• Rituals and superstitions are common in sports. Professional athletes often have “lucky” trinkets they carry with them or particular routines they do on game-day. Michael Jordan famously wore a brand new pair of shoes each game he played. We can’t know for sure whether Michael Jordan believed that wearing a new pair of shoes harnessed magical energy that helped him play basketball or whether he just thought it was a fun tradition. But people who do not otherwise believe in “magic” often participate in rituals or superstitions like that. Fans wear rally caps or lucky shirts or socks all the time.

    Imagine that you tune in to your team’s game a bit late and they are behind. Once you start watching, they start to catch up and take the lead. You need to go to bed so that you can get up early for work the next day, but something tells you that if you stop watching now, your team might fall behind again. Logically, you know that watching the game doesn’t help your team win. But, it feels like it matters, and suspending your disbelief is part of what makes being a fan so much fun. It’s fun to feel like you have a role in your favorite team’s success.
    However, for some people, this magical thinking goes too far, taking the fun out of the game. For instance, what happens if an athlete realizes, come game-day, that he forgot his lucky pair of socks at home? Does he fixate on this, and spend so much time thinking about what might happen without his “lucky” socks, that he is unable to focus on the game? Maybe he plays badly that day, and thinks to himself, “See, I was right. If I don’t wear those socks; I play terribly.” The next time there’s an away game, he checks repeatedly the night before to make sure he packed his lucky socks. He begins to review a mental checklist and soon the list of things he needs to check for has grown. Before he knows it, every away game becomes an exhausting slog, filled with constant checking and too little sleep. He’s no longer able to truly enjoy away games, because these rituals have morphed into something else for this athlete. He’s developed Obsessive-Compulsive symptoms.

    Rituals, as understood through the OCD lens, are repetitive mental or physical behaviors an individual feels compelled to do, in order to prevent a feared consequence. In the above example, the athlete’s ritual is checking over and over again, to make sure he’s packed his “lucky” socks. There can be an element of magical thinking that accompanies OCD and makes rituals feel important, meaningful, and urgent. The athlete essentially treats his socks as if they are enchanted–and able to repel bad luck, enhance his performance, and change the outcome of the game. Magical thinking is detracting from this athlete’s ability to enjoy the game he loves.

    Rituals, superstitions, and even magical thinking aren’t always bad! (Although a baseline ability to consistently identify reality is important ;-)) Most people engage in rituals and indulge magical thinking from time to time. The important question to ask is–”Is this ritual working for me?” “Is this enhancing my ability to engage with the things I love or value in life?” Function matters. If the answer is “yes”, then you should definitely feel free to continue crossing your fingers, holding your breath, or eating the same meal before every game that your team plays. But, if the answer is “no”–if it feels like rituals consume your time and leave you feeling worse than before–then take heart; it does not have to be that way! Your brain can learn new ways to respond and to let go of rituals that are not bringing joy or meaning to your life. OCD treatment is very effective for most people and can help you reclaim the activities that you love.