Picture yourself emerging from a pro sports locker room or stepping onto the stage at a major concert venue. You can actually feel the collective roar of tens of thousands of fans who’ve been anticipating an exhilarating event, restlessly waiting for their first glimpse of you.
Now, imagine being unprepared for that moment—off-balance, distracted, ill at ease. It’s not a pretty picture. No wonder professional athletes and performers who regularly make just such a high-profile entrance have developed routines that will get them “into the zone” every time.
However peculiar they may seem, rituals and superstitions allow athletes and performers an all-important sense of normalcy in situations that, for most of us, are anything but normal.
As fans are well aware, such rituals can take strange forms. Former Nashville Predators play-by-play announcer Tom Callahan, a former minor league hockey player, affirms that “there are instances of guys who wouldn’t talk before a game, or who would only drink a certain color of Gatorade. Sometimes,” he allows, “it gets a little crazy.” Adds Callahan’s former co-commentator, NHL vet Stu Grimson, who is not part of the Predators TV broadcast, “Sometimes the ritual doesn’t really have any rational basis, but guys do it anyway.”
As Tennessee Titans announcer Mike Keith puts it, “People may say superstition is foolish, and maybe it is. But if you believe it’s not, as a player, then it’s not.” Dr. Gary Solomon, team psychologist for the Preds and the Titans, says, “Professional athletes engage in rituals for several reasons. One is superstition . . . [but] the ritual provides a sense of predictability prior to the beginning of an unpredictable athletic contest.” Solomon’s academic assertion finds earthier expression in the hands-on, pigskin perspective of Commodores defensive end Walker May. “You want to get in a certain type of groove, every single game,” he says, noting that season days are highly structured to begin with. “Coming up to that game, you want to follow that same groove every time so that nothing is out of the ordinary.” That said, the Vandy senior keeps it simple. “The one thing I do is wet my hair under the sink and I put on two little arm bracelets [representing favored charitable affiliations] before the game, and that’s how I get going. You know,” adds May, “[placekicker] Carey Spear has his thing—after every single kick during warm-ups he claps his hands and points up to God. It’s just a different ritual for everybody.”
“At the end of the day, it’s all mental preparation,” says Callahan, who relates that during his time in Nashville “[Predators’ center] Paul Gaustad liked to go just sit in the stands before a game and look out at the ice. Some guys just really like to have that quiet time.” As Mike Keith recalls, the late Titans quarterback Steve McNair took the “quiet time” routine to an extreme, requiring onsite stadium naps prior to kickoff time. Without fail, McNair would go somewhere before a game to get himself horizontal. “And sometimes,” says Keith, “he would scare guys, because they’d just walk into a dark room to look for a roll of tape or something, and there’d be Steve McNair [sleeping]. That wasn’t superstitious, though,” offers Keith, “that was for his comfort.”
Comfort is also derived from prayer, which remains fairly commonplace in sports, whether as an individual observance or a hallelujah huddle. “At the 12-minute or 10-minute mark,” says Commodore Walker May, “we all go out together and pray with Brother B [Lance Brown].” While prayer can foster a sense of security within the uncontrollable circumstances of a match, for a big-time athlete it may also signify awareness of his/her extraordinary livelihood. The same goes for entertainers, creatures of similarly ritualistic inclination whose work also places them in an elite category. Four-time Grammy winner Steve Wariner agrees that giving thanks “to have this opportunity and this wonderful life, just really being grateful . . . that’s good.”
Praying is a common backstage practice in country music, which has deep conservative roots despite its many contemporary twists and turns. Interestingly, it’s not unusual to couple a prayer with a sip of something strong before hitting the stage, a kind of sacrament for stars including Toby Keith, Dierks Bentley and Chris Young, whose shot-and-a-group-prayer is a pre-show must. In any case, sharing either a drink or a devotional moment both heightens and highlights the connection between artist, band and crew. As Wariner observes, “Those band guys are your family, when you’re traveling that much.”
Traveling hundreds of miles to venues, which can be exhausting as well as boring, has perhaps everything to do with show-day rituals. Today’s biggest-selling arena acts have turned the alleviation of backstage boredom into an art form: Lady Antebellum has a ping-pong lounge and tiki bar set up at each venue, for instance, while Kenny Chesney’s vaunted “vibe room” provides a backstage chill-out parlor without parallel. Another of Chesney’s pre-show rituals involves taking a hike to the farthest seat in each arena he plays, sizing up what those particular ticket holders will actually see on stage during his performance. In essence, he measures the distance and mentally computes the level of energy he will need to project in order to reach each guest. Chesney says he “has to be sure they feel like they’re in the first 10 rows.”
For Wariner, who came to Nashville in the early 1970s to start his professional music career, knock-down drag-out basketball games with his bandmates sufficed as a much-needed means of blowing off steam during his early solo career years. “Sometimes it got out of hand,” says Wariner, who would have to dab makeup over facial scratches sustained during play. He laughingly recalls the time he and his traveling companions stopped somewhere near Memphis for an impromptu basketball game with some teenagers they’d spotted playing ball in a residential area. “They were lookin’ up like, ‘Oh my God, a bus pulling in our driveway!’”
Wariner, now nearly 61 and in the fourth decade of his career, has found that rituals evolve with age and wisdom. While Wariner used to arrive at a venue sweat-drenched, with scarcely enough time to clean up and grab his guitar, he says, “What it’s all about now is just slowly getting ready, warming up vocally . . . I might listen to some music to get inspired. The younger artists, if they’re still around playing in 20 years,” he predicts, “their routines will change, too.”
One thing that likely won’t change, though, is the existence of the rituals themselves. Though the similarities between sports and music professionals may sometimes appear scant on the surface, they’re all in a game of high-pressure and endurance. “When you go out to perform,” says Mike Keith, “you’re putting yourself out there. If a singer goes out and performs badly, everyone knows it. It’s the same thing for an athlete. It is a performance. And the mental preparation of it, and getting yourself into that zone, is hugely important.”