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Abstention from sex and other pre-game rituals used by college male varsity athletes.

Some athletes (e.g. Mohammed Ali and Brian Bosworth) believe that sexual activity before an athletic event impaired their performance. Mohammed Ali believed abstention was helpful in that "when you don't get sex for a while, you get mean and angry and it makes you a warrior" (Thornton, 1990). Coaches' belief in a relationship between sex and performance is suggested by their keeping athletes from engaging in sexual activity the night before a competition (e.g., Messner & Sabo, 1990). Research has not shown any detrimental effects of coitus on muscular strength (Cratty, 1983). Specifically, there was no less strength in boxers' legs after sex. Also, Johnson (1968) found no reduction in strength and endurance of the Palmer flexing muscle following coitus. Columbu and Plakinger (1993) quote Dr. William Masters as considering abstention from sex to be beneficial 'hogwash" and that, in contrast, sex should enhance performance.

The main purpose of the present study was to see if, like Mohammed Ali (Thornton, 1990) and Brian Bosworth (1988), college varsity athletes believe abstention from sex helps their performance (or that sex impairs it). More generally, use of other rituals used by varsity athletes was assessed, along with whether or not they believe the ritual(s) they use helps their performance. Another purpose of the present study was to attempt to replicate Caron and Carter's (1985) finding that team athletes were more tolerant of premarital sex than were individual athletes. This was done by seeing if varsity football and baseball players were more tolerant of premarital sex than varsity track men.



There were 83 varsity football players from three university or college teams, 73 varsity baseball players from three university or college teams, 27 varsity track men from one university, and 36 non-athlete male student controls from Introductory Psychology classes at Washington State University.


Athletic administrators at all PAC-10 schools, and at other colleges and universities in the northwestern states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho were sent a cover letter and sample survey entitled "Sex and Sport Survey,. The cover letter requested football and/or baseball coaches to allow their team to participate in the study and indicated that there would be a follow-up contact by phone to see if they agreed to participate and/or whether they had any questions. None of the coaches contacted in this manner agreed to participate. As a result, the investigators began contacting coaches and/or schools where they had been students. Six of these schools were contacted, and all six agreed to participate (though one, a Big-10 school, subsequently failed to do so). The other five participating schools included one each from the Big-10, PAC-10, PAC-10 North, Western Association Conference (WAC), and one NAIA school. The Big10 and PAC-10 schools allowed both their baseball and football teams to take the survey. The WAC school allowed their football team to participate, and the NAIA and PAC-10 North schools allowed their baseball team to participate.

After they had agreed to participate, coaches were sent a number of surveys equal to their varsity roster, with a standard introduction to be read by someone administering the surveys. Coaches were asked to return the completed surveys. Surveys were given to varsity track volunteers by an undergraduate assistant, who was on the University track team.


The first three items in an 18-item [survey.sup.2] were demographic items (marital status and age), varsity sport (football, baseball or track) and position played. The next three questions assessed sexual tolerance [approval on a 5-point Likert scale of "premarital sex when the couple are friends", "extramarital sex (a married person having sex with someone other than their spouse)" and "extramarital sex (my wife) having sex with someone"], question 7 measured sexual activity (how many times per month they usually had sexual intercourse), and questions 8 and 9 assessed religious beliefs ("How religious do you feel you are?" and "My religious beliefs are what really lie behind my whole approach to life"). Next, the athletes were asked how often they engaged in each one of 5 different ritualistic behaviors before a game (i.e. eat/drink same food, wear same clothing, pray, abstain from sex, abstain from alcohol or other drug), and, for each behavior they engaged in, students were asked how much they believed it helped their performance. The next question asked if there were any other ritualistic thing they did before a big game or match, and, if yes, what else did they do?

To compare varsity athletes with non-athlete student controls, as well as to each other, 56 volunteer males from introductory psychology classes were administered the same survey, except that they were instructed to answer only the demographic items and the first 6 survey questions (sexual tolerance, sexual experience and religiosity).


Four of the 56 introductory psychology student surveys were discarded (two were Asian, which none of the varsity athletes were, and two indicated they were on a baseball team). The number of surveys returned by the three football coaches varied from nine to thirty-eight, and the number returned by the three baseball coaches varied from six to thirty. Thus, there were a total of 83 football and 73 baseball players.

