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  • Catherine Benfield

Coaching Children and Young People with OCD

Updated: Dec 8, 2023


Cat in her coaching clothes, holding a ball with Olivia playing football in the background

Hey everyone! I know people new to my blog will be reading this so here's a little background. My name is Catherine Benfield, I'm a qualified primary school teacher with over twenty years experience of teaching in schools across East London, with specialisms in Special Educational Needs and Inclusion. I am an FA qualified football coach and have coached young people across a number of sports including football and netball. I've experienced OCD since early childhood and although in recovery now, I still need to do the work to make sure I stay in recovery. My years in advocacy have taught me that there is a real lack of information for people teaching or coaching children and young people with OCD - I hope to address that here!


So buckle up, here's a one- stop-shop of things you need to know about coaching young people with OCD. I hope it helps.



Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a condition surrounded by misconception and trivialization. In reality, it’s an extremely debilitating condition that can be difficult to spot and can have extremely challenging consequences for the young sportsperson. If you work with young people, the chances are you have trained, or taught, someone with OCD.


What is OCD?


In order to understand how OCD affects the young sportsperson, it’s important to know how OCD works. OCD can be a difficult condition to spot because it presents in many different ways and it’s notoriously difficult to try to explain succinctly and clearly… but let’s give it a go!


In its most basic form, you need to know that OCD is an anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder that is characterised by obsessions and compulsions.




What are obsessions?


Obsessions are often referred to as unwanted recurring intrusive thoughts. These thoughts are usually based on fears, anxieties and/or doubts that the young person is experiencing. The thoughts are sudden, unwanted, upsetting and, for young people with OCD, can feel almost impossible to stop. These obsessional thoughts can be experienced by the young person as either images, urges, bodily sensations and commands, but we tend to put all of this under the one umbrella name of ‘intrusive thoughts’ to keep things simple.


Obsessions cause a great deal of distress because they often center around the things the young person holds most dear. That’s loved ones, friends, oh and if they’re a young sportsperson - their sports teams, coaches, competing… can you see where this is heading? Hold on, I’ll pick up this point a little later on!


It's worth noting here that many people experience intrusive thoughts - it’s a part of the human experience, but people with OCD find them particularly upsetting and impactful.


What are compulsions?


OCD is a condition that hates uncertainty so in order to reduce the anxiety and distress caused by obsessions - and thereby attempting to make certain these fears and the content of the intrusive thoughts don’t happen - young people with OCD carry out compulsions. These can be either internal mental rituals, or external behaviours and physical actions.


We’ve all seen the OCD trope of people flicking light switches on and off, right? Or colour coordinating their books on a book shelf? Well, that can be OCD too, but the condition goes much further than that. When looking at OCD, why someone is doing something, is way more important than what they’re doing. Compulsions can relate to the specific theme of the obsession (for example, repeatedly checking the locks on the door so a ‘bad person’ can’t get into the house) or they can be completely unrelated (performing counting rituals or repeating sentences internally so a ‘bad person’ can’t get into the house).


Sadly, the relief of having carried out a compulsion is only felt momentarily, and very soon the young person will find themselves wanting to repeat the compulsion again and again – they have now entered the OCD cycle. An OCD cycle is a state where the compulsions drive the obsessions and obsessions drive the compulsions. It doesn't take long for the symptoms to intensify to the point where daily life is seriously impeded.



OCD in Sports


So, let’s talk about OCD in a sporting context and how it may affect the children you are working with. Although physical exercise and team sports are an excellent way of helping children and young people manage their mental health; with all the excitement, nervousness, passion and adrenaline, sports can also prove to be the perfect storm for OCD.


The child with OCD that you are training will be going through a ton of challenges away from their time with you. Even if you are not seeing direct signs at training, the type of environment you set for them makes the world of difference. You can give feedback, and develop your young people as successful athletes in a kind, supportive and safe environment. These young people need to know they can trust you. It’s also always good to make sure you are up to date with any additional safeguarding and training on top of the compulsory set of expectations.


A young person with OCD may experience obsessions and compulsions throughout training. Again, some may relate directly to training while others may only impact it.


Examples of obsessions:


  • Intrusive thoughts and ‘what if?’ sentences such as: What if we lose this game and I get blamed? What if I hurt someone? What if my parent gets hurt in the car coming to pick me up? What if I don’t score the right number of goals?


  • Thoughts in image form such as: Parents hurt in car crash, someone injured in a game, people being mean to someone else, a look of disappointment on the coach’s face.


