Athletes who have experienced an upsetting competitive experience not
only may perceive competition negatively but relive the upsetting performance
event when they approach competition or contemplate competition which
results in an increase in anxiety. EMDR was performed with competitive
swimmers to aid them in reprocessing an upsetting swimming event. Their
coping beliefs were measured and level of anxiety prior and after the
EMDR. Vignettes are presented as examples of the changes in the athletes’
level of anxiety coping beliefs after three sessions.
When individuals have perceived a situation negatively and have created
negative cognitions about that experience, it is often a reflection of
their perceptual style (Bandura, 1997). He also suggested that positive
visualization enhances self-efficacy by reciprocally inhibiting negative
visualizations. This negative interpretation of the event predisposes
the individual to react in a manner indicative of poor self-efficacy.
Hardy (1990) has investigated a catastrophe model of performance in sport.
It appears that an individual’s cognitive interpretation of the anxiety
is important by the impact it plays on performance (Jones & Swain,
1992; Jones, Swain, & Hardy, 1993). The athlete’s perception and interpretation
of anxiety as positive or negative in regards to his or her performance
maybe detrimental to performance if perceived as threatening (Jones &
Swain, 1992; Jones, Swain et al., 1993; Nordell & Sime, 1993; Rotella
& Learner, 1993).
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) has been used extensively
with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Van der Kolk, 1997), but there is
little knowledge in the area of EMDR and performance anxiety (Oglesby,
1999). Most of the work in this area to date has been anecdotal. EMDR
uses bouts of 20-40 rapid, saccadic eye movements by requesting the athlete
to visually track a light which moves laterally in sequence from left
to right. This technique was discovered by Francine Shapiro (1989), and
she found it resulted in the brain processing information in much the
same manner it does during rapid eye movements. Shapiro believes this
results in traumatic memories being reprocessed in a more positive or
coping light. This process requires the individual to visualize an upsetting
sports event and reprocess that event employing all senses and simultaneously
reframing cognitively. Foster and Lendl (1995, 1996) used EMDR to enhance
performance in athletes and as a tool for executive coaching. Crabbe (1996)
used the technique to improve riders’ performance in dressage competition.
Athletes who have experienced an upsetting competitive experience are
an important subgroup of competitive athletes who have difficulty with
competitive anxiety. This group not only perceives competition negatively
but additionally relives the upsetting performance event when they approach
competition or contemplate competition which results in an increase in
anxiety. The purpose of this paper is to provide a number of examples
as a means of illustration of the technique of EMDR and reprocessing an
upsetting swimming event.
Volunteers (N = 21) were recruited from four competitive swim
teams without compensation: a state college, two Y.M.C.A.s, and a public
high school. Participants ranged in age from 16-21 years of age with twice
as many women as men.
Anxiety. Each athlete rated an upsetting sports event according
to the Subjective Units of Distress Scale (SUDS). Wolpe’s (1991) scale
is a continuum from 0 (no disturbance) to 10 (highest disturbance).
Heart rate was also recorded by having the participants take their
pulse and count out loud each beat while focusing on the upsetting event
as the researcher timed and recorded.
Self Perception. Validity of Cognition Scale (VoC) is part of
the EMDR protocol. It is a self-perception measure that Shapiro (1992)
developed to measure a person’s positive coping self-beliefconcerning
the upsetting event. This belief is rated on a 7-point scale from 1 (completely
false) to 7 (completely true).
EMDR. The purpose of EMDR is to facilitate cognitive reprocessing,
so that an individual is able to secure all the learning possible from
a given upsetting experience and interpret that information in the most
positive light for personal growth. The athlete focused on an anxiety
provoking or unpleasant swimming competitive experience to investigate
the possibility of reprocessing this in a positive format to impact favorably
on future competitive performance. The actual desensitization of the anxiety-provoking
event began with the athletes holding that event in their awareness. The
person is asked to compose a possible coping statement (VoC) concerning
the upsetting event that he or she presently does not believe. The person
then rates the upsetting event on the SUDS scale, and the heart rate is
The researcher induced bouts of (20-40) rapid, saccadic eye movements
by requesting the athlete to visually track a light which moves laterally
in sequence from left to right. All measures are taken again at the conclusion
of the session. The athletes had three sessions of EMDR with the last
session focusing on an ideal swimming experience. The standard EMDR protocol
was followed (Shapiro, 1998).
Backstroke. This young lady recounted an experience of doing the
backstroke in competition when she missed her count for the turn and hit
her head on the wall. She sunk to the bottom and inhaled water. The feelings
reported were the following: confusion, panic, and thinking “I could drown.”
