Almanac Comment: When superstitions evolve





I don’t follow tennis these days, so a second round match at the Australian Open between the second seed Rafael Nadal and the American qualifier Michael Mmoh was never going to be on my radar.  However, an incident during this match did grab my attention, and I just could not let it slide.  The tournament has been completed and the circus has rolled on to the next destination, but some people may recall that this was the match where a (possibly intoxicated) fan was evicted for abusing Nadal.  The fan was alleged to have yelled “hurry up you OCD f***” as Nadal was preparing to serve.  There was a short interlude as the fan was removed and the game went on.  When questioned after the match, Nadal seemed as untroubled by the abusive fan as he was by Mmoh (6-1, 6-4, 6-2).  Nadal’s tournament continued with minimal disruption until he went down in five sets in the quarter finals.  However, a couple of South Australian fans could not resist taking a parting shot at Nadal and his routines in the letters to the editor in recent days.  Maybe Rafa is an online subscriber to The Advertiser?


This kind of scrutiny is not new for Nadal at the Australian Open.  In 2014, commentators Jim Courier and Lleyton Hewitt drew flak from an OCD specialist psychologist for highlighting and trivialising Nadal’s on-court (and locker room) routines.  Tellingly, this psychologist was most concerned with the distress that such mocking could cause sufferers of the disabling mental illness.


Cricket is more my scene.  Test cricket in particular, while acknowledging that T20 seems to be the direction the game is heading in.  Plenty of words have already been written about how prior to a BBL game earlier this season, commentators Shane Warne and Andrew Symonds took aim at Marnus Labuschagne and his mannerisms at the batting crease, unaware the cameras were rolling.  (Isn’t that covered in Broadcasting 101?)  The comments themselves and Warne’s response to the on-air gaffe were both pretty ordinary.  At least Symonds apologised.  I have great respect for what both men have achieved on the field.  Would I take advice from them on how to manage ADD or a similar disorder?  Based on this exchange, definitely not.


Steve Smith was spared a similar on-air attack, but that does not mean that people are not talking.  I have been involved in plenty of discussions in recent years where Smith has been diagnosed with OCD by the casual viewers.  I hear sentiments similar to the Warne-Symonds exchange expressed about Steve Smith anytime he hits a (rare) flat spot.  Then again, people say the same things when he gets on a roll and the runs are really flowing!  If Smith’s mannerisms are present whether he is making runs or not, perhaps it is something else that determines his success?


Cricket is a breeding ground for superstitions.  Players from the greats of the game all the way down to D-grade park cricketers are superstitious.  Most cricketers would have acted on some form of superstition, not all are significant or obvious.  Good luck to those that don’t.  But for some individuals, superstitions can evolve into OCD.


OCD is not about bouncing a tennis ball a certain number of times before serving, or undoing and fastening one’s gloves between each ball, or putting things in a certain order, or even cleaning for that matter (there are some OCD sufferers who hate cleaning).  These behaviours can be present in sufferers of OCD, but in themselves are not necessarily symptoms or indicators of OCD.  The psychologist mentioned earlier in the piece suggested that Nadal’s behaviours could just be a manifestation of the control that athletes seek to get.  In any competitive sport you feel much more comfortable when you feel that you are controlling the situation.


OCD and the behaviours that come with it are an attempt to control anxiety.  To get technical for a moment, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterised by repetitive unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and irrational, excessive urges to do certain actions (compulsions).  People with OCD may know that their thoughts and behaviours do not make logical sense, yet they are unable to stop them.


There are people who have OCD and nobody knows they got it.  Even sportspeople.  If you are not familiar with AFL footballer Wayne Schwass, I urge you to check out his story from the 1996 AFL Grand Final.  OCD can come on gradually to the extent that the sufferer often does not notice when their superstitions and mannerisms have morphed into OCD.  I use the term ‘sufferer’ when referring to OCD because to have OCD generally means that one suffers in one way or another.  Even those that have overcome it can still be susceptible to relapse.


A US study found it was taking people an average of 17 years from the time OCD begins for people to obtain appropriate treatment.  This is the time from it first appearing (often unnoticed), beyond the time that the sufferer admits to themselves that they need help, to the time they then work up the courage to seek help.  As with any mental illness, admitting to a medical professional that you have OCD, and then outlining the symptoms, can be extremely confronting.  Sharing with friends and family can be harder still.


There are any number of people walking the streets and in the workplace who are dealing with OCD.  You do not know it because they are going to great lengths to disguise it, to hide from it from view.  A sufferer of OCD is unlikely to ‘out’ themselves.  So, a sufferer of OCD is unlikely to willingly perform their compulsions in full view of the public (or on national TV).  When you know something does not make sense there is often a sense of shame attached to performing the compulsions.


