Adjust the ball cap before pounding glove with fist? Never! Some Major League pitchers do strange things in the moments just before hurtling a fastball toward home plate: glance toward third, left foot shuffle, arm stretch, re-check third, deep breath, self-indulgent scratching . . . you get the idea.
Formed on the basis of subconscious associations, each link in the pitcher’s behavioral chain was, at some point, immediately followed by reward: a pick-off at first, a double-play grounder, or a game-saving strikeout. Subconsciously – and superstitiously – they devalue their own skill and come to regard good fortune as the outcome of the last behavioral hiccup they just happened to have performed before the big payoff. The pitching mound dance, and displays like them, may seem silly. But the truth is, we all perform similar behavioral ceremonies.
Suppose you’re taking a walk to the grocery store along a path you don’t usually travel and happen to spot a $20 bill under a mailbox. You can be fairly sure that your next trip out for milk and eggs will take you by that same mailbox – even if you have to go out of your way, and even if you’re not consciously thinking of finding another twenty bucks. Several months later, you’ve completely forgotten about your lucky find. You may even fleetingly wonder why you always seem to be taking this new (and longer) route to the store. You no longer know. But somehow your new routine just feels right, so you go with it. Until the day comes when someone is handing out free doughnuts at the shop across the street from the mailbox. Pretty soon, instead of having just a single new component in your weekly walk, you have several: walk by mailbox, check for traffic, cross street, stop by doughnut shop, pick up groceries – long after the $20 and the free handouts are history.
Routines provide energy-saving payoffs by helping us to perform many tasks on auto-pilot that would otherwise interfere with our ability to meet new challenges. On game day, there are plenty of more pressing problems to think about besides the windup. So the next time you notice yourself rolling the toilet paper over, instead of under, or adjusting the rearview mirror before, not after, buckling the seatbelt, you might just consider whether it’s really too late for a future in the Big Leagues.
Seth Slater, M.F.A., is author of The Dolphin Divide, a regular blog column for PsychologyToday.com and is the founding editor of NarrativeDriveWriting.com, a creative coaching service for poets and writers. He teaches creative writing at Cuyamaca College and at the University of California, San Diego.