How often do we question why an athlete performs the same pre-competition routine, or carries out the same number of reps during training? These may simply be harmless superstitions and routines, however, they do potentially have the ability to manifest into something detrimental to performance.

The question remains as to whether it is the ritualistic and repetitive behaviours that athletes are regularly exposed to that potentially cause the onset of this debilitating condition.

What is OCD?

OCD is considered to be an extremely crippling and debilitating disorder and causes extreme psychological distress for the sufferer. It has been a topic of extensive research in psychology with Antony et al. (1998) stating that 80% of people in the general population will experience obsessions and compulsions from time to time. Obsessions are unwanted thoughts, images or urges that repeatedly occur despite efforts in trying to resist them. These thoughts may include recurrent doubts about whether actions are being performed correctly, this often leads to an impairment in functioning as a result and can cause significant anxiety and distress for the individual.

Are Athletes at Risk?

However, Obsessive and compulsive behaviours in athletic populations is a largely under researched area in the literature. It is not uncommon for us to witness top athletes adhering to rituals and superstitious behaviours which they may be using in a bid to control their anxiety. However, examining the type of mental states that it takes for a sprinter to burst out of the blocks at just the right moment or to dive perfectly in unison with another person has proven difficult.

With such precision required, are athletes more prone to developing OCD than the general population? Dr. Judy L. Van Raalte (a Springfield University sports psychologist who works with college and professional athletes) believes that athletes are not quite prone to the development of the crippling disorder, but the perfectionism and obsessiveness that tends to make up their personalities does leave them vulnerable to the onset of these behaviours. “That obsessive compulsive person is awesome up to a point. You’re willing to train, to commit, and it feels comfortable to you, it doesn’t tire you out” stated Dr. Raalte. However, just like anyone else, athletes do have weaknesses that can be triggered by stress, a theory known as the diathesis-stress model of mental illness. Elite athletes confront distinct, sport-specific challenges, which can wreak mental havoc when presented in moments of extreme pressure.

Research that has been conducted in this area has regarded over-exercising and obsessive compulsive tendencies:

– Kagan (1987) compared chronic joggers on the compulsiveness inventory scale with the results indicating that the frequency of jogging was positively associated with a compulsive profile.

– Davis (1997) highlighted that high personal standards in perfectionism pose a risk for compulsive exercise.

Although it remains to be seen how this relationship transfers to athletes, as for exercisers, control may be a key factor. However, the role of anxiety may be more highly associated with that of the athlete as they are often under greater pressure to perform.

High-Profile Examples

In the past, there has been talk of several cases of top-tier athletes having to withdraw from Olympic competitions due to debilitating OCD symptoms (Aldhous, 2009). For example, the high profile case of Canadian diver Kelly MacDonald is an example of how these routine obsessions and compulsions can inevitably wreak havoc with an athlete’s career. It was originally reported that MacDonald had been “side-lined with injuries” when she appeared absent from the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. However, in 2009, it was revealed that obsessive-compulsive disorder had prevented her from competing and that her pre-dive routine of “clearing her throat, tapping her leg and blinking at certain steps on her approach had eventually left her stuck on the diving board, unable to calm down.” Ironically, MacDonald’s actions were likely to have been beneficial at some point, hence making it difficult for her coaches to spot the problem.

There is a lot about a sport that is out of the athlete’s control, this can be influenced by a variety of unpredictable factors, from how well they slept the night before, to the order in which they compete. In order to compensate, some athlete’s may develop strict routines or adopt superstitions, which can provide some familiarity and comfort and help them to control their pre-competitive nerves. A famous example is that of grand slam tennis queen Serena Williams, who believes that much of her winning ways are the result of closely followed routines. These quirks include tying her shoelaces a specific way, along with bouncing the ball five times before her first serve and twice before her second. However, it is only when an athlete’s rituals begin to interfere with their daily life and training that obsession has drifted into dangerous territory.


An obsessive nature may keep an athlete training after others call it a day, yet it is these traits that may also be beneficial in helping to keep anxiety under control during extreme pressure situations. However, a vital question that needs to be addressed is when is it that these traits veer into illness and become of a destructive nature to the athlete as opposed to being advantageous.

It is vital for coaches and sports psychologists working closely with athletes to keep an eye out for any obsessive or compulsive behaviours that may be getting a little out of hand in order for intervention to take place before they begin to have an adverse effect on performance or perhaps in the daily living of the athlete.