“How could I be so stupid as to miss the turn?” When asked to rate the
SUDS, she rated it as a 7, and her heart rate was 110. She described a
tense, upset feeling in her stomach as she envisioned the event. Her coping
statement was “I got that turn down pat,” which she rated on the VoC at
a 5-6. By the third EMDR session she had a SUDS rating of 2 and a heart
rate of 70 with her VOC up to a 6.5.
Goggles. Miss Goggle was also performing the backstroke when her
goggles came off, and she hit her head on the wall and lost her breath.
She described having a sick feeling in her stomach and difficulty breathing.
She placed last in the event and was terribly embarrassed and felt horrible.
The location in her body that she felt the anxiety as she recalled the
event was in her eyes and shoulders. Her SUDS rating initially was a 5,
and her heart rate 100 with a VoC rating of 5 for the statement “I learned
from my mistakes.” At the conclusion of the three sessions her SUDS was
a 3 with an 80 heart rate and a VoC score of 6.
Disappointment.Mr. Disappointment described a competition
where he swam the 50 fly and the 200 relay. When he came out of the pool
and toweled off, the coach said to him, “I thought you were better than
what you showed.” Mr. Disappointment described this statement from the
coach as devastating. He experienced a tight, tense jaw as he summoned
up the image and gave this a SUDS of 10 with a heart rate of 110. His
VoC for “I know I am a good enough swimmer” was 5. After our third session
his SUDS fell to a 1 with a 90 heart rate and a 7 VoC.
Seated Back:Mr. Seated Back recalls a 200 backstroke competition
where he was seated back 6 to 7 seconds slower than he expected. His feelings
were embarrassment, nervousness, anxiety, and physically felt his back
tense up. His thoughts were “I did the worst.” He gave a SUDS rating of
8 with a heart rate of 85. His VoC rating was 5 for “I tried my best.”
At the conclusion of our sessions, he reported a SUDS of 1 with a heart
rate of 80 and a VoC of 7.
Mr. Disqualified. Mr. Disqualified’s upsetting event was that
he was swimming in a sectional meet on the relay team. He was the first
one to swim and he “did great.” When the last leg of the relay finished,
he was so excited because they won that he jumped into the water which
resulted in the team being disqualified. He remembered looking up in disbelief
at them being disqualified. His thoughts were “I screwed up.” He felt
tightness in his chest as he recounted the story and reported a SUDS of
8 with a heart rate of 90. His VoC was “It is ok because we made it up
the next week” was a 2. He actually became teary eyed during the procedure.
At the conclusion of our sessions, he rated the SUDS at a 0 with a heart
rate of 75. His VoC rating was 6.5.
Mr. 50 Breaststroke. This last young man in the New England
Championships broke the 50 breast record on the first day. He volunteered
that he began obsessing over the 100 breast, and self-doubt crept into
his thoughts, “I doubt I can do it.” He ended up swimming his worse time
on the 100 with a 1:01. This experience was felt as a tingling in his
stomach with a SUDS of 8 and a heart rate of 80. His VoC for “It’s over
I won’t obsess” was rated as a 5. When we finished our work together,
he rated the SUDS at a 0, his heart rate a 55, and his VoC was a 7.
These vignettes serve to demonstrate that upsetting sport events are
often held in athletes’ consciousness long after the event has taken place
and may have the ability to arouse unpleasant feelings, and the physiological
effects correlate when they think of them. Concurrently, these cognitions
have the ability to color the lens through which the athletes envision
their self-efficacy in competition. Many of these athletes reported as
they approached a competitive event the negative self-statements and recollections
from the prior upsetting sport event would creep into their thoughts and
result in self-doubt and anxiety. This would even occur as they stood
on the blocks at a competition.
The upsetting event was replayed in their mind’s eye in a freeze frame
image. It is as if an upsetting event is a kin to a log jam, and there
is no movement with the same scene and emotions playing over and over.
The EMDR is not merely a recounting of the event but more a kin to a re-experiencing
of the event. Physical, physiological, and emotional feelings are re-experienced
as they relive the event in their mind’s eye. This allows the athlete
to reprocess the event and resolve some of the conflict in a more adaptive
style. EMDR is not for the average athlete, but it is for the one who
cannot let the demons of an upsetting sport event lie to rest. Some teams
have a sport psychologist to help them. If this person is trained in EMDR,
this may be a viable approach to such an athlete. If this is not an option,
a serious athlete may pursue EMDR on her/his own to deal with such a limiting
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Contact: Louise Graham
Bridgewater State College
Bridgewater, MA 02325
Acknowledgements: I wish to thank the coaches for them allowing the disruption
to their practices and willingness to participate in the study; Associate
Professor Joseph Yeskewicz, Klye Browing, Ann Murray and Chuck Hickey.
This work was partially supported by a CART grant.