Demographic, sexual, and religiosity variables

Varsity football players, baseball players and non-athlete controls were compared first on demographic variables (marital status and age), and on their response to sexual tolerance, sexual experience and religiosity questions. There were no differences in marital status. Most answered "single, but am (or was) in a relationship, but we didn't live together", and the next most frequent response was "single, no buts". Only two (1 football player and 1 baseball player) were married, and one football player was divorced. The three groups did differ significantly in age [F(2,203) = 10.7; (p [less than] .01)] and religiosity [F(2,205) = 12.0; p [less than] .01]. As can be seen from the means in Table 1, football players were about 9 months older than baseball players and about a year older than non-athlete controls. Football players also had sexual intercourse about two times more per month than baseball players and non-athletes, who did not differ. Football and baseball players were slightly more religious than non-athlete controls [F(2,205)=8.56; p [less than] .01]. [Track men were intermediate between team players and non athletes (mean = 5.1, SD = 4.7)]. Both football and baseball players agreed more with "my religious beliefs are what really lie behind my whole approach to life" than did non-athletes [F(2,205) = 8.0; p [less than] .01)], and more team athletes said they were "religious" (2) or "somewhat religious" (3), while nonathletes were "somewhat religious" or "not religious but believe in God" (4). As may be apparent from Table 1, greater religiosity (lower score) did not correlate with lesser frequency/month of (premarital) sexual intercourse, as might be expected. Instead, the correlation was low and negative (r = -.24; p [less than] .01).

Ritual use

Abstention from sex. The main purpose of this study was to find out if college varsity athletes abstained from sex prior to a game, and if so, (1) how much they believed it helped their performance, and, if so, (2) in what way(s). Results for use of this ritual and belief in its effectiveness are shown in Table 2. In Table 2, note first of all that the lower the mean, the more frequently a ritual was used, (i.e. always = 1). Thus, football players were more likely to abstain from sex 24 hours before a game than baseball players [F(1,159) = 6.94; p [less than] .01]. Specifically, football players "usually" abstained (usually = 3), while baseball players sometimes" did (sometimes = 2).

Consistently, football players were more likely than baseball players to believe that abstention from sex helped their performance [probably = 2 vs. not sure = 3 (F(1,154) = 36.8; p [less than] .01)]. The main ways all players believed abstention from sex helped was by conserving strength and increasing energy.
Table 1

Means and standard deviations for age, frequency of sexual
intercourse per month, and religiosity in college varsity football
and baseball players and non-athlete controls

 Age Intercourse Religiosity
Sport N Mean Std Mean Std Mean Std

Football 83 20.9 1.3 6.4 3.5 2.6 1.0

Baseball 73 20.0 1.5 4.1 3.7 3.0 1.4

Non-athlete 52 19.7 2.1 4.4 4.2 3.5 1.2

Other rituals. Football and baseball players differed in their use of rituals other than abstention from sex. As can be seen in Table 2, football players were more likely to eat the same food [F(1, 154) = 5.18; p [less than] .05], to pray [F(1, 154) = 111.0; p [less than] .01], to believe that prayer helped their performance [F(1, 154) = 17.3; p [less than] .01], to abstain from use of alcohol or other drug before a game, and to believe it helped their performance [F(1, 154) = 6.36; p [less than] .05 and F(1, 140) = 7.67; p [less than] .01, respectively]. More specifically, football players nearly always prayed before a game, while baseball players only prayed sometimes. Actually, very few football players did not pray before a game (only 2% did not), while a substantial minority of baseball players (37%) did not. Consistently, football players believed prayer probably helped their performance (see Table 2), while baseball players were not sure (not sure = 3) that prayer helped. The only ritual that football players were less likely to use than baseball players was to wear the same clothes before a game [F(1, 154) = 6.36; p [less than] .05 (see Table 2)].

Individual ritual use. In addition to asking the players about their use of the 5 rituals discussed already, they also were asked to write down any other ritual they used, and asked whether or not they believed it helped their performance. About one-third of the athletes reported using another ritual, i.e. 31 of the 83 football players (37%) and 24 of [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 2 OMITTED] the 73 baseball players (33%). The rituals football players reported using included: listening to the same music, usually hard rock (10), putting on their uniform in the same order (4), visualizing (3), reading the bible (2) and idiosyncratic rituals, such as being the last one on the field, playing pinball, yelling/making noise, touching same sign, twitching neck, cleaning nails, chewing gums and throwing up, (8). Baseball players were less likely to listen to music (3), and more likely to sleep or rest (3). Other rituals they used included: visualization (3), warming up in the same way (2), putting their uniform on in the same order (1), and idiosyncratic rituals, such as never stepping on a baseline, stepping on third, using same bat box, making a symbol with a bat, using the same bat, using the same seat on the bus, and joking around (10).

