If you’ve ever seen tennis pro Rafael Nadal in action on the court, it’s difficult to miss the many rituals the nine-time grand slam winner engages in at each and every tournament. He lines up his water bottles with the labels always facing the same way. He wipes himself with a towel in the same pattern after every point (right arm, then left arm, then face). He bounces the ball a certain number of times, sometimes more then 70, before finally raising his racket to serve…and more.
Game-time superstitions are nothing new in the high pressure world of professional sports, of course. But with Nadal back in the spotlight as he snags a top 5 seed in this year’s Wimbledon tournament, set to start next week (Nadal won in 2008 and 2010), a renewed focus on the sports star have some asking, does Nadal have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)?
OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent, obsessive and/or anxiety-provoking thoughts followed by repetitive, compulsive behaviors meant to control or ease the anxiety of these thoughts. In the United States, it’s estimated that obsessive compulsive disorder affects over 2 million adults. Levels of OCD can be anywhere from mild to severe, and if severe and left untreated, the disorder can interfere with the person’s capacity to function at work, at school, or at play. According to the World Health Organization, OCD is one of the top 20 causes of illness-related disability, worldwide, for individuals between 15 and 44 years of age.
Among professional athletes, the disorder affects many in the sports world, including soccer star David Beckham, who has spoken candidly in the past about his OCD, and Canadian diving champion Kelly MacDonald, who was sidelined at the Beijing Olympics due to her OCD. In MacDonald’s case, what began as a brief series of actions to gain “control” over her anxiety before diving — clearing her throat, tapping her leg and blinking at certain steps on her approach on the diving board — eventually stopped working, leaving her stuck on the diving board, unable to calm down.
When asked about his emotional state in a high stakes tournament, Nadal has admitted to bouts of severe anxiety. “On the tennis courts, maybe on the outside I look fearless, but on the inside, I’m scared,” he once said. Another time he stated: “I think fear is a part of life.”
However, when asked if the repetitive courtside rituals are a symptom of OCD, Nadal conferred with his publicist before cautiously answering. “It is something you start to do that is like a routine. When I do these things it means I am focused, I am competing—it’s something I don’t need to do but when I do it, it means I’m focused.”
Nadal does freely admit to another anxiety-related issue, though: phobias. “I am afraid of a lot of things,” Nadal admits. “A dog. I could be afraid of a dog that’s upset, for example.” Arachnophobia is an issue, too. “I hate spiders,” Nadal once blogged on The Times website during the Australian Open. “Not sure if it is frightened [sic] but agggggg. Thank God I have not seeing [sic] any here. We are in Melbourne so no creepy creature where we are.”
Nadal also professes to having an irrational fear of the dark. “Being home alone at night makes me a bit nervous,” he told Vogue magazine. “If I’m at home I have to sleep on the sofa. I can’t face going to bed. I’m there with the TV on and all the lights on. I’m not very brave about anything in life. In tennis, yes. In everything else, not very.”
In MacDonald’s case, the diver received treatment and learned relaxation techniques and other coping skills to better deal with her anxious thoughts before diving. At Wimbledon next week, many eyes will be on Nadal to see how he plans to keep his calm between shots.