Thursday, January 19, 2017

OCD or just superstitious?

I’m watching the Australian Open and enjoying every moment of the brilliance of so many of these tennis players, talented newbies as well as rejuvenated Old Farts.  Yes, I hope that Serena doesn’t get too distracted by pending marital bliss to not hoist another trophy and make some more herstory. 

And no, I am not surprised that Isner and Djokovic have been bounced.  Isner’s continued reliance on a serve and a forehand will only help him to make pointless history for long-assed matches against journeymen.  And Djokovic needs to take a second look at his diet.  For someone who has become the health guru of the tennis world, dude seems to be bordering on anorexic, and had the low energy to match.  Kudos to Istomin and his mommy/coach.

But I got up particularly early this morning to watch the match between Rafael Nadal and Marcos Bhagdatis.  I wanted to see if Rafa was back.

As expected, much of the commentary focused on Rafa’s compulsive and obsessive rituals.  Yes I have been guilty of making fun of Rafa’s ass picking in the past, but this morning I watched with genuine compassion for someone who may be struggling with a serious mental health challenge.  Rafa is showing signs of significant stress – he is losing his hair and dude looks ragged.  Something seems off.  




The question often asked is whether Rafa demonstrates symptoms of an obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Having never met him, I cannot make this diagnosis.  But after years of watching his rituals, conducted in the same relentless sequence, I get why people have been speculating in this direction.

And yet an important component of an OCD diagnosis is that the symptoms must cause functional impairment.  In other words, the person checks and rechecks to see if the door is locked so many times, that they end up late for work; this occurs with such frequency that they end up getting fired.  Or the germaphobe repeatedly washes his hands in hot hot water to kill germs that he is convinced are there, rubbing his skin so raw that it bleeds, and yet washing some more.  That is called functional impairment.

For Rafa, the area of functioning that most of us care about is his ability to play tennis.  I see no evidence that his rituals – as painful as they may be to observe – have come in the way of his playing his game.  On the contrary, it is Rafa’s injuries that have interfered with his physical functioning, not his rituals.

Another speculation is that Rafa’s rituals represent mere superstition. In this argument, Rafa is seen as really no different from say Lleyton Hewitt who once wore the same nasty sweat-stained cap for days during a winning streak, so convinced was he that it was his lucky talisman.  A lot of sports players have superstitions that they likely know deep inside to be silly but follow them anyway.  Like Serena who reportedly uses the same shower before her matches, and wears the same socks for matches.


But is there a difference between Hewitt’s desperate clinging to a lucky cap, and Rafa’s rigid repetition of his rituals? I think there is.  To me, the lucky cap thing is all about superstition.  You can tell when a behavior is superstitious because the player comes to believe that there is a mystical connection between the behavior and a desired outcome.  Rafa has quite intelligently challenged any reliance on superstition, pointing out quite rightly that he follows the same rituals whether he wins or loses.

(Part 1 of 2)

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