Danish ATP player Kenneth Carlsen on coping with his undiagnosed Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

From Ekstra Bladet http://ekstrabladet.dk/flash/dkkendte/article4317153.ece by Alan Lykke (2008)

Without ever being diagnosed with the disorder, the now retired tennis player is convinced that he at least had the symptoms of OCD for most of his career.

OCD is described medically as a condition with forced thoughts and actions. Definite rituals must be performed exactly if the day isn’t to be ruined.

For Kenneth Carlsen, the goal was to win tennis matches, and out of fear of losing he developed a pattern of behaviour, originally meant as a safety net, but which, over time, became a plague that he only managed to control late in his career.

Most people interested in tennis have seen his serving rituals. First he rolled two balls in one hand, then put one into his pocket with the one hand, then he stuck the other in his pocket, adjusted the strings on his racquet, blew into his hand, and bounced the ball before hitting his serve.

But this regular pattern, which he considered a thinking pause while he considered where to place the serve, was just one of many even worse rituals that ended up plaguing him, he wrote in his book Alene på banen [Alone on the Court] which was published at the end of September 2008.

Hopes to break down taboos

“I’ve included the mania in my book in the hope of breaking down some taboos. There’s a lot of superstition in sports. We need to always perform, we’re always judged. That’s why a lot of athletes – but many others also – have a some fixed things they do in a given situation. Or else they think it will end badly.

“I imagine we all have it to a certain extent, and I open myself up to such a degree in the book that people might get the impression that I should be committed.”

The mania started as a young player, when Kenneth Carlsen rode the bus back and forth from his home on Amager to his club in Frederiksberg. To pass the time he started to say aloud the names of the shops he rode past – but in different ways. Fona became Nafo, Matas to Tamas, Gammel Kongevej to Vejkongen Melgam.

Started as an innocent game

“It started as an innocent game, but as the pressure mounted, the game changed in character. First it became serious, then an absolute necessity, and at the end it became a plague I couldn’t escape from,” writes Carlsen.

He had to sleep exactly eight hours every night, the water bottle had to be placed in a special way, the towel folded according to a definite pattern. If it didn’t feel right, he might turn around and walk back to adjust it, even if he’d just got up to go back onto the court to resume the match.

His sports bag got the same careful treatment. It couldn’t just be picked up from the floor and slung around the shoulder. No, it had to be done carefully and correctly. Four times while Kenneth counted to four each time. If there was a cock up, he had to do it four times four – 16 – times.

Trouble with the bag almost cost him an ATP tournament win.

“The supervisor got me back onto the court where my opponent stood and waited. I half panicked. I didn’t feel I’d done the bag ritual properly. I was beside myself, but I ended up playing fantastic and winning the match.”

Couldn’t you have put yourself outside the rituals when you won without them?

“That’s easier said than done. When you’ve already stressed yourself up totally it can be hard to let go.”

How did you get out of it?

“I did it during my 19 month injury pause in 1999. I got a healthier perspective about my job. I got out of the bell jar, was allowed to live stress-free. I could relax, drink a glass of red wine in the evening and go into town with friends. I didn’t touch a racquet for six months. The I came back and won my biggest ever tournament in Tokyo.”

And that was without the rituals?

“Yes, I didn’t want to return to the bell jar. If the problem returns, and it does from time to time, I nip it in the bud.”

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