O C D in S P O R T
It’s match day.
The crowds are descending upon the stadium and tension and anticipation thicken the air with the humidity of rivalry.
A hundred thousand rituals repeated by fans and players alike, to secure a win, to appease some unseen power with a series of benign and often bizarre offerings. This is the moment, just before the first whistle, the first touch…that defines one of the most interesting human coping mechanisms. An obsessive behaviour so grounded in sport it has almost become an acceptable characteristic of a successful athlete. For some, obsessive compulsive disorder is a debilitating mental illness, but for others, it is almost a strategy that, when harnessed, can appease anxiousness and develop focus.
Obsessive Compulsive disorder is roughly defined as having intrusive thoughts that produce uneasiness unless reduced by compulsive behaviour. It is a perfect fit for sport. Sport and obsessive routine have existed symbiotically for centuries. The mental and physical focus required to play sport can be incredibly demanding, and it is understandable that athletes find comfort in routine. The very nature of sport requires a rigid physical order. It is inevitable that without an almost pristine mental order, these physical undertakings are impossible. Professional athletes all adhere to obsessive routines that would seem sadistic to the average person. Strict training schedules, dietary controls and total immersion into the rules of play are just some of the pressures dogging the average pro. Throw in rabid fans that loathe you because of nothing more than the colour of your jersey and you have a recipe for a mental breakdown. As athletes straddle the divide between sport and celebrity, they face mounting pressures and public scrutiny. It is hard to ascertain whether these outside pressures are equally responsible for the development of OCD as are genetic traits and underlying mental illnesses like depression and personality disorder.
Whilst watching the Australian Open, I noticed the intense patterns and motions athletes follow during play. Rafael Nadal is famous for his courtside arrangement of water bottles and his full-blown allegiance to the wedgie recovery program. He carries out the same motions before each serve, almost without fail. He admits to creating this kind of order to help him focus and concentrate, but he does not identify as a sufferer of OCD. Although many would jump at the chance to diagnose, I find it refreshing that Rafa has avoided labelling himself. I cannot imagine walking out onto a court surrounded by tens of thousands of people with all eyes on you. Add in the opponent, the cameras, multi-million dollar prizes and endorsements in the wing, and a body plagued with nagging injuries and you’ve built a precarious monster that would devour the average person alive. Anyone would be excused for aligning a few bottles. Hell…I’d colour co-ordinate everyone in the stands and kick out all the judges with uneven birthdates!
Paradoxically, David Beckham is the poster boy for OCD in sport. Although he has never been clinically diagnosed, he has professed his desire to receive counselling. He has admitted to obsessively arranging and colour coding items and maintaining numerical order. He has also hinted at the unwanted criticism from his teammates in relation to his compulsions. His over-exposure and calculated celebrity work against him to erode the empathy of the public. If he wants help, surely he could afford the best therapists in the world?
Beckham is still a very successful athlete, therefore it can be argued that there is an importance to the execution of his compulsions. If they help him to maintain focus during a match, or give him mental peace, who are we to criticize? But there are many athletes who haven’t been so lucky. Their OCD has been the catalyst to professional and personal ruin.
If Beckham is the groomed and stylized poster boy for manageable OCD, Paul Gascoigne, aka GAZZA is the frazzled and haggard face of the all-consuming nature of the illness. Voted BBC sports player of the year in 1990, Gazza was destined for a brilliant professional football career. But his career and personal life unravelled in the most epic way imaginable. Gazza had almost every trait of a textbook case of OCD. Once rumoured to have broken into a teammates house to re-arrange his towels, his compulsions were extreme and demanding. He has admitted to avoiding stepping on lines, cracks in the pavement and feeling the need to enter doorways over and over. And those are just a scraping of the rituals he would carry out daily. Most of Gascoigne’s compulsions stemmed from stress and his desperate attempt to maintain control of a life that was slowly ebbing into full blown alcoholism and chaos. In a way, OCD can sometimes seem like a distraction for the emotions. A way of simulating calm and order to settle a rising panic. A means to deal with guilt and desperation when faced with the consequences of thoughtless actions. At least this seems true in relation to Gazza. Despite his wealth and fame, he was not immune to the destructive effects of mental illness. As his life crumbled, the general public slowly grasped the severity of his condition. His public profile could have possibly helped to spread the understanding of OCD, but lads down the pub would just as quickly label him “the mad bastard”.
The struggles of these players has made it easier for some fans to come forward about their own experiences with OCD. Trawling through fan sites, it’s not hard to come across people admitting to carrying out intricate routines to assure their team ‘s success. A Liverpool fan details his rituals pre-match day, describing how he avoids touching anything the colour of the opposing team’s jerseys. Heaping obscene importance on these rituals, a delusion completely consumes these fans into believing that their team will lose unless these rituals are adhered to. For a pro, their behavior off the pitch can affect their mindset and influence the outcome of a game. But for these fans, their sport related anxiety only impacts their lives negatively and traps them in a cycle of depression and fear. This is the hell of OCD at it’s most debilitating.
In a world where clubs and teams are becoming more and more globalised and less accessible to local fans, a trend of global capitalism is rearing it’s ugly head. As fan influence over clubs fades, a growing alienation and feeling of powerlessness spreads through the stands. The parallels of skyrocketing mental illness are no coincidence. Players and fans will continue to be afflicted by this illness unless sport is brought back into balance. Although I believe sport can worsen OCD tendencies for some, it has the power to alleviate it in others. The social nature of sport can help to curb the anti-social behavior of OCD and offer a support network for people who previously had none. Regular physical activity can build confidence and bring meaning to a person’s life. Instead of living vicariously through overpaid professionals, people can carve out their own active role in sport.