By: Jocelyn Schwalm
The phenomenon of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or O.C.D. involves repeating a behavior obsessively in order to get rid of unwanted thoughts or urges. The psychological disorder typically accompanies anxiety disorders and can manifest itself in many ways, but who knew that this illness can be extremely prominent in professional athletes.
It seems that the higher the stakes the more important the rituals are to these athletes. Some psychologists are even beginning to admit that for some athletes, these rituals positively impact their performance.
Famous tennis player, Serena Williams, is no stranger to this kind of ritualistic behaviour, as it has been reported. She always bounces the tennis ball approximately 5 times before hitting it and wears the same pair of socks to each match. Author Stuart Vyse has spoken about this phenomenon in his book and states that the rituals themselves have no effect over the athletes’ performance, but the sense of confidence and false power over a situation that they instill, does. It appears that the stronger the sense of false control these athletes have, the better the results.
Professional sports teams, such as National Hockey League teams, have widely known quirks as well. Starting in the 1980s, NHL players have refused to shave their faces during the playoffs. The ritual is so well-known throughout the hockey community it has been warmly coined the playoff beard. This is just one example of behaviour that is widely recognised and accepted by an entire institution. Corey Perry, a professional hockey player has an 8-step routine that he must perform prior to each NHL game. It is extremely precise and contains a specific dressing routine, the need to tap the ice before shooting the puck and twirling his stick in order to gain the illusion of control.
George Gmelch, a professor of anthropology at The University of San Francisco, says that these rituals are most important in times of high uncertainty, not unlike the uncertainty felt by professional athletes before they are set to perform. It is a way for them to foster confidence within themselves that gives them the courage to perform to the best of their ability. As humans, we go to extreme lengths to protect ourselves against things we cannot control to ease our worried minds. In this case the illusion that we create tranforms into a self-fulfilling prophecy as the more control that we perceive we have, the better we are able to psychologically trick ourselves into believing that because of a certain ritual, luck is on our side.
It may sound crazy to most, but instead of acting as a hindrance, the rituals carried out by these athletes have actually helped their performance. These findings offer insight into the power of self-belief and the impact it can have on the self and performance. This just shows the power of thought in times of uncertainty and how confidence can lead to a better outcome, regardless of skill.