  • Moving images: Scenes playing out of worries and fears.


  • Doubts in thought form: What if I lose my mind and I hurt someone on purpose? Deliberate harm is a very common theme for intrusive thoughts in OCD and causes a lot of distress for the people who experience them. Don’t be alarmed if you hear someone with OCD talking about this – remember it is an anxiety disorder that hates uncertainty. OCD can make young people doubt everything, especially themselves. You will be able to see that this is not sports aggression, they will be visibly distressed or closed off. People with OCD are not a risk to other people.


Examples of compulsions:


  • Physical - repeatedly tying shoe laces or fixing clothes, touching things in a certain way or for a certain number of times, holding their breath, particular patterns with blinking or movement, general signs of anxiety such as biting mouth or nails, posture differences, staring.


  • Behavioural - refusing to play, leaving the field, appearing frightened or stressed, using delaying tactics (so they can continue a compulsion until it feels just right) being zoned out. It may look like a young person with OCD is not paying attention and is being disrespectful but there will be a lot going on under the surface.


The list of obsessions and the resulting compulsions for young people in sport is endless. The above just covers a few physical and behavioural compulsions. There are an infinite number of internal compulsions that are almost impossible to spot. You might see your young person muttering under their breath as they perform internal compulsions or recognise them as being distracted or stressed but they can be really difficult to identify.


The best thing you can do is keep a look out for some of the signs that might indicate a young person is struggling with their mental health and there are a number of questions you can ask yourself when it comes to this. Is the young person:


  • Distracted, stressed, having difficulty following instructions?

  • Going through a general behaviour or performance change?

  • Showing signs of general anxiety or depression?

  • Showing sudden changes in weight?

  • Showing a change in presentation and turn out? Have there been hygiene or self-care changes? Has there been an appearance change?

  • Appearing distant?

  • Have their friendships and relationships changed?

  • Suddenly missing sessions? Has there been a punctuality change?

These lists above are not exhaustive, but they will get you off to a strong start.



Superstition and OCD


It’s worth having a quick discussion about the similarities between superstition and OCD. Superstitious rituals are massive in sports, they’re a form of what’s called Magical Thinking - the belief that your ideas, thoughts, actions, words, or use of symbols can influence the course of events in the material world. One of your players may have a pre-match ritual, that doesn't mean they have OCD. There are elements of Magical Thinking in OCD too (the urge to perform a certain compulsion to lessen the chances of a feared situation occurring) but that’s where the similarities end. OCD takes these rituals much further to the point where the ability to enjoy life, let alone sport, can be severely impaired.



When do these behaviours become a problem?


Everyone has off days, but the impact of OCD lies in how much these behaviours and symptoms impact upon day-to-day life. As a coach, that ultimately isn’t up to you to decide.


but if you see something that worries you, do something about it.



What can I do to support a young person with OCD?


Enquire, gently ask your young person if they’re okay, have a gentle chat with parents at the end of the session or over the phone for privacy, seek advice from your safeguarding coordinator.


Make sure you are working in line with your organisation’s policies. Think about how you can change sessions to account for a child with OCD in a way that is inclusive and discrete. You are in the perfect position to support your young athlete; tool yourself up with information to make sure you can do that the best of your ability.


Take notes of the further reading resources below and share with colleagues and anyone else who you feel will benefit from this knowledge.



To round things off


OCD is a complex and highly misunderstood condition. I hope this has given you a good start in understanding what OCD is, how to potentially recognise it, and how to begin to support your young person with OCD. On a personal note, I want to end by reiterating how important this knowledge is. Whilst we are getting better at our conversations around mental health, and we are starting to identify depression and anxiety with more consistency, OCD has been left behind.


Far behind.


It takes on average eighteen plus years to get an OCD diagnosis. People with OCD face stigma, they can face a lack of awareness and knowledge from medical professionals and sadly, they often have to see their condition trivialised and mocked because of misconception.


When it comes to working with young people, being able to recognise the possible signs of OCD, and knowing how to support young athletes with OCD through their sporting experiences, will not only make them better athletes, it has the power to transform their lives.


When it comes to OCD, the more adults there are on a young person’s side, the better.


Thank you for making sure you are one of them.



Resources


Books





Websites


OCD Action - the UKs largest OCD charity


Anxiety in Athletes - an amazing affiliate to the International OCD Foundation in the U.S.



Newspaper articles





For a comprehensive list of other OCD related resources please click here.


Taming Olivia is an award winning website that aims to help people navigate OCD using kindness, compassion and creativity.


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