How EMDR, Mindfulness and Psychotherapy Can Improve Sports Performance


athlete mental health, sports therapy, therapy for athletes

Anyone who's played competitive sports can tell you that their overall mentality is more important than any physical ability or conditioning. Through marvels of modern science, we are now able to lay eyes on the communication, or lack thereof between different brain structures while at rest or under pressure to perform. These structures, both interconnected parts and a wholesome entity, are responsible for keeping the intended movements within the body in a synchronic state. This innately wired geographical knowledge and control of the body in motion is called “bodily-kinesthetic intelligence”, a.k.a. “natural athletic ability”, which exists in varying degrees amongst all humans.

Our Mentality - The private internal experience of thoughts/feelings/beliefs/physical sensations is our mentality - the byproduct of an ever-shifting transaction between the 2 sides of the brain, or simply our perception. Regarding psychology of sport, mentality is the starting point in utilizing this natural athletic ability. Think of the left side of the brain as the rational side responsible for pre-game rituals, thinking about what move to make, where to shoot the ball from, what play to call, how much time is left in the game without looking at the clock, remembering assignments, communicating with teammates, etc. The right side of the brain is the birthplace of emotion and energy in the body; the vessel that carries out fueled behaviors. And most importantly, this transaction happens within billionths of a second.

How does this all relate to enhancing athletic performance?

Our Third Eye

There is a 3rd component to human nature one must consider when high level, complex and sometimes utterly jaw dropping tasks are performed. Some athletes may call this euphoric internal state as being in "The Zone". Others may label this ability as having the "X" factor. Whichever label one chooses for this trait in an athlete, its origins are in the Medial Prefrontal Cortex (MPFC), seated above the eyes in the middle of the forehead. Trauma therapy engineers call this structure the "watchtower" - as it oversees and regulates transactions between the left and right sides of the brain.


The MPFC is also referred to as the "Third Eye", the "Wise Mind", and the root of the ability to be aware of our awareness, think about our thoughts, and give state-specific responses rather than impulsive reactions to life’s stressors. Again, regarding sport psychology, the execution with which routine play or "game changing" moments are carried out is highly dependent on how regulated the watchtower is, ensuring a balanced flow of energy in the brain and body. Any athlete has probably been there before- making a mistake because of ruminating thoughts - or focusing on pain, physical discomfort and lack of bodily control.

A quick history lesson to help put things in perspective…

Many thousands of years ago, being highly reactive to threats was an extremely effective evolutionary trait in terms of humans surviving while they were not at the top of the food chain. However, this trait can become problematic now that we have a vast range of experiences that only appear to be threatening, and the reactivity in behavior is often detrimental to success. Our brains also register threats to our social status and physical safety in the same location. This is due to our species surviving the elements over the years through recognizing the power of social engagement, connection and cooperation – in other words, the power of the group. Humans can be alert and active while simultaneously feeling protected at ease (“The Zone”). And this capacity to be flexible with one’s internal state and remain focused is a result of how conditioned they are to trust that their emotional expressions are validated (seen, heard, and considered when making joint decisions).

Through routine developmental challenges in life (which are in fact considered "traumas"), one may develop debilitating anxiety when engaged with any task to which they have attached a large part, or even their entire identity. If the mind simply perceives that a certain outcome threatens its connectivity to any one or more people, the watchtower becomes decreasingly active. Instead, the body's energy is devoted to fighting, running away or even freezing, due to the speed at which the thought “I’m going to be alone” or “I’m defective” subconsciously arrives. And even if they’re unaware of the thought’s presence, it is still very much so driving feelings and behaviors.

Most successful athletes have been engaged with their sport in every facet of their lives from an early age. Sports are something families gather around to celebrate, when they might be separate and isolated otherwise. Sports help athletes channel intense emotions that charge the body with energy/restlessness and create purpose and meaning for their internal battles. They also breed lifelong friendships through adversity, and train athletes to deal with loss while simultaneously remaining hopeful, proud and motivated due to co-regulating with others.

Ultimately, there’s no mystery as to why an athlete can become highly anxious when it comes to performing and bearing the fruits of their labor and sacrifice. So, what can athletes do given the complexity of the brain and some of the perceptual tricks it plays at its owners expense?


How can EMDR be an effective therapy to help athletes?


EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and/or traditional psychotherapy can be a massive tool in enhancing overall physical performance, and additionally but not limited to:

  • Getting past the most recent loss or mistake

  • Processing feelings of disappointment both from and towards the team

  • Getting past an injury that keeps bothering them when they think about it

  • Helping with focus and concentration with tedious tasks

  • Moving beyond getting angry in the sport – at the ball, other participants, or at themselves

  • Enhancing the ability to compartmentalize off the field stressors and prevent them from interfering with performance

  • Processing traumatic stress from which sports may have provided temporary relief and retirement is approaching.

  • Believing that they can’t be successful in a non-athletic environment

  • Dealing with the disappointment of not playing in college or professionally when it was once expected to occur

Practice Mindfulness before EMDR


Mindfulness (the ability to shift between responding and reacting through purposeful attention to the present moment) doubles as a component in preparing to begin EMDR and a byproduct of the treatment itself. Scientific research has shown that regular mindfulness practice increases the volume of connections between the left and right sides of the brain. In other words, we can literally “grow” our watchtower, and more effectively navigate high pressure situations. In a nutshell, the negative thoughts and stories we believe from stressful experiences get “stuck” in the brain and prevent tangible contradictory evidence from reaching the conscious mind. EMDR can unclog these pathways and allow greater control when the elements of life or athletic competition are harsh.

In sports performance, visualizing future successes before they occur is integral – trying out in front of a coach or scout, protecting the quarterback on a deep 4th down pass, sinking the game winning free throw, hitting a walk off homerun, hitting the fairway around trees and water on a golf course, pitching a strike with a full count and the bases loaded. EMDR helps create a healthy flow of information through the mind that includes both realistic anxieties that motivate performance, as well as an awareness of having successfully carried out similar, or the same tasks in the past, becoming more than able to rise to the occasion in the present.

What if there was another way to create the same effects on how they will handle more invisible challenges like internalized anger, sadness, fear, and other distractions intra-competition? What if sensory experiences of relaxation/focus could be installed into their brain to actively prepare for those high-pressure situations where it's needed most? They can.

The mind can be fragile; something that requires continual attention from its owner. Overall, EMDR harnesses the brain's natural ability to heal itself and become less "injury prone" long after treatment sessions have ended. Stroking this topic with an even broader brush, athletes are underneath a heavy weight of help seeking stigma. Athletes may also be highly conditioned to “do it right the first time” and have yet to face many situations through which they cannot persevere solely by their will for the situation to change. The chronic anxiety individuals can experience is often due to encounters with other stressed individuals, a collective doing the best they can, given their own regulatory abilities. Seeking assistance from a therapist to help repair and strengthen emotional fabric is only natural, and contrary to Nike’s philosophy, when it comes to mental health one does not simply “Just Do It”.

 

Sean O'Connor is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) at Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling in Scarsdale, NY.

Sean loves working with athletes and survivors of childhood trauma and helps them heal from the past, love the present, and have hope for the future.

Sean is available to take new clients. He is licensed in New York & Florida. Schedule a 15 minute free consultation today!