Last year is likely to be a year in the world of sports that changed the way top athletes talk about their mental health. Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, Calvin Ridley, Lane Johnson, Bianca Andreescu, Lewis Hamilton and Christine Press are among the most successful professional athletes who spoke publicly about their mental challenges last year. In 2020, the national TV channel in Finland, Yle published a top sports survey (in Finnish), according to which about 68 per cent of top athletes reported having mental health problems.
These highlights play a significant role in the prejudices associated with the mental challenges of athletes. In the world of sports, weakness, on the other hand, is something that cannot be revealed because weakness can never be part of being an athlete or a world championship.
Now that the importance of mental challenges and mental health in elite sports has been highlighted, it is time to turn our attention to the question of what could be done about it. Sports psychologists who specialize in performance improvement bring knowledge to the sports world about, among other things, performance challenges and barriers, and usually provide imagination training, breathing exercises, learning to regulate emotions, mindfullness, and developing self-esteem. However, such an approach ignores the fact that these methods themselves have not been shown to be very effective in treating the symptoms of anxiety disorder, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Therefore, I dare to say that the treatment of the above-mentioned mental challenges in athletes requires the same methods that are commonly used to treat the symptoms of these mental illnesses. The fact that the world of sports talks more often about mental challenges than mental health problems is part of the stigma, but it does not eliminate the fact that evidence-based treatment, familiar from clinical psychology and medicine, is likely to produce the fastest and most effective outcome. For more general mental challenges such as motivation, concentration, and managing competitive situations, the psychological aids mentioned above may be helpful.
Adversity in sports and other areas of life is inevitably stored in an athlete’s memory system and can negatively affect sports performance. EMDR coaching refers to the EMDR therapy method and reference framework used in Finland since 1996. It is the national recommendation for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The EMDR method is based on an adaptive information processing model. According to this model, the starting point of coaching is the idea that the current challenges of an athlete, for example, are the result of negative experiences of the past that have been stored in memory networks in an inappropriate way. EMDR coaching focuses on the client's disturbing memories and related cognitions, emotions and body sensations at the same time as he/she is given a bilateral stimulus. The goal of the coaching is to restart the information processing system and to adapt the emotions and cognitions related to the event to their neutral and non-disturbing emotional components.
We have been using EMDR coaching for about five years with the following sports, among others, both professional and amateur: horseback riding, figure skating, billiards, scaffolding, sailing, diving, and football. In terms of performing artists, we have experience especially with professional musicians and actors in the film and theater industry. Things to be worked on have included underachievement or failure in competition, performance stress and anxiety, freezing, fear, injury and disability, rehabilitation, and termination of a sports career. The number of training sessions required to be effective has varied from one to a few times.
Research on the effectiveness of EMDR-based coaching in athlete performance and well-being is still in its infancy. Based on my clinical experience, I believe that treatment effectiveness in athletes has been primarily associated with decreased anxiety, increased self-confidence and awareness, developed emotional recognition and conscious regulation, improved concentration, and reduced performance-related stress. One professional athlete in the individual sport aptly comments on EMDR coaching: “With EMDR coaching, you take care of yourself as an athlete, but at the same time you take care of yourself as a person”. By this, he was referring to the neutralization of harmful memories that might affect other areas of life as well.
Professional athletes often have a strong need and pressure to focus on the essentials. As you travel around the world, time is an issue, and you don’t want to misuse it. EMDR coaching frees up resources for the essentials. Or, as one rider stated at the end of EMDR training:
“I just want to let go. And now I can do it again.”
Bennett, J. & Maynard, I. (2017). Performance blocks in sport: Recommendations for treatment and implications for sport psychology practitioners, Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 8:1, 60-68.
Bennett, J., Rotheram, M., Hays, K., Olusoga, P., Maynard, I. W., & Lindsay, P. (2016). Yips and lost move syndrome: Assessing impact and exploring levels of perfectionism, rumination and reinvestment. Sport and Exercise Psychology Review, 12, 1–27.
Falls, N., Barker, J. B., & Turner, M. J. (2018) The Effects of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing on Prospective Imagery and Anxiety in Golfers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 30:2, 171-184.