EMDR-PEP in the Sports Arena

Published by Susan Zaro on

Jennifer Lendl, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist with a clinical practice in Silicon Valley. She specializes in trauma, performance for sports, business, health and the arts. She coauthored EMDR Performance Enhancement for the Workplace: A Practitioners’ Manual. Dr. Lendl was the trauma and performance specialist at the Amen Clinic for six years and continues to consult with them. She is the Sports Psychologist with an interdisciplinary training group called Women Involved In Sports Evolution in Ventura, CA. She presents at conferences nationally and internationally on EMDR, Performance and Psychology.

SZ: Were you a competitive athlete growing up? What sports did you participate in and to what level?

JL: I’m from an athletic family. My grandparents on both sides of the family competed athletically. I started swimming competitively around six or seven years of age. My parents had me working individually with an Olympic training coach at age eight. But my body couldn’t tolerate the stress. During high school I lettered in five sports. My freshmen year in high school I played tennis. My sophomore year I attended another high school that didn’t have a tennis team but for three years participated in basketball, volleyball, softball, track and field.

This was before Title IX so there weren’t college scholarships. I attended Stanford University and promised my mom I would at least meet the swim coach once I started school. I ended up competing on the Stanford women’s swim team all four years during college and was honored to be co-captain for three out of the four years. As a team we were really successful. The athletic department even provided us with sweat pants which we had to share with the field hockey team.

SZ: You shared your sweats with field hockey team? Thank goodness for Title IX.

JL: The basketball coach borrowed the swim team to play basketball. The swim team and hockey team were organized and competed on a national level. The basketball team wasn’t yet as organized but was becoming a more organized sport for the university.

SZ: How would Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing – Performance Enhancement Psychology (EMDR-PEP) have been useful to you as a competitive athlete?

JL: That’s an interesting question. EMDR-PEP would have been useful in many ways. Clearing the memories of working with the eight year old training experience. There would have been two issues to address. One injury and health and two harsh coaching techniques that might be considered bullying today. Other situations that would have been useful would be loss of confidence due to perceived or real failures, reframing losses from failure to challenge, being able to break the habit of focusing on opponents to the detriment of my own performance, letting go of fear and hesitation in aggressive situations, the value and need for balance and time management to be successful in the long run, the pressure to use banned substances, and discrimination for sexual orientation.

SZ: Interesting.

JL: At Women Involved In Sports Evolution, which is a cross disciplinary team in Ventura, CA. my job has been to use the EMDR approach to clear fears regarding injuries, difficult losses, team personality conflicts and self doubt blocking beliefs. I think people do not really know what EMDR is.

SZ: I agree. Describe EMDR.

JL: Over the past twenty years Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) has progressed from a technique that could be used within existing psychotherapy modalities such as psychodynamic, behavioral, cognitive behavioral, integrative approaches to address symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). EMDR has evolved into a distinct integrative approach based upon Francine Shapiro’s, Ph.D., Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) which suggests that EMDR address dysfunctionally stored memory networks. Essentially this means that everything we learn whether it enters our sensory receptors through vision, hearing, taste, touch or smell becomes stored in our brains in a way it can be retrieved when needed and it adapts according to other information coming in through the environment. Learning occurs when new associations are created with material already stored in a persons memory.

For example something that scares a 4 year old becomes less scary as the child grows up. Emotions, thoughts and reactions become age appropriate. However if someone is age 14, 24, or even 64 and are having temper tantrums around a sport activity an EMDR-PEP therapist is going to wonder what is triggering the childlike tantrum and blocking the persons ability to utilize an age appropriate communication style, ruling out a medical condition. After an outburst most people more than likely know better but they had a knee jerk response and just couldn’t hook up to the more useful information to draw on.

Energizing anger or impediment to performance

EMDR is designed as an eight phase protocol and targets past experiences that are encoded maladaptively. Therapy addresses current triggers and symptoms (for example an athlete repeatedly losing his/her temper after making an error, even with the knowledge, losing his/her cool isn’t useful). Therapy also addresses future potential challenges. (The athlete is asked to predict other situations that could possibly trigger the adverse response – losing his/her cool).

