Disclaimer: This is not medical or psychological advice. These techniques should only be practiced under the supervision of a trained and qualified medical professional.
Courtesy: Susannah Muller
Have you ever found yourself puzzled by an athlete’s performance? Maybe a swimmer who consistently swims great in practice but doesn’t perform at meets? Or an athlete who can’t beat a certain competitor despite having a better best time? Or an athlete who “chokes” under pressure?
Have you ever known anyone like Olivia, a high school swimmer, who hasn’t improved her best times in two seasons? She works hard in practice and tries her best in races, but somehow, she can’t get best times. Her coach tells her to “believe in yourself” and gives her tips and encouragement but nothing works. Both her and her coach are confused and perplexed about what to do. Despite all their efforts, she continually fails to reach her goals. Why? What is going on? Could she and these other athletes have a mental block?
What Is a Mental Block?
In essence, a mental block is when there is no physical reason for failing to accomplish something. In swimming, the most common are (1) slumps – like Olivia’s example above, (2) choking – when you are a great practice swimmer, but do subpar at meets, or when you swim well at “small” meets but don’t perform well at “big meets,” and (3) performance anxiety – when you overthink or get too nervous before a race to the detriment of your performance.
In the past, mental blocks have been extremely difficult to overcome, sometimes even career-ending, because no one understood the root cause. Dr. David Grand, however, has unlocked the mystery and provided us with a method to combat mental blocks at the same time. Before we get to how he made his discovery, let’s look a little more at what mental blocks might look like in swimming:
- Kaitlyn lacks confidence even though her coach believes she can swim much faster (confidence block).
- Jose used to love swimming, but recently it’s been no fun and he dreads practices and meets (lost enjoyment).
- John’s shoulder is completely recovered from his surgery, but he’s having trouble reaching the level he was at before the surgery (unconscious protecting block).
- Amy can’t feel her arms or legs when she races freestyle, and her mind goes blank (being “frozen”).
- Luke gets very anxious, and his performance is inconsistent (fear of failure or perfectionism).
The Mystery of Mental Blocks.
Typically, mental blocks seem to come out of nowhere – the onset makes no sense to athlete, coach, or parent, although at times there is a specific event that triggers it. They are dogged, defying the best efforts of athlete, coaches, and parents to fix them, and the athlete may get labeled “mentally weak,” “a head case,” “not motivated enough,” or “a choker.”
These strange performance problems are universal in sports, though each sport has their own terminology. In baseball and golf, they’re called “the yips,” meaning the player develops a “hiccup” in their movement. In shooting sports they’re called “target panic” and in gymnastics, cheerleading, and diving they’re called “balking.”
For the athlete facing such a block, it is a seemingly endless struggle. They usually respond by putting in more effort and trying to force their way past these blocks. While they may get small improvements, it doesn’t last and it’s beyond frustrating and discouraging.
It becomes a vicious cycle of the athlete trying harder, which doesn’t help and may hurt, and then failing again, the athlete redoubling their efforts, only to fail again. Not understanding what’s wrong, athletes, coaches, and parents may feel helpless and overwhelmed.
A Fundamental Misunderstanding: Effort, Willpower, and Traditional Sports Psychology Will Not Work.
Traditionally, sports psychologists respond to such mental blocks 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 swimmer to have, but none of them address the real issue underlying mental blocks and thus, they don’t help resolve them.
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 performance problem is under the conscious control of the athlete. It is not. It stems 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 upsetting 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 process 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 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 functionally infinite. One of its main jobs is to digest and organize everything you experience. Brainspots occur when someone experiences an event that is too overwhelming, upsetting, painful, or stressful for the brain to process completely.
When one of these types of events occur, the subcortical brain (the unconscious part of the 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. It is 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, 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 or fights
- Surgery or other medical procedures
In swimming specifically, events that might create a Brainspot include:
- Getting disqualified, missing a turn or making another mistake
- Being criticized or yelled at by a coach, parent, teammate, or the athlete mentally beating themselves up
- Failing to reach a goal
- Losing your goggles, having your suit rip, or other equipment failure
- Seeing a teammate being criticized or yelled at
- Losing a race or doing worse than expected
- Feeling you let the team down or any perceived “failure” or “embarrassment”
- Being injured and/or struggling to recover from an injury
Over time as these types of stressful events accumulate, they make the Brainspot more and more significant, until performance problems start to occur.
By the time the mental block becomes 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 mental blocks.
Mental Toughness and Positive Thinking Don’t Work.
Athletes are mentally tough 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 swimmers 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 you didn’t make your Sectionals cut because you’ve been focusing more on schoolwork may help you to understand what happened and put it behind you, your unconscious brain is going to remember the pain of missing your cut 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 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.
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 swimming, we are always moving forward, so the body’s instinct to pull backward slows us 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 tenths and even hundredths of a second can mean the difference between winning and being off the podium.
Now that we understand what causes these “mental blocks” it might be helpful to refer to them as “performance blocks” instead because a “mental block” implies a conscious volitional aspect, which is inaccurate.
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.
