What is OCD?

~3 minute read

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is one of the most common mental health challenges that athletes face. Despite its prevalence, OCD is often misunderstood and is tricky to spot in athletes because symptoms can closely resemble habits, rituals, and superstitions common in the athlete community. OCD isn’t just needing to wash your hands a lot or being afraid of germs. There are many different kinds of OCD and they can be around any kind of thought or fear, not just germs or orderliness.

Definition: OCD is characterized by unwanted and intrusive thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Compulsive behaviors are meant to decrease the distress caused by obsessive thoughts.

What are Obsessions?

Competitive athletes can be a bit obsessive when it comes to their sport. Maybe you refuse to skip practice even when you’re feeling tired or you insist on staying late to get in extra practice time. It’s admirable to be goal-oriented and have a strong work ethic, but if you notice that some of your thoughts won’t go away and are making you even more stressed out, then you might be dealing with obsessive thoughts. In OCD, obsessive thoughts are usually unpleasant and even though they make you anxious, you can’t quite get yourself to stop thinking about them.

Obsessive thoughts:

  • You can’t stop thinking over and over or get out of your head, even though you try very hard
  • Can seem very real, almost like your own thoughts
  • Are almost always creepy, scary, unsettling or gross
  • Give you a lot of doubt about things that are important to you
  • Keep telling you the same bad things every day, or keep changing all the time
  • Can seem weird and you’re not sure why you would think them



  • Fearfulness that you are going to die or get sick, no matter what you do
  • Concern that a loved one is going to end up getting sick, hurt, or killed
  • Worry that you have broken a rule and deserve to be punished severely for it
  • Fear of touching items because they are potentially dirty
  • Obsession with making sure that every object is placed in a certain, even, orderly manner
  • Worry that unless something is done in a specific order, it is going to lead to a bad outcome


What are Compulsions?

Athletes tend to engage in superstitious behavior, like wearing a certain pair of socks during game day or visualizing a skill a specific number of times during practice. It’s okay to have habits that you know help you feel your best, but if you feel like you need to do certain things until they feel “just right,” you might be dealing with compulsions. Behaviors that must be completed, “or else,” are often driven by fear and reflect a need for control.

Compulsions are often related to healthy behaviors, such as checking to see if the door is locked or double checking homework to make sure it’s fully complete and correct. However, these behaviors turn unhealthy when they become uncontrollable.

Common compulsions:

  • Having to wash or clean things in a certain way every time
  • Thinking phrases over and over again until it “feels right”
  • Having to erase and rewrite, redo, or re-read things in a certain manner multiple times
  • Repeating a certain word or phrase much more often than is necessary until it is said an exact number of times or in exactly the right way
  • Checking every door in the house multiple times to make sure that is locked or passing in and out of doors several times in a row
  • Inspecting every light in the house to make sure it is turned off before leaving
  • Checking each homework assignment a certain number of times to make sure it was done properly
  • Chewing each bite on each side of the mouth the same number of times
  • Having to place everything in a specific, even, symmetrical order
  • Counting all items and objects to certain good numbers to avoid unlucky numbers

Often, OCD tendencies result from a fear of losing control. If you’re looking to establish intentional habits in your daily life, think about ways to create healthy balance rather than firm expectations. For example, if you’d like to set a more consistent sleep schedule, it might be helpful to try to aim to fall asleep during a time window (10pm-10:45pm) rather than a specific time (10:15pm). This way, you’re giving yourself guidelines without limiting yourself. Black-and-white thinking can reinforce the tendencies that feed into OCD.


OCD causes athletes to engage in behaviors that interfere with their everyday lives. You might think that these habits help you feel less anxious, but engaging in compulsions actually reinforces unhealthy patterns. Even though it might feel like your thoughts and behaviors are on a loop you can’t control, there is treatment available for OCD. Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy is recommended for treating OCD. Check out our awesome network to find a Galea therapist who is trained to work with athletes who are experiencing OCD.


“IOCDF: OCD for Kids

McLean: Everything You Need To Know About OCD in Kids and Teens

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