Wednesday, January 25, 2017

OCD or self-calming rituals?

In his autobiography, Rafa has denied any engagement in superstitious behavior.  He also denied using his rituals to intentionally waste time by giving himself a breather.  He refuted any notion of engaging in these quirks in order to deliberately irritate and thereby distract his opponents.  Instead, he described his rituals as mechanisms to help him focus on tennis.  His rituals serve the purpose of keeping him mentally balanced and sharp.

What others see as irritating quirks, Rafa described as what I would label efforts at self-calming or self-soothing.  The psychobabble term for this is ‘emotional grounding’.  Grounding rituals are activities that individuals repeat with the exclusive goal of getting themselves in the right mindset in order to perform their best. 


Grounding rituals are useful in many situations, not just performance-related ones.  For example, individuals suffering from bad nightmares associated with combat trauma may use grounding rituals to help them to reduce anxiety and terror.  When awakened by a nightmare, the individual can be instructed to sit up in bed, plant their feet on the floor, and repeat out loud: “I’m sitting on my bed; my feet are on the floor; I’m breathing in and out”, over and over until the anxiety passes and the ghosts of the past release them.  That is a grounding ritual, intended to help manage anxiety.  
For Serena then, staying grounded means bouncing the ball five times before the first serve and twice before the second.  An emotionally grounded Serena showed up for her match yesterday against Johanna Konta, tennis’ next it-girl.  A grounded Serena visibly maintained her composure and didn’t stumble – both physically and emotionally. Her rituals helped her to maintain this mental equilibrium.

For Rafa, maintaining mental equilibrium starts with picking his ass.  Freud would of course have had a field day with that, and would insist that we examine Rafa’s childhood for clues of traumatic potty training.  The good news is that most of Freud’s theories have been so thoroughly discredited that we need not look into Rafa’s parents’ child-rearing practices for explanations of his rituals.  We need only look at the lack of any significant changes in Rafa’s life.

Rafa’s life is characterized by sameness.  He has had the same uncle/coach since the start of his career.  He’s been dating the same girlfriend since 2005.  (That reflects more stability than most marriages.)  Very little in Rafa’s life has changed over the years.  The one period of change – when his parents reportedly separated – coincided with a sharp decline in his performance.  Their reported eventual reconciliation seemed to coincide with a happier and more focused player.  Rafa thrives on stability, and his quirks and rituals seem to be a reflection of that.  Removing them may do more harm than good.

OCD rituals, superstitious practices, and grounding rituals all serve the goal of helping the person to manage and control anxiety.  But superstition can end up keeping you feeling desperate, while OCD rituals always result in dysfunctional behavior.  Grounding rituals, on the other hand, have the result of helping the person remain calm, focused, and effective. 


My problem with Rafa’s grounding rituals is that they simply take up too much time.  In this, they often border on the margin of dysfunction associated with OCD rituals.  He is lucky that so many Chairs seem to have compassion for the stress he must be under, because, as he stands there picking and sniffing, they clearly all hesitate to call “Time”.

(Part 2 of 2)

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