For example, you spend months training to make your Sectionals cut in the 200 Freestyle, conditioning your brain and nervous system through repetition and effort in practices to perform a certain way when the big race comes. But then you find out you’ll be swimming at a pool where the last few times you swam there you didn’t do very well. Even though consciously you understand what went wrong in the past and you are not focusing on those past swims in the present, the sensory information of that particular pool registers in your unconscious subcortical brain, (e.g., the same sights, sounds, smells, etc. of those painful memories) and it triggers a Brainspot, (aka, a neural network) in the brain that remembers the pain of those disappointing swims and wants to prevent it from happening again.
But 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 swim 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 swimmer and coach will be confused by the result, knowing the work the swimmer 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 performance 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 swimmer 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-write 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 blocks go away. Self-confidence and natural positivity return as does enjoyment of the sport.
Status of the Research Supporting Brainspotting.
Brainspotting is considered a “cutting-edge” modality as there has not yet been time for a body of peer-reviewed studies specifically about Brainspotting to develop. It is a relatively new modality, and more research is needed.
Initial studies show efficacy in using Brainspotting for treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and generalized anxiety disorders. In addition, there are several studies in the pipeline, including one by Santiago Brand, Clinical Director at MindLab and Vice President of PsyTech Bioscience, using fMRI, qEEG and/or other imaging techniques that observe the brain in action during Brainspotting which show that Brainspotting is having the effects in the brain that theoretical neuroscientific papers have postulated.
Brainspotting has also been endorsed by Bessel van de Kolk, M.D., a preeminent leader in the field of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Van de Kolk is a professor of Psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and president of the Trauma Research Foundation in Brookline, Massachusetts. He has published over 150 peer reviewed scientific articles and his books include the New York Times bestseller, The Body Keeps the Score.
There is also an abundance of practice evidence with clients whose lives have been transformed by Brainspotting. Over 13,000 therapists have been trained in Brainspotting, in 52 different countries internationally, including the United States, South America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia and Africa. The speed and breadth of Brainspotting spread all over the globe is notable.
One of the most compelling of these clinical results is the community survey following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting occurred in December of 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people, including 20 children between six and seven years old, and six staff members. In 2016, an independent foundation, The Newton-Sandy Hook Community Foundation, as part of its mission to support the short and long term needs of the individuals and community affected by that tragedy, reported their findings on the various methods used to help people impacted by that event. The Foundation found that of all the different methods used, Brainspotting was the most effective. (The survey can be found here: http://www.nshcf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/2016-NSHCF-Community-Assessment-Report.pdf).
Brainspotting is a State of the Art Way to Reset and Optimize Your Subcortical Brain and Nervous System.
As we’ve explained, the performance blocks are caused by Brainspots, which hijack your unconscious brain and nervous system and take “offline” the skills and techniques you’ve worked hard to develop in practices. The only way to stop the hijacking is to process the maladaptations in 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 performance block no longer exists. You are free to perform to your full potential, without your brain and nervous system being hijacked unconsciously.
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 Player’s 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.”
Brainspotting: The Cutting-Edge Neuroscientific Technique to Prime Your Brain and Nervous System.
For Olivia’s slump described above, we now know that it’s the result of the unconscious brain holding on to remnants of past experiences that were stressful, painful, or overwhelming in some way.
She is unlikely to connect those events with her current struggle and has probably forgotten or moved on from most of them. But the unconscious brain remembers as part of a survival mechanism we all have deep in our brain.
All her efforts at trying harder and her coach’s attempts to help her are likely to fail unless they access and process these events as they are stored in her subcortical brain.
With Brainspotting, she can identify the events, process them and her neural circuits will rewrite themselves automatically, thus releasing her from her endless struggles. She is free to reach for her goals and to feel confident in herself. And maybe most importantly, free to enjoy her sport again.
I have no doubt that over time, Brainspotting will become widespread. 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 to help bring it to the sport I love, swimming, sooner rather than later.
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ABOUT SUSANNAH MULLER
Susannah Muller is a former competitive swimmer who competed at an international level. She was a member of the US National Team multiple years and was World-Ranked multiple years (100- & 200-meter Backstroke and 200 meter Individual Medley). She competed at both the 1984 and 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials, as well as the US Swimming 1986 World Game Trials and was a finalist at the World University Games in 1989.
She grew up swimming for a small team in Northern California, Indian Valley Aquatic Club (IVAC). She then swam at Stanford University for two years under George Haines and two years under Richard Quick, both Head Olympic Coaches.
She was a 14-time All-American swimmer for Stanford University and was Co-Captain of the varsity team her Senior year. She was a multiple finalist at NCAAs and a member of a NCAA Division I Championship 4 x 100 free relay. Her Junior year Stanford won the NCAA Division I Championship Title and in her Senior year she was the Pac-10 Conference Champion in the 200-yard Backstroke.
She went on to UCLA School of Law where she graduated second in her class. After 8 years practicing law, she went back to school to become a licensed therapist and sports psychology consultant.
As a sports psychology consultant, she has worked with athletes of all levels, in many different sports, from age-group kids to Olympic medalists. In 2020, she was the sports psychology consultant for the professional swim team the New York Breakers, as they competed in the International Swim League (ISL).
She uses a cutting-edge, integrative, unique sports psychology program and is always seeking new ways to help her clients achieve more of their potential. Her goal is to help the athlete perform better, enjoy their sport more and to excel in their life beyond the field/pool/court.