Brain Spotting - Key to Softball Performance
A Fundamental Misunderstanding: Effort, Willpower, and Traditional Sports Psychology Will Not Work to Overcome the Yips.
Traditionally, sports psychologists respond to the yips by teaching athletes positive self-talk, relaxation strategies, mental rehearsal, how to quiet their mind, and how to let go of mistakes. All of these are good and necessary tools for the athlete to have, but none of them address the real issue underlying the yips and thus, they don’t help.
It turns out the traditional approaches to these problems have been focused on the symptoms, not the underlying cause. The misunderstanding is the idea that the yips are under the conscious control of the athlete. They are not. The yips stem from the unconscious brain trying to protect the athlete in a way that backfires.
Dr. Grand’s Discovery.
Dr. David Grand, an internationally known expert on performance enhancement, was working with a competitive ice skater with championship potential. She had a mental block regarding the triple loop, which was compulsory in one of her programs. No matter what she tried, she continued “popping” it, landing after only completing two spins.
One day he had her imagine doing a triple loop in slow motion and to freeze the image at the exact moment she felt off balance. Holding that awareness, he had her track his fingers as they moved back and forth in front of her pursuant to his Natural Flow EMDR method of bilateral brain stimulation. As she did, Dr. Grand noticed a reflexive cue when her eyes were focused in a certain spot and had her keep her focus on that spot.
As she looked at the spot, she reported experiencing a flood of images and body sensations that seemed to come out of nowhere. She recalled and processed through various stressful and upsetting events in her past. The next day, the skater called him to report she had performed a triple loop with no problem, repeatedly. It was never a problem for her again.
Dr. Grand was intrigued and explored this idea of eye position allowing the brain to process overwhelming or painful events from the past and the resulting changes that occurred for the athlete afterward. Over time, through clinical experience and backed by neuroscientific discoveries, Dr. Grand realized he had found a “Brainspot” through the skater’s visual field. Once the Brainspots were processed, the performance problems disappeared.
Dr. Grand continued to develop and refine his method called Brainspotting. It is a neuro-experiential technique that allows athletes in collaboration with a Brainspotting practitioner, to access “Brainspots,” to process them, and to rewrite the neural pathways involved, thus eliminating the performance problem.
What is a Brainspot?
A Brainspot is not an actual spot. It is a network of neural connections in the subcortical (unconscious) brain where the brain holds on to nerve-wracking or distressing events that have not been fully processed by the brain.
The brain is incredibly complex. With roughly 100 billion neurons, it has at least one quadrillion possible synaptic connections – which is basically infinite. One of its main jobs is to digests and organize everything you experience. Brainspots occur when someone experiences an event that is too overwhelming, stressful, painful, or upsetting for the brain to process completely.
When one of these types of events occur, the deep, unconscious brain leaves behind pieces of information about those events, primarily sights, sounds, smells, emotions, and body sensations, that are “frozen” in an unprocessed state. The brain does this as a survival mechanism – using information it took in unconsciously through your senses, to prevent you from experiencing that painful event again.
It is instinctive. It is automatic. It is beyond your control.
What Kind of Stressful Events Are We Talking About?
A Brainspot can form around anything that is significantly physically or mentally painful or upsetting to the individual. It is subjective; each person is different and what may be upsetting, embarrassing, or overwhelming to one person, may not be to another person. It can be primary – happening to the individual him or herself, or secondary – when the individual witnesses it happening to someone else.
For example, if you go the grocery store and nothing unusual happens, your brain processes that and files it away. No problem. However, if you experience a car accident on the way to the grocery store, the next time you drive by the site of the accident, you may find yourself feeling anxious and tense even though you are currently in no danger.
This is because your unconscious brain recognizes certain sensory cues such as the sight of the buildings and the street where the accident happened. These unconscious cues trigger a survival mechanism in your subcortical brain to alert you to potential danger. This is what creates the anxiety and tension in your body when you drive by the site of the accident the next week.
So even though you are in no danger the next time you drive by, your muscles may tighten, you may feel anxious and a desire to leave. This is because the brain’s subcortical portion has formed a Brainspot (aka neural network) around the event of the accident.
