Mental locks in sports performance and the use of EMDR coaching

Last July, U.S. Olympic team superstar Simone Biles left the Tokyo Olympics team competition for psychological reasons. The mental pressures on the athletes, which had become too great, became familiar to everyone who followed the sport as the case was reported. In gymnastics circles, the term “twistiesit” describes the challenge that Biles wrestled with. At its heart is the fear that causes a mental lock to automated advanced motor performance. In some cases, this is such a serious problem that it leads to the athlete withdrawing from the competitions and ending their career.

Interview studies of athletes have shown that in different sports, the same emotional, cognitive, and physical factors underlie mental locks. Regardless of the sport, athletes have reported experiencing intense fear, anxiety and panic, which has led to a decline in cognitive function, manifested e.g. deficiencies in concentration. This in turn has led to an increase in psychosomatic stress symptoms (including sweating and increased heart rate) and loss of motor control. Such an experience is likely to result in a decline in self-confidence and increased self-criticism, sleep disturbances and avoidance efforts. Overall, the phenomenon of mental lock has been proposed to be treated as one form of anxiety disorder related to top sports.

There are biological, psychological and social factors involved in the development of anxiety disorders and symptoms. In the treatment of mental lock associated with top sports, there is a growing interest in the psychological reasons that may underlie the onset of anxiety symptoms. Sometimes it is difficult for the athlete himself to tell why the symptoms are just beginning to appear. The most important thing in the treatment is to map out the life events that may burden the athlete and to avoid e.g. alcohol use and avoidance behaviors, both of which only exacerbate anxiety disorder. Life events should be mapped throughout life because anxiety disorder is often driven by early life events with unconscious experiences of failure, inadequacy, and inferiority.

EMDR therapy, used as a WHO recommendation for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, is aimed at treating the client's disturbing memories and related cognitions (self-related beliefs and thoughts) and emotions and bodily sensations at the same time as the client is given bilateral stimulus. Successful EMDR therapy has both neurobiological and psychological effects and makes the memory of distressing and disturbing feel emotionally neutral, while at the same time binding a positive belief of the person to the memory.

In EMDR treatment of anxiety disorders, it may be difficult for the client to name a particular memory that has an underlying effect on the symptoms, especially if the symptoms date back to childhood. In this case, it is possible to move the anxiety symptom backwards by sliding it so that the anxiety is activated in the client's mind and body and he is asked “how old are you with that feeling right now”. Often the customer will provide a number that ranges in age from 6 to 13 years. After this, the client’s mind usually finds a memory in their memory system related to the physical (e.g., throat constriction, heart rate), and cognitive essence (e.g., negative belief in oneself “I’m bad”) of those early years. Thereafter, EMDR treatment proceeds according to the basic protocol, neutralizing that memory.

Treatment of anxiety-related symptoms with the EMDR method is still in its infancy. Not only is the method suitable for the treatment of sports-related anxiety symptoms, it can also be used to process experiences of failure related to a sports career and related disturbing memories. Sometimes these are related to injuries and threats of career termination. Exercise and resource exercise with EMDR therapy can also be done. In this case, the focus of the treatment will be in the future, for example in future competitions, where the method can be used to instill images and positive beliefs about oneself related to good performance.

The use of the EMDR method as part of performance psychology offers a wide range of possibilities. International pilot studies on the topic e.g. golfers promise good.



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.

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