By Hannah Brown
The Pack is full of superstitions — wolfing down precisely five meatballs, five penne pastas and guzzling coconut water to just name a few. Superstitions, fans and injuries make or break the emotional mindset of University of Nevada football players. Physical preparation is key to the athletes’ success on the field, but their psyche is a game changer; it’s the backbone of a win.
Running back Lucas Weber texts or calls his mom the night before or the day of every game, drinks coconut water and avoids stepping into the handicap zone at all costs. He has never strayed from this routine.
“I would just feel off, I’d feel like I had the wrong shoe on,” Weber said.
Starting running back Don Jackson puts on his left cleat before his right, sits in the same seat on the game day bus ride, eats green salad instead of carbs and prays on the 24-yard line. If he doesn’t follow this routine his focus shifts to what he didn’t do instead of the game at stake.
“Yesterday didn’t go so well, and I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich instead of a salad,” Jackson said about the loss in San Diego.
Wide receiver Tucker Melcher velcros his gloves a certain way, wears the same head band under his helmet and tucks his mouthpiece into his left sock when he isn’t using it. If he didn’t follow these superstitious actions his psyche would be affected; he would have to redo whatever he did differently to get his game face on.
“Weird things like that help my game,” Melcher said. “All athletes have superstitions whether they admit it or not.”
Superstitious behavior among athletes is not unusual. According to The Online Journal of Sport Psychology, superstitious behavior is a result of uncertainty to circumstances that are “inherently random or uncontrollable.”
As the team charges the field, the crowd comes to life. But contrary to popular belief, an away crowd helps the team more than it hurts it.
“If we’re on offense and it’s third and short, the crowd’s going crazy and we make the play,” Weber said. “It’s about silencing the crowd. It’s like, ‘I told you so.’”
For Jackson, it’s great to hear the roar of a home crowd, but it’s even greater to hear the taunting jeers of an away crowd.
“You get that us-against-the-world feeling,” Jackson said.
According to The North American Journal of Psychology, home fans are one of the aspects that give the home team a competitive edge over its opponent, but starting quarterback Tyler Stewart finds the away crowd amusing and he views the boos as a sign that he is doing something right.
At times the home cheers outweigh the jeers.
For Melcher, raucous fans create momentum, mentally shutting down the opposing team. This momentum from the crowd drives a win.
“The crowd is huge,” Melcher said. “Our fans personally have been having some issues. They are behind us until we lose and then boo us. Those aren’t real fans. Fans are a huge part of the game.”
In Weber’s mind, a win adds pressure, with each win the “target” extends and the next team looks to take the Pack down. This added pressure is a constant reminder to approach each week as if the record is 0-0.
“For me, a win puts a target on your back,” Weber said.
With a loss comes an edgy team. Melcher says that no one likes a losing because it “makes people point fingers.” Without the positive vibe a winning streak brings, the team lacks energy. The emotional mindset of the Pack takes a hit.
“I guess I could just describe how I felt this morning: you feel empty,” Jackson said after the team’s loss to the Aztecs.
Stewart emphasized the importance of bouncing back after a tough loss by starting to prepare for the next game as soon as possible.
Injuries are the biggest game changers of all.
“It’s tough, it sucks, you put so much work in, took so many steps and then you take a leap back,” Weber said.
Sports psychologists John Murray and Rebecca Symes explain that depression typically comes hand in hand with a sports injury. Symes said that the more time and effort the athlete spends on a sport, the greater the psychological impact.
Jackson described injuries as “detrimental,” admitting to facing this depression himself.
“I think I have, but I never wanted to admit it until now,” Jackson said.
Melcher never fell into depression despite the medical crisis he faced. Hospitalized for nearly three weeks, Melcher had a life-threatening bacterial brain infection.
“When I walked out of the hospital there was only one thing on my mind, and that was football,” Melcher said.
It was devastating to lose so much weight, strength and speed. Melcher was told he would never play again. His mindset is what kept him in the game; he knew he couldn’t give up, he had to keep fighting.
“There aren’t very many people that can say they nearly died and are running around on a D1 football field,” Melcher said.
Superstitions boost confidence, fans motivate and injuries break hearts. These emotional battles are just as tough as the physical battles that Nevada will take with them into their game against Colorado State in the Arizona Bowl.
Hannah Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SagebrushSports