EMDR-PEP adheres to Francine Shapiro’s work but the emphasis is on performance rather than safety (PTSD). In essence the clinician works backwards by having the athlete visualize expected outcomes and work with them on performance skills such as focus, concentration, emotional management, persistence, relaxation, goal setting, time management, or reprocessing mental, physical blocks if needed. This is different from traditional performance work which teaches new skills and refines old skills but doesn’t work to remove existing blocks so they are no longer triggered.

SZ: What are the age ranges you work with utilizing EMDR-PEP?

JL: I’ve worked with clients as young as six years old.

SZ: Your phone is going to be ringing off the hook from people who will want to mind modulate their child at the age of six.

JL: What we are doing is not mind modulating. We want them to be age appropriate. That’s different.

SZ: Does EMDR help athletes that have received concussions?

JL: I’m glad you asked that question. The concussion issue is in the spotlight. There are several major studies going on and it’s a pet project at the Amen Clinic where I worked for six years as the trauma performance specialist and continue to do outgoing consultations. They have an ongoing NFL concussion study right now. As Sport Psychologists when we work with an athlete we need to be aware of the changes in athletes that call for immediate referral for a medical diagnosis. I would like to go over some of the symptoms we need to be aware of that may indicate an athlete has a concussion these include:

*Confusion or feeling dazed



*Slurred speech

*Reported nausea/vomiting

*Disturbed vision

*Difficulty with balance/dizziness

*Sensitivity to light, noise, smell, taste

*Ringing in ears


*Concentration/memory difficulty

*Sleep disturbance (plus or minus)

*Behavioral personality change




These are possible symptoms of an athlete having incurred a concussion. They don’t need all these symptoms but some of them could call for referral to a medical doctor. While EMDR therapy will not heal the physical brain trauma it can address stored emotional charge around the injury experience. Irrational beliefs such as shame or self doubt may arise from the injury experience. Internal dialogue athletes sometimes have with themselves around injury may sound like, “I am weak, I am defective now, I will never be whole again, (or in the professional realm), I can’t do my job.” In this situation EMDR can help with releasing mental blocks to de-stress and support brain health.

SZ: For athlete’s that participate in ice hockey, soccer, basketball, football, boxing etc. and a doctor’s advice is stop participating in contact sports, does EMDR-PEP help?

JL: As human beings we naturally move towards health. If our choice isn’t healthy for us to be in a certain situation how do we move past that? How do we get our brain to recognize that it’s time to move on? Those are things we do in transitioning athletes from one stage to the next and those are things EMDR-PEP could help with. When an athlete says, “I’m not important unless I am number one….”

SZ: Or part of a team.

JL: Yes, or part of an athletic team, or a scholar/athlete or whatever it is, those are considered to be blocking beliefs.

SZ: What resources to you recommend for athletes/parents/coaches to learn about EMDR or EMDR-PEP?

JL: The best resource although it isn’t sport performance specific is Francine Shapiro’s latest book, “Getting Past Your Past.” This book will explain EMDR and has some performance information. Years ago there was some interest in EMDR-PEP but therapists weren’t really interested in becoming trained in this modality. Recently I had a call from the USOC and they are very much interested in EMDR-PEP.

SZ: As a pioneer you helped develop protocol for EMDR-PEP that is utilized in sports, business and the arts. Do you have an favorite quotes, tips, stories that have guided your professional career?

JL: Dr. Daniel Amen, of the Amen Clinic says, “Change your brain, change your life.” It’s absolutely true to focus on brain health. Francine Shapiro frequently says, “What have you learned? Are you having fun?” That carries with me every where.

SZ: Jennifer thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk about and explain some of the general concepts of EMDR-PEP.

*Contact information for Dr. Lendl – 408.244.6186.

*Featured guests are not current nor former clients of Susan Zaro

*This article may also be read @ examiner

*Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images (McEnroe)