The point I am endeavouring to make is that most people do not understand OCD or anxiety.  Even those who have studied it for years often do not possess the intimate knowledge that comes through lived experience. (But the professionals do have the tools to try and help sufferers overcome it.)  So, if you don’t understand something, you should either educate yourself on it or steer clear of it.  If you are watching Rafael Nadal and you feel the need to call him ‘OCD’, just be aware that he may not have it but the person sitting nearby does.  If you don’t like watching Nadal play on TV, turn it off.  If the mannerisms of a Marnus Labuschagne or Steve Smith annoy you, too bad.  The scoreboard doesn’t record how, just how many.


OCD and ADD are not to be used as insults or jokes.  They are serious disorders that many decent people are working hard to overcome.  Just think about that before next summer.



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Dour opener and close-checking fullback. Peaked early.


  1. I think this is a timely reminder. Thanks for your piece Greg – and welcome to the Almanac.

  2. Thanks John, happy to be on board.

    Mental health is a topic that is close to my heart.

    In yesterday’s local paper I read that there has been a surge in children with OCD triggered in part by the COVID-19 virus and disruption to routines. Experts believe that it was likely these children were predisposed to the condition but it could then have been triggered by fears about hygiene, losing normal routines or being isolated at home where parents could notice compulsive behaviours.

    I read in The Advertiser today about the Adelaide military mum fighting the Federal Government for a Royal Commission into the rising suicide rate among former military personnel. Her son took his life two years ago. He would have been 41 last month.

    I also read that Melbourne scientists believe they are on the verge of developing blood and saliva tests able to help prevent significant long-term brain damage in Australian rules footballers. Graham “Polly” Farmer, Shane Tuck and Danny Frawley all suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which can only be diagnosed by examining the brain after death.

    I had been ‘sitting’ on this story for a few days but reading the outcome of the Coroner’s investigation into Danny Frawley’s death gave me the impetus needed to get it out there.

  3. I’m a big fan of Rafa; his tennis is the pinnacle of everything I tried to be as a junior once I got over my brief flirtation with serve-volleying (though I’ll never lose my love for the net in doubles). He has also always struck me as an overall kind and humble champion – without much affectation.

    An older relative of mine has always despised him for his mannerisms, which are put in the basket of ‘moral failing’ and/or ‘exhibitionism’. This has only made me admire him more, however.

    Thank you for this forever timely piece; we can always do with a bit more understanding in the world.

  4. Thanks Jarrod.

    I was more a serve-volleyer in the Bjorn Borg mould. Well, I was quiet and had a wooden racquet and really short shorts. Could neither serve nor volley.

  5. No worries Greg.

    At least you looked the part – did you sport the flowing locks and headband combo too?

  6. Nah, couldn’t get the locks to flow as long as Borg’s. They just grew super thick and wouldn’t fit a headband.
    Did my best work against the side wall at home. Only problem was that if I was Borg then the wall got to be McEnroe. Just couldn’t seem to get anything past him!

  7. Michael Nichols says

    I enjoyed your article, Greg, and I vow to be careful to look behind the disparagement. Tennis really seems to invite crude psychological observations. I mean I used to dislike Rafa just because he was dour where Roger was kind-looking, but I’ve come to the view he’s one of the good guys. I guess while Courier is Tennis Australia’s guest psychoanalyst he’ll keep serving up the steady stream of lazy generalisations for us. As for the cricketers, anyone who can rattle that pop psychology guru Justin Langer gets my vote. I still chuckle about Labuschagne’s toasted sandwich. Oh, and Symonds’ invective was seriously scary, wasn’t it?

  8. Thanks Michael.

    I guess that tennis, cricket and golf all invite these crude psychological observations because the stakes are high for those playing at the top levels and at the point of action it is purely you against your opponent (or the course). I liken it a bit to football where a player can have immaculate foot skills around the ground, but stick them 30m out from goal with a set shot and all of a sudden they tighten up. Tennis players and batsmen face this scenario in every contest. Nadal has 20 majors so he must be doing something right! We are not going to like everyone, but for me it is a case of the old ‘play the ball and not the man’.

    I enjoy watching Labuschagne play, Smith as well. Not just because they make runs, but because they are entertaining to watch. Even when they around battling to runs, it is not always pretty, but they stay in the contest. Labuschagne and his sandwich was gold, and if that’s what he needs to do to keep averaging 60+ then one of the myriad of support staff should be making toasties for him in every break! Do whatever it is that you need to do to perform at your best.

    Symonds’ comments were scary, especially from a guy who is being paid to talk. It made me think of a number of SA footballers of the 70’s and 80’s who have now succumbed to mental health issues (and the others that have overcome them). Blokes who appeared tough on the outside but were struggling inside at one point or another. Too many of them came through this type of team/male/club culture.

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