Dr Victor Thompson
Sports routines, superstitions, rituals or could it be OCD?
Updated: Nov 13, 2019
Seeing an athlete this week got me thinking again about this area, of when what we are doing in sport is a good routine, a harmless superstition or ritual, or a less-than helpful OCD-type of behaviour. Here I'll cover what I see as the differences between these behaviours.
Sports routines: Athletes across all sports benefit from routines - in training and competition. Routines, as the term suggests, helps us to be more routine, to do things again, to become more consistent. If every time we turned up to train and chose to do something different for a warm-up and for our session, progression is likely to be a bit random - maybe we'd progress, maybe we wouldn't. Having a warm-up routine, a pre-performance routine for training (or practice) and for competition, can lay a great foundation for performance and for being consistent. Likewise, having a routine for our nutrition can help us to fuel well, to keep on top of our energy stores, to reduce the chance of gut issues. If nutritional strategies weren't so routine, then maybe one day we'd have some water during competition, on another day energy drink, another day maybe a banana, or a banana every 5 minutes, or a pizza a half-time!
Sports superstitions or rituals: These are things that we do because we believe that they will help things go well, or the opposite, to avoid something bad happening. Examples can include eating some particular food before an event. It could be the need to wear certain clothing. It could be to communicate something to someone - perhaps by speaking to them or by text message. The thing which separates sports superstitions or rituals from the sports routines is that:
The majority of other athletes don't do them
Most coaches would not recommend them
Its really difficult to see how they can actually lead to a better performance
So why does an athlete engage in these behaviours? As I mentioned, it is because the athlete believes that it helps them to avoid something bad happening, or increases the chance that something good happens.
How do these behaviours get established? They start because a sportsperson wants to do well. When things go well, they try to work out why. Or, when things don't go well, they want to work out why. Often, an athlete isn't able to work out why. Athletes then have 2 options: to move on to something else, or to think of less obvious things. These less obvious things include anything that was done differently that could, perhaps, be linked to the good or bad performance. This is how athletes start to consider what brought them good luck or good performance, or bad luck and poor performance. They then decide to go out of their way to either repeat or avoid doing those things next time. Over time, it is difficult for most athletes to ditch any of these superstitions or rituals - "just in case" it makes a difference. What is more likely, is that if there is one superstition or ritual, soon later there will be another added or that the superstition or ritual will become more elaborate and convoluted.
So what's the problem? The problem is that these athletes are doing things that have no clear link with performance, but believe that they need to do them, so they become an inflexible part of an athlete's routine. Engaging in these behaviours can mean that the athlete has less time to do other things, that might actually contribute to a positive outcome for an athlete. Plus, if an athlete is prevented from engaging in these superstition or rituals - or can't wear their lucky item clothing - this then cause an increase in anxiety and agitation, along with a reduction in confidence and expectation of a good outcome. This can really harm the sports performance.
How's this like OCD? OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to give it it's longhand title, is an official psychological or psychiatric disorder, which causes significant difficulties for the person in life. The obsessive bit, is the thoughts that the sufferer has, that cause discomfort and anxiety, that we can't shake off. Often these thoughts concern something bad happening to oneself or others. The sufferer then has the urge to do something that they believe will reduce the chance of this bad thing happening and/or makes them feel better - less discomfort, anxiety, worry. Most other people, those of us without OCD, find it difficult to see how their compulsion actually reduces the chance of the feared bad event happening.
So, there are similarities between idiosyncratic superstitions or rituals and OCD. They differ in terms of the impact on functioning in life (or sporting life).
What is better and recommended then for athletes?
Routines are good, they help provide consistency in prep and performance. With them consider: do, or would, other athletes or coaches agree that these are good for you and other athletes to do?
Are your routines and your approach flexible to cope with different circumstances, without generating excessive anxiety or distress?
Finally, do you conduct a performance analysis after competition which is balanced and helpful, with opportunities to extract links between what you do and how things went?
Don't be a slave to superstitions or rituals. Develop flexibility in your approach, with an effort to include the important things. Ditch the behaviours that are a sideshow. If you can't do this alone, maybe you will want to get in touch so I can help you.
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