These types of events happen to everyone.
Events that cause Brainspots are not rare, special, or unusual. And athletes, because they put themselves on the line with every practice and competition, experience even more of these types of events than the average person.
For example, a Brainspot may form from “normal” events like these:
- A relationship breakup
- Being bullied, made fun of, or embarrassed
- Death of a loved one, including pets
- Being criticized
- Loss of a friendship or a job
- Transitions such as moving, changing schools or jobs
- Failing or struggling in a class
- Bike or car accident (even if no major injuries)
- Family, friend or partner conflicts/fights
- Surgery or other medical procedures
In sports, events that might create a Brainspot include:
- Being yelled at or criticized by a coach, parent, teammate, fans in person or online, or the athlete mentally beating themselves up
- Being pulled from the game
- A hard hit, collision or tackle
- Failing to reach a goal
- Having an equipment failure
- Seeing a teammate being criticized or yelled at
- Feeling you let the team down or any perceived “failure” or “embarrassment”
- Losing a game or doing worse than expected
- Being injured and/or struggling to recover from an injury
- Having a coach or parent minimize or dismiss an injury
- Feeling forced to perform while feeling at risk for injury
Over time as these types of stressful events accumulate, they make the Brainspot more and more significant, until performance problems like the yips start to occur.
By the time the yips become noticeable, frequently these earlier experiences have either been long forgotten or completely dismissed as not significant, yet the athlete’s subcortical brain remembers, and in fact, has been keeping a detailed scorecard of these painful events.
These unconscious neural networks in the brain, or “Brainspots,” are the roots of the yips and other mental blocks.
Mental Toughness and Positive Thinking Don’t Work.
Athletes are mentally strong and good at using positive thinking to overcome disappointments, failures, or other negative events. The conscious brain seeks to understand what happened when something goes wrong, and athletes are likely to find rational reasons for the problem and then use a positive spin on it to put it behind them.
The problem is – this only helps the conscious brain, not the unconscious brain.
While telling yourself your pitching was off because didn’t sleep well may help you to understand what happened and put it behind you, your unconscious brain is going to remember the pain of those wild throws that felt out of control and hold on to that to try to prevent it from happening again. Unfortunately, it is likely to backfire.
The Problem Lies in Your Subcortical Brain and Nervous System.
The subcortical brain tries to protect you when it senses similar events to past painful events by:
- sending out signals that you need to be alert, which may manifest as anxiety, doubt or negative thinking;
- sending energy to the muscles to prepare them to fight or flee, which creates muscle tension, called “muscle bracing”; and
- activating the withdrawal reflex, which pulls us backward, away from anticipated pain.
All of these reactions are automatic and outside your awareness and control. That is why most strategies athletes, coaches, and most sports psychologists use fail to help.
For example, if you are looking directly in front of you and a baseball comes flying at the side of your head, you will automatically duck. Your peripheral vision, which is unconscious most of the time, will sense the fast movement and trigger a sense of danger, your muscles will react by pulling your body back and down, away from danger. You don’t have a choice about these mechanisms being activated. The brain’s neuropathways get hijacked by the survival instinct.
All of these reactions impede performance. These automatic nervous system responses significantly disrupt the athlete’s ability to stay loose, relaxed, and focused.
From science and experience, we know that anxiety, negative thinking, self-doubt, and fear of failure can interfere with one’s performance. Further, we also know even microscopic amounts of tension in the body can hinder peak performance and that we perform our best when our muscles are loose and relaxed.
The withdrawal reflex is best illustrated by when you touch a hot stove – your hand automatically pulls away without conscious thought. It’s a survival instinct to move away from pain or anticipated pain. In softball and baseball, players are almost always moving forward, so the body’s instinct to pull backward slows them down.
Depending on how extensive the Brainspot is, the impact of these mechanisms may be large or small, but even subtle changes in your nervous system from these instincts can make a significant difference in performance, especially in a sport where the speed and accuracy of your throw can mean the difference between an out and a run.
Sensory Cues Trigger the Survival Reflexes.
