As someone who is always interested in the latest developments regarding sports training, I was intrigued to learn about a powerful therapy technique called Brainspotting and how it can be used to help athletes overcome severe performance issues, especially those related to traumatic injuries. In my case, learning about this therapy was a very personal experience that had important implications for my family.
In October of 2015, my son, a promising sophomore basketball player suffered a painful and traumatic injury during an optional practice session. In an attempt for a layup, he hit a wet spot on the floor and came crashing back to the court which resulted in a severely dislocated left elbow and torn ligaments. While it was a disheartening injury, these types of things happen in sports, so he went through the time off and rehab in an effort to get back in time to finish the season.
When he had physically recovered from the elbow injury and was ready to return to practice, he found himself plagued by a mysterious fatigue in both his breathing and his legs. Where once he could play for hours at a time, he now found himself weak and winded within minutes of normal basketball activity. At first, we suspected deconditioning as he had been out nearly two months, but as the weeks progressed, he didn’t get any better. If anything, he felt like it was getting worse. He also had several episodes in training where he almost collapsed due to his legs giving out. In trying to describe what he was feeling, he said “my legs feel like they are asleep and won’t wake up.” Because he could not play for more than a few minutes at a time without fatiguing, he ended up missing the entire sophomore season for High School. It was frustrating for him to sit on the bench while the team made a run to the state tournament and not be a contributor.
Over the next few months, we tried a number of avenues to identify the cause of his performance issues. His primary doctor administered blood tests, as well as heart and lung tests which could identify no obvious problem. She referred him to a neurologist who then had him undergo two MRIs for his brain and spine, which found no issues either. While we were relieved that it was nothing like an autoimmune disease or things of that nature, every negative result made it more frustrating for us as we still had no answers. Next up was a month of chiropractic sessions as it was possible it was an alignment problem in his hips, but that proved fruitless, as well.
The next step was to meet with a physical therapist who specialized in sports performance issues. He diagnosed my son with extremely tight hamstrings and hip flexors which he felt could be shutting down the quads and causing the unusual fatigue issues. After several weeks of treatment, his flexibility vastly improved as did the strength in his legs, however he was still tiring rapidly on the court. The improvement was enough that he was able to attempt a comeback to club basketball in April, it was obvious he was nowhere near his normal performance levels. While the Physical Therapy work had helped to loosen up his legs and improve his leg strength, he was still suffering physically and would struggle to make it through games.
In June, approximately eight months after the original injury, he started HS Summer ball and had a great first game where he hit every shot and helped his team to an overpowering win. However after the game, he told me it felt like torture to play and that if it continued to be this much of a struggle, he didn’t want to continue playing basketball. For a child who is very skilled and passionate about the sport it broke my heart to hear this, but he simply was not enjoying it anymore because of the physical problems that were proving too challenging to deal with on a daily basis.
Shortly after this, my wife discovered a website by a doctor named Alan Goldberg who specialized in helping athletes overcome sports performance issues. In conjunction with another doctor, David Grand, they had developed a powerful training tool for athletes who have suffered traumatic sports injuries called Brainspotting. Their book, This is Your Brain on Sports: Beating Blocks, Slumps and Performance Anxiety for Good!, detailed a number of cases where they had successfully applied their therapy when all other avenues had failed to work.
In their own words, “Brainspotting is a powerful, focused treatment method that works by identifying, processing and releasing core neurophysiological sources of emotional/body pain, trauma, dissociation and a variety of other challenging symptoms. Brainspotting is a simultaneous form of diagnosis and treatment, enhanced with Biolateral sound, which is deep, direct, and powerful yet focused and containing.
Brainspotting functions as a neurobiological tool to support the clinical healing relationship. There is no replacement for a mature, nurturing therapeutic presence and the ability to engage another suffering human in a safe and trusting relationship where they feel heard, accepted, and understood.
Brainspotting gives us a tool, within this clinical relationship, to neurobiologically locate, focus, process, and release experiences and symptoms that are typically out of reach of the conscious mind and its cognitive and language capacity.
Brainspotting works with the deep brain and the body through its direct access to the autonomic and limbic systems within the body’s central nervous system. Brainspotting is accordingly a physiological tool/treatment which has profound psychological, emotional, and physical consequences.”
One of the most compelling stories dealt with the case of Mackey Sasser, a talented professional baseball player whose career was plagued by a strange mental block which prevented him from making normal throws from home plate to the pitcher. For years, Sasser worked with a number of therapists who were unable to find the root cause of his throwing issues, which ultimately led to a premature end to a promising career. However, years after his career had ended, he still hoped to be a baseball coach, but felt his throwing issue would prevent him from having success as a bullpen coach. After meeting with the authors Grand and Goldberg, and undergoing only a few Brainspotting sessions, Sasser was able to find the root causes behind his problems, and more importantly get treatment which completely relieved him of the throwing malady. For more info on this cases and several other applications check out their book at:
After reading the book, I was encouraged that my son’s troubles might be treated with this therapy and searched for any therapist in our area who might be skilled in the technique, but the closest one was over two hours away. After a call with her, she strongly believed the problems he was experiencing were linked to his traumatic injury and suggested we try a session. Figuring we had nothing to lose, we decided to take a chance.
During the two hour session, the therapist took some time to talk to my son about the injury and the feelings it caused with him. About thirty minutes in, she fitted him for some headphones that played Biolateral music. Then with the use of a pointer, asked him to envision the accident as if he was playing a movie in slow motion in his head, and moved the pointer to different spot to try to identify the spot in his vision where he had the most visible reaction to the injury.
Once she had identified the eye location and continued to encourage him to visualize the injury, something dramatic began to happen. I noticed that his legs, mostly his left leg, started to noticeably twitch. In discussing later with my son, he told me his legs involuntarily continued to contract. Over the next hour, this continued and the therapist explained the trauma that had been frozen on his psyche was being unlocked. As we approached the end of the session, the twitching started to noticeably slow down. My son was now sweating, and felt like his legs had went through a workout.
While something visually powerful had happened during the session, we had no way to know how this would translate into his actual performance. The therapist estimated that maybe 70% of the trauma might have been unlocked, and that a second shorter follow-up session might be needed based on how he felt in the following week. As it turned out, that was not necessary. In the following weeks, my son returned to the courts and had a marked improvement in leg strength and his conditioning level. Where he recently had struggled to play extended stretches and considered it “torture” he now was able to play almost entire games, where the fatigue he would experience would be normal. It’s not an exaggeration to say, this powerful therapy had an almost miraculous effect on his recovery and improved sports performance
If you have an athlete who is experiencing performance issues that you feel may be connected to a traumatic injury from the past, I would highly recommend seeing a certified therapist. I know for my family, months of frustration were put behind us after just a single session. Quite simply, this is a technique that worked for us, when all other avenues had failed.
For more information on the subject, please refer to the Brainspotting website: https://brainspotting.pro/