By Margie Sugarman
Margie Sugarman is a leading board-certified psychotherapist and sports consultant based in New York. Margie’s desire is to enhance performance through the connection between the mind and body, and her current client list includes Olympic, professional and amateur athletes across the country. Her experience employing various therapeutic modalities has helped equestrians win classics, junior medals and grand prix. Do you have a question you want Margie to answer? Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am starting to notice that I am displaying some signs of what I believe is not merely superstition, but possibly obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). As I show more, I am noticing my behaviors are becoming more intense. How can I work on this?
The real question is: Where does superstition stop helping and OCD begin? Perfectionism and obsessiveness tend to course through an athlete’s blood and does make them a little vulnerable. The obsessiveness in riding is good to a point; it feels good to train, to commit and to follow through with all the things that go along with riding.
On competition day, one’s performance is influenced by a slew of unpredictable variables ranging from how well one slept the night before to the order in which they compete. To compensate, some athletes develop strict routines or adopt superstitions. Some people knock on wood. Others wear a particular accessory, be it a pair of socks, belt or even shirt. Sometimes these accessories are even rotated, depending upon the class the rider is showing in that day.
Some of the symptoms of OCD can mimic superstitious behavior; however, a connection between the two has not been found.
According to Merriam-Webster, a superstition is “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.”
In order to label something OCD, the obsessions or compulsions must significantly impact one’s life and be present, in one form or another, most of the time.
We also have to remember that the National Institutes of Health defines OCD as “a common, chronic and long lasting disorder in which a person has uncontrollable, recurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors (compulsions) that he or she feels the urge to repeat over and over.”
Do you find yourself constantly questioning whether or not you locked the stall door and have to go back into the barn, numerous times, to confirm? Do you find yourself having to wash your hands, numerous times, to make sure all the dirt is off of them?
Do things have to be in perfect or symmetrical order, or else you feel uncomfortable? When you try to go to sleep at night, do you have mind chatter (thoughts in your head)?
Not all habits or rituals are compulsions. We all double-check things from time to time, especially in certain situations where something has to be right. The defining criteria are when one can’t control the thoughts or behaviors and they negatively impact one’s life. Obsessions and compulsions can, at times, be beneficial to an athlete.
However, when those behaviors carry over into other parts of life and begin to impact relationships and functioning, help should be sought.
Cognitive/behavioral therapy can be beneficial as can other methodologies. There are at least 200,000 new cases of OCD diagnosed every year. Seeking help can provide the tools for you to control it, rather than allowing it to control you.
Your horse will benefit from your “freer” spirit and you will enjoy your riding not being controlled by thoughts and behaviors that have no true meaning or benefit. So, put on your good luck socks, knock on some wood and enjoy your ride!