Any number of things can trigger this automatic survival reaction. For a softball or baseball player, many of the usual sensory experiences of the game may become triggers. For example, a pitcher who has been hit in the head by a line drive back up the middle, may be triggered by walking out to the mound, hearing the crack of the ball on the bat, or seeing the ball head straight back up the middle.
Despite her hours of training, once an unconscious cue is triggered, the survival reflexes will activate, causing muscle tension, anxiety, and pulling her body backward, away from the source of potential danger, fighting against the forward movement involved in pitching. The survival reflexes might cause the pitcher to unconsciously pull her wrist or hand back, not shift her weight completely forward, to flinch as she throws, to squeeze the ball, to hold on to it too long or let go of it too soon. These unconscious reactions can throw off the pitcher’s accuracy by inches or even feet.
Most likely the pitcher will be unaware of this internal reaction and confused by her body’s response when she knows what she should be doing. She probably will not even connect the prior hit on the head with her problem because she believes she has moved on from that injury. This disconnection is what has made the yips so difficult to understand in the past.
Peak Performance Also Comes from the Subcortical Brain and Nervous System.
As mentioned above, we know from research and experience that peak performance always comes from the subcortical brain. We often refer to this as “muscle memory” but what we really mean is “unconscious brain and nervous system memory.” We want our performance to be smooth and automatic. Such performance is conditioned into the subcortical brain through your training.
But if a Brainspot is triggered by a sight, sound, sensation, or feeling, the self-protection mechanisms listed above will hijack the nervous system and override the trained skills because to the subcortical brain, it is a matter of survival. These instincts backfire because they cause your muscles to tighten, anxiety and self-doubt to show up and your body won’t go forward as easily and smoothly as it could, thus resulting in a poorer performance than was possible.
All of this is unconscious and not under your control. No amount of positive self-talk, deep breathing, shaking out your muscles, visualization, concentration, etc. will change this. Most likely the athlete and coach will be confused by the result, knowing the work the athlete has put in and not understanding the importance of the unconscious brain’s role in this result.
You cannot consciously over-write these neuropathways with rational reasons. Physically practicing more or harder will not truly overcome a mental block, though you might have some short-term improvement.
The Brainspots need to be accessed in the unconscious brain and nervous system, processed and the neural pathways rewritten to eliminate the performance issue.
You Need to Reset Your Subcortical Brain and Nervous System.
The poor results, performance anxiety, negative self-talk, body tension, etc., that is experienced by the athlete are actually symptoms of unconsciously accumulated, stressful or upsetting negative experiences. The only way to eliminate the performance issue is to process the roots of the problem – the Brainspots. This is done by accessing them, allowing them to process and thereby rewrite the neural networks created by the prior experiences. This will reset your subcortical brain and nervous system.
This can be accomplished by working with a Brainspotting practitioner, who will help you identify, access, process and re-writes the neural circuits involved in the Brainspots that are the underlying cause of the performance problem. Brainspotting practitioners such as I have found time and again, once the roots of the Brainspot are processed, the performance problems go away. Self-confidence and natural positivity return as does enjoyment of the sport.
Brainspotting is a State of the Art Way to Reset and Optimize Your Subcortical Brain and Nervous System.
As we’ve just explained, the mental blocks are caused by Brainspots, which hijack your unconscious brain and nervous system and taking “offline” the skills and techniques you’ve worked hard to develop in practices. The only way to stop the hijacking is to process the neural circuits that cause it.
As Dr. Grand discovered, the athlete’s visual field holds the key to finding and accessing Brainspots. Visual processing is tied into between 60-80% of the brain and the optical nerve is actually considered part of the brain. All parts of the brain do multiple things. But because visual processing reaches so many parts of the brain, we are able to move a pointer through the athlete’s visual field extremely slowly and decode the body’s reflexive cues as we do so to locate the Brainspots.
All the athlete has to do is be in touch with the issue at hand, and then once the Brainspot is located, to use focused mindfulness to observe what happens in their body and mind. For some, it is like watching a movie as they relive memories. For others, it is physical, their body twitches and their legs and arms move. For others, it is just a sensation of heat or tension that moves around the body as they process. Each person’s brain processes in its own unique way.
