning”.
Then there are the “curses” – the Tuesday night terrors and the Gipsy jinx. The Oxford United team was superstitious about playing on Tuesday nights because they hadn’t won a midweek game for ages; so they switched the games at the Kassam Stadium to Wednesdays and saw some improvement.
Fans also aren’t immune to the disease of “superstitionitis”. How many wear their lucky shirt when they go to a match or sit in the same seat game after game, or believe in the same story that the Kassam Stadium was built on a Gipsy site or burial ground and there is a Gipsy curse on Oxford United that brings the team down, especially during the wilderness years of the Conference?
How about the international and local boxing scene? Muhammad Ali always prayed in his corner with his arms upraised in a Muslim prayer fashion. The second fight between Frank Bruno and Mike Tyson also had religious overtones. Bruno made the Christian “sign of the cross” exactly 24 times in his corner before the first bell rang. But that could have had more to do with terror than religion.
One local cage fighter from the South Moreton Boxing Club has had 10 professional fights and won every time. So he’s on to a winning formula which includes a pre-fight ritual.
He changes into his shorts, his hands are bandaged and he wears his boxing gloves and a large Russian Orthodox cross around his neck before the fight. The referee checks the fighters to see if they are wearing any jewellery.
The Russian cross, of course, fails that inspection each time and the referee demands the removal of the jewellery. The Russian then kisses the cross and the referee takes it off him just before he gets in the cage to fight and he wins.
Chris Smith is a coach at the South Moreton Boxing Club and has five semi-pro cage fights and five wins to his credit. With each fight Chris performs a few rituals.
Cage fighter Chris Smith in action
He always enters the ring to the sound of the same song Can’t Stop by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Before the referee starts each fight, Chris stands in his corner and it looks as though he is just hanging on to the wire cage. But this is the time when he is talking to his brother, Shane, and asking for his help to win.
Shane was driving on Christmas Day seven years ago at 11pm when he lost control of his car. It rolled over and hit some concrete posts which killed him.
Maybe putting on your right shoe first or kissing the Russian Orthodox cross or talking to your dead brother doesn’t make an athlete perform better, but not doing those things would almost certainly make them worse, even if that happens only in their mind.
Bring it on, baby, and it includes the superstitions. Don’t we all meet on that ledge…a little bit?