Sports Performance Enhancement with Brainspotting

Article by Katherine Heeg, LCSW

Brainspotting is a relatively new type of psychotherapy…

that was discovered by Dr. David Grand while he was working with an Olympic level figure skater. Dr. Grand states that it’s no accident that most of his biggest discoveries have occurred while working with athletes. Athletes not only have healthy bodies, their brains appear very healthy as well, due to the high oxygenation of neurons from increased blood circulation during exercise. Neurologist Majid Fotuhi, author of The Memory Cure, says that exercise produces new brain cells. In my own work (I am a Brainspotting therapist trained by Dr. Grand) I have noticed that the desired therapeutic changes appear to “stick” better and quicker in the brain of athletes or people who exercise regularly. As babies, in our brains everything connects to everything else, then the unused connections are pruned or dissolved. It’s a “use it or lose it” brain, much like our bodies, which atrophy quickly after long periods of immobilization or non-use.

The book This Is Your Brain on Sports: Beating Slumps, Blocks, and Performace Anxiety for Good by David Grand and Alan Goldberg goes into much greater detail about the use of Brainspotting and sports performance enhancement, but I will summarize here how Brainspotting therapists work to help athletes maximize their abilities. Imagine this scenario: a young gymnast witnesses two peers colliding in mid-air. When a gymnast is in mid-air, she isn’t using conscious thought to decide what to do. Her brain is making quick, non-logical decisions in nano-seconds. The signals that travel in our brain/nervous system/bodies can travel up to 320mph. After the gymnast witnesses the collision, she is unable to perform her routine as effectively as she used to, for fear that she might collide with a teammate. In mental health terms, we call this “secondary trauma.” Whether a sports related injury happens to us or someone else, it can affect our performance. This is where a Brainspotting session can help. We use focused eye position to stimulate the brain and nervous system to release the “frozen emotion” stuck inside. Once released, the athlete can return to her previous state of athletic performance and functioning. How this works precisely I will leave to neuroscientists to explain. But it does work and academic research on Brainspotting has begun. I once did Brainspotting with a gymnast who feared “missing her hands” while performing a back walkover on the beam. “Where do you feel the fear in your body?” I asked during our session. “In my arms” was the reply. When her eyes were fixed staring at her brainspot, her upper arms were visibly twitching! This appears to be evidence of Brainspotting’s ability to influence the mind-body connection. Every time we move a muscle, the impulses originate from our brain and spinal cord.

Brainspotting therapists help athletic performance by identifying and treating “Sports Traumatic Stress Disorder.” For example, imagine a quarterback receives a bad head concussion from a blind-sided sack. After that, he just can’t seem to “get it back” and he appears to be frightened of standing in the pocket. Up to a handful of Brainspotting sessions may be able to get the quarterback returned to optimal performance. Or picture a mountain biker during a race taking a bad fall after his front wheel jack-knifes on a slippery wet root, and then he can’t get back on his bike, even for non-competitive biking. Brainspotting can help extract the fear of future falls. The biker will still recall what happened but the distressing emotion will be eliminated.

Any athlete who reads about me might wonder “What does she know about golf/tennis/football/baseball/insert your sport here“? I am not an expert on any sport; however, I do not have to be, because I am not the performer. My expertise lies in helping people change, and as long as the person can identify A) What it is they don’t want to be doing (block), and B) What it is they want to do (desired outcome), I can work with the athlete on getting from point A to point B. The beauty of Brainspotting is in its simplicity, and in its ability to tap into the already laid foundation of the genius of the human brain/body nervous system.