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September 10, 2018

Psychology in and Out of Sport

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BY: TRISTIN VAN ORD
Originally published on the Raleigh Distance Project Blog but we found it so valuable we also wanted to share. We can't thank you enough for sharing your story with us Tristin!

My RDP teammates and I recently had a session with sports psychologist, Dr. Swoap, while we were training in Asheville. I have struggled with anxiety and obsessive compulsive tendencies my entire life since my dad died when I was 4. The amount of professionals I have talked to has been countless, and going into our retreat weekend I thought that our session with Dr. Swoap would be just like all of the other professionals I have seen. Although the other professionals I have seen have been helpful, this visit with Dr. Swoap was pleasantly different. 


Being diagnosed with OCD as someone who has OCD is probably one of the hardest things to accept. It’s like a huge, bitter, non-perfect pill that you have to swallow, and then it feels like it’s stuck in your throat for hours. Except the bitter taste just stays there forever.

When I was about 10 years old I was officially diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I always knew that something had to be a little different about my brain and the way that it worked. I was constantly preoccupied with things that my peers seemed to never care about. I had to organize my stuffed animals a certain way before I went to bed. I had to tie my shoes about 4 different times before it “felt right.” Counting was a relief. “One, Two, skip a step, Three, four...bad thought...start over…” Turning the light switch on and off until I felt content was also a habit. Wasting time was something I thought was normal.

As a second grader, I would leave the classroom multiple times during the day to wash my hands until they were cracked and bleeding from dryness caused by the cheap antibacterial soap they stocked in the school bathrooms. In fifth grade I wouldn’t eat because I wanted to look like the perfect athlete. I would run a lap around the house for every gram of fat that I ate. One gram of fat equals sprinting around the perimeter of the house one time. As hard as I could. 2 grams, 2 laps. I was 12 years old. 

My mom, the world’s best nurse, finally thought that it was time I visit a psychologist to figure out what was wrong with me. 

Going to a doctor...literally the last thing that I wanted to do. 

Go in to see a specialist that would tell me I wasn’t perfect and that something was wrong with my brain...Not what I ever wanted to hear. 

I remember when my mother gave me confirmation that I did, in fact, have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder after talking to the psychologist. Seriously the last thing that someone with OCD wants to hear: that the chemicals in their brain are DISORDERED. Messed up. Chaotic.

BUT WHY?

Having OCD makes me OBSESS over having an explanation for everything. I need to make sense of why certain things “are the way they are” or why they happen. But it’s not just curiosity. It is legitimately obsessing over something like, “why did I get a cold this weekend?” Que the researching diseases for hours, taking my temperature 500 times, and walking through my activities for the last 3 days trying to figure out where and when I was exposed to the virus. 

But why do I have OCD? Did I do something wrong? Where did it come from? Can I get rid of it?

But throughout the therapy I also learned so many amazing and wonderful things about my OCD. It isn’t me, it’s just something I carry with me. And it can be a tool for the things I want to achieve and the things that I am passionate about. Don’t get me wrong, my life would be so much less exhausting and so much easier without it, but there is a positive spin that allows me to realize my life wouldn’t be the same without it.

My OCD makes me strive for the best. It makes it hard for me to take “no” for an answer. It helps me be the best human I can be. It’s something that will always be with me, but holding myself accountable for receiving help is something that has, and will, help me for the rest of my life. 

After my mother observing all of these obsessions and compulsions, it all hit me like I was some sort of crazy person. The shrinks. The doctors. The MRIs that were done so that the doctors could do studies on my imperfect brain. It effing sucked.

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So fast forward to our Asheville weekend. Just like any time that I have to confront my OCD and acknowledge it as a thing that is real, I was nervous going in to our meeting with Dr. Swoap. 

Psychologists intimidate me, and this time was no different.

Walking into the classroom with teammates WAS different though. I had yet to experience a session with others around me, and at first, it made me more nervous. 

Do I have to stand up and say uncomfortable things in front of my teammates?

What if they find out I’m a neurotic weirdo?

Do they already know I’m a neurotic weirdo?

Am I the only nervous one here?

At this point my teammates are probably laughing because looking back, I now know that I wasn’t the only one experiencing these feelings of doubt and anxiety. Facing the issues of negative thoughts and anxiety surrounding running isn’t unique. I’m not special in my thoughts of:

Is my heart going to stop while I’m running super fast?

Am I going to fail?

Am I going to run like shit and let my coach and teammates down?

So even though I do have diagnosed OCD, I have slowly come to realize that I’m actually not THAT much of a freak. These thoughts that I obsess over are common, even if I do dwell on them a little longer and more intensely than most people. 

OCD aside, as runners, a lot of us are a little obsessive...but that’s what makes us successful. Don’t push away your anxieties. Embrace them for what they are. Let the negative thoughts just pass right on through as you take steps forward towards your goals. 


P.S. If you are an athlete striving toward an important goal, I HIGHLY recommend seeing a sports psychologist. Whether individually or on a team, the tools that these professionals use are extremely helpful in pursuing your dreams. If you are on a team, try having a group session so you can figure out how to move forward together.

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