Sunday, June 5, 2011

How OCD ruined my potential tennis career

I step up to the line, ball in hand, bounce it a few times – probably four – and make a conscious effort to push uncomfortable thoughts out of my head. My mind feels as though it is balanced finely on the edge of stable footing and anxious free-fall, torn in two equally destructive directions – to drive myself insane trying to maintain a sense of stability or let go and plummet into the black depths of my fears.

As I pour mental energy and focus into keeping intrusive, distracting, anxiety-inducing thoughts out, I simultaneously feel a strong urge to let go and have them flood into my head. The desire to give in is immense – and has a rational basis, but one I do not have time to explore at this moment to attain the certainty necessary to follow that path.

I bounce the ball four more times in a ritualistic attempt to clean the slate, start the mental process again and approach this with a clear, focused mind.

I throw the ball in the air, lose my mental grip and have a troubling thought about wanting the devil to help me win this point (at various stages of my life a terrifying thought). Anxiety shoots out in all directions from my stomach and I’m still in the process of serving the ball. My mind is jerked away from the process of delivering it cleanly and precisely to my opponent and the ball flies horribly off-target.

This is what playing tennis has been like for me for much of my life, with the subject of the anxiety shifting in accordance with whatever was my main obsession at the time. I played regular competition tennis from the age of around ten until about 18 months ago. It wasn’t always that bad – and I did actually win plenty of points too – but that’s an example of the things that would be going through my mind while my teammates and opponents had the (frankly, unfair) advantage of focusing on the game. Efforts to avoid such situations and keep my mind on track were just as distracting as when I succumbed to troubling thoughts.

On the whole, I like tennis. But I found it terribly difficult mentally, and entirely unenjoyable, at times when I didn’t have my obsessive thinking under control – whether it was thoughts based around religion, health or any of the various other issues of recurring concern.

Tennis has been unique in this way. Let me chase a basketball or football around – in organised competition or leisurely play – and I generally found it pretty easy to focus. Those activities offer great distractions, even circuit-breakers to get my mind out of a negative cycle of thoughts, and provide fresh perspective once I’m finished, untainted by whatever anxiety may have been eating at me beforehand. Even golf, which tests my patience and ability to clear my mind, still doesn’t demand the continual focus that tennis does in a way that doesn’t come naturally to me. Precision and measured restraint haven’t tended to be my thing, I’d rather go hell-for-leather chasing a ball! Maybe why my ability to chase down shots is my best, and only reliable, strength in tennis!

However, my more-social-than-competitive tennis team has been on potentially permanent hiatus for the past 18 months.

I remember dreading the Wednesday night matches most weeks. – checking the Bureau of Meteorology website repeatedly throughout the day in the hope of a washout, and spending the couple of hours between work the match trying desperately to get my head into a rational, clear, free-flowing state. There were few places I felt more vulnerable to my thoughts than on the tennis court. Sometimes I saw this as an opportunity to push along my recovery, sometimes it scared me.

Three main factors were at play: the self-fulfilling fear of unwanted thoughts causing anxiety, the constant breaks in play that allow time to ponder, and the feeling of entrapment that I couldn’t get away and find the space to think through and rationalise my fear as I could in many other situations. So if I had a thought that caused concern, I had to keep it in the back of my mind to address at the end of the night.

On nights where I was particularly anxious and affected by these thoughts it completely consumed my thinking. For sports like tennis and golf that require a particularly high degree of precision, I’m know I’m not alone in my performance being inextricably tied to my headspace and ability to clear it. So when it did consume me I played particularly badly, struggled to keep score, and was distant.

Ironically, I could have a good game of basketball if my precision in terms of shooting was off by contributing in other ways (endeavour and hussle!!), but again, I find it much easier to focus my mind purely within the boundary of the court for the entire 40 minutes when I play. That still doesn’t mean my shooting is much good.

I spent a weekend in Warrnambool a few years ago with a few friends, where we played in the annual club championships. It was here I suffered my most embarrassing bout of nerve-related anxiety. When my doubles partner and I were informed that our low-grade, first round doubles match would be played on the second most prominent court, in view of hundreds of people, I may as well have given up on the spot. We lost 6-1 I think (I think Warren and I were able to put together a game where he hit a few winners and I avoided the ball enough to win it). I barely hit two shots into play for the whole set. I also hit multiple serves not just outside the service box, but over the fence and onto adjacent courts. That is, I did so multiple times in one service game.

I hurried off court and back to our hotel, drank a bottle of whiskey and drafted my a media release announcing my retirement. We were all able to laugh about it later on – almost immediately actually – some more than others.

Last week in my first competitive match since taking big steps forward with my OCD over the past 6-12 months, I played one of the best games I’ve played in years. Being placed back in an environment that I associate closely with that anxiety did affect me a little, and would have previously set me on a slippery slope down into mental chaos. However, I accepted the mild anxiety and dealt with it pretty well.

I was pretty pleased with myself, and it was another marker of the progress I’ve made.

So, yeah… the point of this post is pretty much ‘Yay me!’ :o)

ps. The result of last week's match is unimportant.

pps. No I never really wanted a tennis career. How tedious.

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