An Athlete’s Drive: OCD & SPORT

By Cali Werner, MA, LMSW

This article originally appeared on adaa.org

Successful athletes are driven and determined to perform to their greatest ability. These athletes often engage in frequent routines such as waking up early for workouts, engaging in physical therapy and rehabilitation, planning daily healthy balanced meals, all in addition to trying to maintain a balanced lifestyle outside of their sport. 

The first time I won a state championship title in cross-country, I had on my yellow Nike sports bra and 2 bobby pins in my hair. What do you think I wore for every race to follow? Yes, that exact same sports bra with the same 2 bobby pins. The more success I had in sport, the more I paid attention to meaningless details that I thought, if done wrong, could negatively affect my performance. 

We see behaviors similar to this in sports every day with baseball players tapping their cleats on each side of the plate multiple times before they are ready to bat or with a volleyball player slapping the ball to the ground ten times before going up for a serve, gymnasts clapping their chalky hands excessively before performance, and so on. So, when are these behaviors considered normal and when are they falling in line with something more closely related to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)? OCD is a chronic and debilitating disorder that consists of an anxiety provoking fear (i.e. obsession) followed by a repetitive ritual in an attempt to immediately relieve that anxiety (i.e. compulsion). 

By my final year of track in high school, I was no longer able to tie my own racing flats before big races. The laces had to be “just right” in order for me to have a good race, or so I thought. My coach would see me tying them over and over. By the 4th or 5th time he would jump in and tie them himself in order to get me to the starting line on time. 

Without routines, many athletes fear that their overall sport performance could be negatively impacted. To meet DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for OCD, obsessions and compulsions should take more than an hour a day. Of course, most research suggests that routine on performance day help athletes feel in control. When these routines become time consuming and excessive, athletes are more likely to burnout or lose the joy for their sport all together.

My OCD symptoms always heightened around high-stake races. It wasn’t until I received appropriate evidence-based treatment (ERP) that my love for the sport came back. After treatment, I ran without OCD in control, which led me to qualify for a spot in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials this year. I no longer feel the intense urge to engage in compulsions before a big race but instead feel excitement and healthy pre-race nerves. Help is out there if you are an athlete with a similar struggle. Don’t wait until burnout to get the help you need. You can be a successful athlete and love your sport, too. Trust me, it is possible!