|By Ben Foodman, LCSW, CMPC, CSCS, TSAC-F
Reviewed by Unyte Clinical Team
When athletes go to work with sport psychologists, they usually are attempting to alleviate the yips. The yips are commonly understood as an inexplicable mental block that prevents athletes from performing at their normal baseline. Symptoms of the yips can include being unable to execute simple sport performance movements due to symptoms of anxiety (such as increased muscle tension and rapid breathing), intense urges to want to leave a sport competition, being unable to speak, sensations of feeling frozen, and random, intense outbursts of anger.
From a clinical perspective, this is also known as focal dystonia, which sport psychologists typically try to help athletes directly resolve through stress management techniques such as positive self-talk and imagery.1 The general idea behind this approach is to help athletes overwhelm these negative thought patterns with positive ones — but the truth is that the yips are not the diagnosis, but rather a symptom of a deeper underlying issue.
When athletes engage in sport competition, they are constantly exposed to many stress tests and traumatic experiences, such as sports injuries, verbal abuse from fans or opposing teams, social rejection, sports humiliations, chronic pain, failure in achieving goals, and traumatic experiences outside of sport.2 These repetitive stress tests have a cumulative effect on athletes and can initiate their internal alarm systems, which remain active if left unchecked.2
Fortunately, through the lens of Polyvagal Theory, sport psychologists and certified mental performance professionals can better understand how to help athletes with these mental blocks.
In Polyvagal Theory, a special emphasis is placed on understanding the significance and function of the vagus nerve. This is the longest nerve in the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for many critical body and brain functions, including heart rate, speech, blood pressure and digestion.
Depending on the type of information our body receives, the vagus nerve regulates three distinct physiological states that drive human behavior: ventral vagal, sympathetic or dorsal vagal.3 Sympathetic and dorsal vagal states in particular underlie many of the symptoms associated with mental blocks3 that can be commonly experienced by athletes. When in these states of “defense,” our mental function and performance are compromised.
A significant body of research strongly suggests that many mental health issues are not the result of a lack of insight, but rather are behaviors elicited from changes in the brain as a result of both genetics and life experiences. Practitioners can be more effective in helping athletes with the yips by avoiding traditional sport psychology methods — like positive self-talk and imagery — and using approaches rooted in trauma-informed therapy and Polyvagal Theory.4 This is where the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) can come into play.
I have seen multiple significant improvements in the athletes I have worked with after they have experienced the SSP. The tools provided in this listening therapy have helped these athletes efficiently transition from sympathetic and dorsal vagal states to a more regulated nervous system, which in turn has helped them alleviate the symptoms of their mental blocks.
The SSP also pairs perfectly with my primary therapy intervention of Brainspotting. For instance, some of my clients experience such severe symptoms of dysregulation that they need support systems such as the SSP to help them regulate before they are ready to begin Brainspotting protocols.
Finally, the SSP has given my clients the ability to put critical language and meaning behind their experiences in sports. This has provided them with relief, knowing that their sport performance issues were not related to character flaws or work ethic, but that their internal neurobiological systems have much more influence over their lives in ways they had not anticipated.
Discover the Safe and Sound Protocol
Developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, the SSP is a non-invasive acoustic vagus nerve stimulator that helps clients connect with themselves, others, and the world from a foundation of physiological safety.
- Bell, R. J., Skinner, C. H., & Fisher, L. A. (2009) Decreasing putting yips in accomplished golfers via solution-focused guided imagery: A single-subject research design, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 21(1), 1-14. DOI: 10.1080/10413200802443776
- Grand, D., & Goldberg, A. (2011). This is your brain on sports: Beating blocks, slumps and performance anxiety for good! Dog Ear Publishing.
- Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. W.W. Norton & Company.
- Van Der Kolk, B. A. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin.
About the Author
Ben Foodman is a licensed psychotherapist and sport performance specialist. He owns his private practice located in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he works exclusively with athletes to help them improve their psychological health, clear mental blocks, and achieve peak performance. He is a Brainspotting Consultant/Expert, a Certified Mental Performance Consultant through the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and has advanced training in neurofeedback. To learn more about Ben, you can visit his website at benfoodman.com.