People who push themselves to perform at a high level can sometimes find themselves in a reoccurring slump, where they chronically fall short of their desired performance. When an actor, athlete, musician, speaker, or any performer struggles with repetitive performance problems, he or she will begin to question why they are experiencing these problems. Are they not practicing hard enough? Are they not giving their all? The answer may be that something is holding them back both mentally and physically. This can create a frustrating and demoralizing situation where the performer questions himself and his abilities or wonders if there is something wrong with her.
A poor performance may result from a loss of focus, or letting anxiety or fear distract you, and sometimes there is an underlying issue that is much deeper. What may be standing in a performer’s way isn’t his or her lack of abilities or resolve but a mental and physical block, also known as a brain “freeze.” This “freezing” can stem from an unresolved memory, trauma or disturbing experience. These memories are much more common than most people are aware of and can leave a person with a high skill level feeling stymied and incapacitated.
Performers of all types face a range of problems, but all are resolvable with the right therapy. In 2003, David Grand, PhD discovered a therapeutic tool that he decided to call Brainspotting. It quickly became the or one of the most effective treatments to help people dealing with the kind of mental, emotional, and physical pain that cause these performance blocks. Grand discovered that when your eyes are focused on a particular point, you may experience memories and the accompanying feelings.
A brainspot is a focal point in your field of vision that correlates to an internal point in your brain where you have stored the memories and emotions of the event. A therapist uses the brainspotting technique to help you neutralize distressful and painful “frozen” memories. The therapist helps you find the spot(s) in your field of vision, which are marked by a reflective response, such as a twitch, a change in breathing or change in expression. In addition, you will have an inner sense of where the exact spot is.
According to Grand, ongoing performance problems are based on physically or emotionally upsetting experiences that have not been adequately processed, but instead get stored in the performer’s brain and body. Subsequent “traumas” or upsetting experiences become intertwined and stacked together. So a physical injury, such as getting hit with a ball during a baseball game, gets stored in both the body and the brain and other upsetting experiences also get stored in the same way.
The body remembers everything about each injury, what the body was doing the moment up to the impact, how the injury felt when it happened, what the body was sensing and feeling, hearing and seeing in those moments. When the athlete or performer is in a similar situation, these memories get activated and can impede with the person’s current performance.
Performance blocks can occur for people performing at all different levels, even after a great deal of meticulous practice and planning. In sports the worst performance problem is the loss of function, which is known as the yips. It results in the loss of the ability to perform fine motor skills, such as throwing a baseball or putting a golf ball. Oftentimes people believe that if the traditional approaches don’t work, there is no hope.
One such example is that of Mackey Sasser, a professional baseball catcher with the New York Mets who performed well, but early on had occasional trouble with the simple task of throwing the ball back to the pitcher. During the 1990 season he had a serious collision with another player at home plate which badly sprained his ankle and partially tore his Achilles tendon. After that, his yip became even more pronounced and he would often have to pump his arm several times before he could throw the ball back to the pitcher and sometimes he couldn’t release the ball at all. His hand would clutch the ball and he couldn’t let go to throw it back. This yip effectively ended his baseball career.
Even after he left baseball and became the head coach at a community college in Alabama he still had trouble smoothly releasing the ball and was still seeking answers as to why. He began working with Grand, who uncovered how Sasser had been through a number of injuries in his childhood, teen years and adult life. These injuries gradually accumulated within the athlete’s mind and body and were ultimately responsible for interfering with Sasser’s natural talent. After only three brainspotting sessions, Sasser was able to discover and causes and process the traumas he had been through and he no longer has a throwing problem.
Therapy begins by looking at the emotional and physical injuries, failures, and humiliations that a performer has suffered. A history of these issues must be taken so there is clarity about what is behind the person’s performance issues. Once the underlining issues are known, Brainspotting can be used to lock in on them and quickly resolve the block and lower a person’s intensity and anxiety. Then the person’s normal ability to perform freely, without over thinking or inhibition, will naturally come back.
With the removal of the blocks it is possible for a person to perform at even a higher level than before. For those who are going for a very high level of performance, they can benefit from Brainspotting as they rehearse their performance, even after the blocks are neutralized. This expansion of the person’s ability is an exciting additional benefit of Brainspotting and we will explore this more in the next blog.
Brainspotting was discovered in 2003 and is being shown to be the most effective tool for treatment for trauma. The most recent documentation is the “Report of Findings from the Community Survey, September 2016, Newton-Sandy Hook Community Foundation, Inc.
ESPN 30 for 30 Series “Fields of Fear”: David Grand's Brainspotting Sports Work with Mackey Sasser was featured in the ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary series by renowned documentarian Alex Gibney.
You can find a trained Brainspotting psychotherapist at www.brainspotting.pro.
Tom Rohrer, PhD, LMFT, based in Colorado Springs, CO (after decades in Walnut Creek, CA), is a licensed psychotherapist in CO (MFT0001929) and in CA (MFC20325), and a Mental Performance Consultant, specializing in sports psychology. He is certified in Brainspotting and he is trauma informed.