Sexual attitudes

Caron and Carter (1985) found team athletes more tolerant of premarital sex than individual athletes. This was tested in the present study by comparing attitudes toward premarital sex in football, baseball and track varsity, using a general linear model. Results showed a significant difference between baseball, football and track men [F(2, 180) F = 8.77; p [less than] .01)]. Specifically, team players were more tolerant (approving) of premarital sex than individual athletes. The 2.4 mean response of baseball players is between "approve somewhat" (approve somewhat = 2) and "neutral" (neutral = 3), while football players approved somewhat (mean = 2.0), and track men were neutral (mean = 3.1). Thus, present findings agree with prior findings that team players are more tolerant of premarital sex than individual athletes. Players in the three sports did not differ significantly on attitudes toward extramarital sex [F(2, 180), p [less than] 1.00].
Table 3

The number of varsity football and baseball players who believed
abstention from sex 24 hours before a game had an effect on their

Effect: Football Baseball

Conserve Strength 39 15
Increase Energy 26 13
Sharper Reflexes 22 5
Better Concentration 20 6
More Aggressive 25 6
No Effect At All 17 (20%) 43 (59%)

ml .104


The survey did not contain a question about ethnicity. However, one of the undergraduate research assistants was a member of one of the participating football teams and had administered the surveys to his teammates. As a result, he was able to deduce ethnicity for each player, using information on position and age. For this one team, then, it proved possible to compare answers between black and white players in order to see if ethnicity may have contributed to differences found between football and baseball players. Results, using F-tests, revealed significant black-white differences on only two variables: overall ritual use [F(1, 38) = 4.15; p [less than] .05)] and belief that not using alcohol or other drug before a game would help their performance [F(1, 36) = 5.38; p [less than] .05)]. Black football players were both slightly more likely to use rituals than white football players (mean = 11.1 vs. 9.6) and more likely to believe that abstention from alcohol or drugs before a game would help their performance (mean = 1.3 vs. 1.9). Thus, the greater number of black football players may well have contributed to (i.e. was confounded with) the greater ritual use found in football than in baseball players.


All varsity football and baseball players surveyed engaged in at least one ritual before a game, and on the average, football players used three. A few baseball players (15%) did not use any ritual, but the average baseball players used two. So varsity baseball and, especially football players always (or usually) engage in two or more rituals before a game. Further, those who use rituals believe they help their performance. Overall, ritual use was greater in football than baseball players. The greater number of black football than baseball players may have contributed to this finding.

Football players believe abstention from sex before a game probably helps their performance, while baseball players are not sure. Since football coaches presumably encourage abstention before a game by isolating athletes in motels/hotels, and baseball players said they were not isolated similarly, coaching attitudes may play a role in the acceptance of a sexual abstinence myth. However, more is involved, since very few players used visualization rituals, which coaches also are said to encourage (e.g. Surgent, 1984). Perhaps, anxiety from myths such as Sampson and Delilah are alive and well. In any case, Brian Bosworth does not appear to have been an exception among football players, who do tend to believe abstention from sex before a game helps their performance. How? Both football and baseball players who abstain from sex before a game believe it helps mainly by conserving strength and increasing energy. Though based on limited data, i.e. from a single team, track athletes appear to use fewer rituals than either baseball or football players and believe less in their usefulness.

Author Note

1 Acknowledgment is due two undergraduate varsity athletes, Lance Lincoln and Kirk Westerfield, for their assistance with this study.

2 Copies of the cover letter and survey about sport rituals will be made available on request.

For further Information, please contact:

Gloria J. Fisher Department of Psychology Washington State University Pullman, WA 99164-4820


Bosworth, B. (1988). Confessions of a modem anti-hero. New York: Doubleday.

Caron, S.L., & Carter, D.B. (1985). Sex role orientation and attitudes towards women: Difference among college athletes and nonathletes. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 61, 803-806. Columbu, F., & Plakinger, T. (1993). Sex and Sports. Muscular Development, 30, 22 and 159.

Cratty, B.J. (1983). Psychology in contemporary sports (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Johnson, W. (1968). Muscular performance following coitus. Journal of Sex, Research 4, 247-248.

Messner, MA., & Sabo, D.S. (1990). Sport, men, and the gender order. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Books.

Surgent, F.C. (1984). Visualization training for track events: Specific strategies for attaining a peak performance. The Coaching Clinic, 12-16.

Thornton, J.S. (1990). The relationship between sexual activity and athletic performances; is it only blind faith? The Physician and Sports Medicine, 18, 148-154.
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Author:Fischer, Gloria J.
Publication:Journal of Sport Behavior
Date:Jun 1, 1997
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