Once the relevant Brainspots have been processed through and at the same time, the neural circuits have automatically rewritten themselves, then the mental block no longer exists. You are free to perform to your full potential, without your brain and nervous system being unconsciously hijacked.
Other Unconscious Barriers to Brainspotting: Unfamiliarity and Perception.
Despite the success of Brainspotting with many athletes in all different sports, Brainspotting is still relatively new and unknown in the sports field. This is slowly changing, as demonstrated by the NFL Players Association recently specifically hiring a Brainspotting practitioner to work with the players, Dr. Paula Langford out of Baltimore.
It is also partly due to a cultural issue – athletes are taught to be tough and do not want to admit to having had stressful or difficult experiences for fear they will be perceived as “weak.” They often do not even want to admit to themselves that something was difficult mentally. However, in a sign that this is changing, we have lately seen more and more athletes stepping forward talking about mental struggles. As this becomes more acceptable, we may see more athletes openly admitting to using Brainspotting to enhance their performance abilities.
The events that cause Brainspots happen to everyone, and it is our primitive, unconscious brain that is causing the Brainspots to form. It is not a sign of weakness, merely a sign of humanness. As Dr. Grand has said “Even an athlete who is at the top of their game has some unresolved trauma, silently, negatively affecting their performance.”
What Happened to Mackey Sasser, the New York Mets Catcher?
Sasser struggled for years with his inability to throw to the pitcher without tapping his glove. He tried everything to get over the yips including seeing more than 50 different experts and psychologists, but nothing helped. Over time, he saw less playing time until he retired from professional baseball in 1995. He later began a career as a coach at Wallace Community College. In 2006, when he met Dr. Grand, Sasser was still having problems with releasing the ball without tapping his mitt when he threw batting practice. He believed it was keeping him from coaching in the majors.
Dr. Grand met with Sasser four times over nine months. He used Brainspotting on Sasser’s life history of physical injuries and emotionally stressful or overwhelming experiences. After the four sessions, Sasser no longer experienced any anxiety or tension when he threw, and he was able to release the ball smoothly and accurately. His yips were completely gone.
(If you want to see a short documentary of Dr. Grand’s work with Sasser, ESPN’s 30 for 30 shorts, Episode 9 “Fields of Fear” reports on it. Currently available on Youtube Play or Amazon Prime.)
It is worth noting how amazing this result is. The yips and other sports performance problems have baffled experts for decades. They have ended many athletic careers. Dr Grand’s deep understanding of the brain and nervous system allowed him to make the connection between the subcortical brain’s experience of negative physical and emotional events, most of which had been forgotten or dismissed by the athlete long ago, to the current performance issues.
Thanks to Dr. Grand’s work, we now know that these types of problems are the result of the unconscious brain holding on to remnants of past experiences that were stressful, painful, or overwhelming in some way. And we know how to reset the brain and nervous system to eliminate the performance problems and to optimize performance.
Brainspotting: The Cutting-Edge Neuroscientific Technique to Optimize Your Brain and Nervous System.
We now know that all of Sasser’s efforts at trying harder and the New York Mets attempts to help him were likely to fail because they ignored the underlying cause of his yips. The over 50 experts he consulted did not access and process the negative events that were stored in his subcortical brain. Sasser and the experts did not connect the long forgotten or seemingly unrelated negative experiences to his problem.
Every time he went out on the field, heard the crowd or the crack of the bat, felt the soil underneath his feet, his unconscious brain picked up on the familiar sensory cues, triggering his yips problem as an automatic survival reflex. He was powerless to stop it.
With Brainspotting, he was able to identify the events, process them and his neural circuits automatically rewrote themselves, thus releasing him from his endless struggles. He is free to reach for new, higher goals and is able to feel confident in himself. And maybe most importantly, he is free to enjoy baseball again.
I have no doubt that over time, Brainspotting will become widespread in sports. At a certain point, athletes will have to do it to keep up with their competitors. It is like any new technique, at first it seems strange and then over time as people see its value, it is adopted more and more. I hope anyone who is suffering with the yips will take this new avenue of overcoming their mental block with confidence.