Brainspotting For Athletes
I hope you liked the interview about brainspotting for athletes with clinical sports psychologist Phil Johnson – whether you watched it on my You Tube channel or listened to it on the Athlete Story podcast.
I’m really grateful for Phil’s generosity in sharing his unique insight on:
- brainspotting as a performance enhancing tool
- how brainspotting works
- how it can help you as an athlete get in the zone, heal from injuries and other trauma and boost you confidence
To save YOU the hassle and time, I have taken great notes for you.
Want them ?
You can read the full interview in the transcript below, but as I promised you can also get my notes from the show with the main takeaways sent to your email. Click the green button here and enter the email you want it sent to.
READ the transcript of full interview by clicking here.
How brainspotting works.
Did you know that where you look – affects how you feel ???? And no – I don’t mean the turning-your-head-on-the-street kind of looking ;-That can affect how you feel to – I know that… But okay cool, why does this matter to you?
Well our guest today can tell you much more about that. He will explain how brainspotting works – that’s the technical name for this looking thing and how that works – and how that can actually help you with things like performance anxiety, dealing with and healing from injuries and trauma and to getting in the zone for optimal performance. He was awarded UK’s Clinical Sport Psychologist of the Year in 2017 and his name is Phil Johnson. As you will see he radiates – care ! – He helps world class athletes in all kinds of sports – from fancy race car driving and equestrian sports – yeah horseback riding that is – to something as plain and simple as sports involving a ball for example.
This is Athlete Story and I’m your host Anja Bolbjerg. If you are a world class athlete – or simply into sports – I suggest you subscribe to my show right now – because I will be posting a lot more athlete stories and chats with world class sports experts and insiders.
Like Phil Johnson. Come on let’s go.
Your brain remembers everything in your life – and so too does your body. So there is a brain-body memory. It’s all subconsciously driven. And it’s about this part of your brain. This is the subconscious and this is the subcortical brain. The top of the brain is where we do our thinking.
When we are thinking all the time and analyzing – like trying to get off to sleep — we’re not feeling.
The feeling is when you’re anxious and you feel it physically in your body. When you heart rate starts to increase. This is all subcortical brain. These traumatic events lie there.
So what was discovered, is that through a live MRI scan when you think about being frightened – the amygdala in the back of your brain lights up. That’s where fear lives.
So when you think about being frightened – you are not frightened, you just THINK about being frightened, it happens the same ?
Yeah. There is a spot in your brain where that emotional memory is kept. And as you were talking about your injury I was watching your eyes. And you, actually, your eyes almost went into a circle of looking in different places …But ultimately when you talked a little bit about the sadness of it, you started to look down.
And that is actually what we call a GAZE SPOT – it’s an eye position that is linking to that emotional feeling, into that point in your brain.
And if indeed, you were to carry on looking whilst thinking about the emotional feelings related to that injury…. – they are physically held in your body in the sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for generating energy, in the way that the parasympathetic system relaxes it.
If you would have kept on looking while thinking that memory would have released physically from your body into the parasympathetic nervous system. And then the two hemispheres of your brain, which are blocked from communicating, reconnect and create new neuro-pathways in your brain.
Okay so, if I get this right… for me trying NOT to get into that feeling, and I stop looking down because I don’t want to go there, I keep that disconnection going.
And if I go there and let that feeling come a little bit… let that tear come to my eye…it can reconnect ?
It can release and reconnect. Yes absolutely. Because in the trauma of that injury there is an emotional and physiological disconnection. And it happens in your brain and it happens in your body. But we are unaware of it.
But we can discover the ultimate issues. Where they come from. And when we do, they can get fixed. And yes, simply by finding that spot in your brain through remembering and connecting with the physical and emotional feelings, we can find an eye position- or eye positions – that relate to that specific memory.
And as you have already suggested, when you look there and it feels uncomfortable, your natural inclination is to look somewhere else. To look away where you feel calmer and more comfortable.
But actually, it is looking where you feel uncomfortable where the healing is. And by actually maintaining the eye position, you start to release the trauma from your sympathetic nervous system automatically into the parasympathetic. And then two hemispheres of your brain automatically reconnect and reprocess that information and create new neuro-pathways. Your brain does all the work. There is no failure. It is not talking therapy. And you’re in control. It’s fantastic. It’s called brainspotting.
So there will be times where you can’t go into that feeling because you have to perform. And for the next minute or 90 minutes or whatever sport you are doing, you can’t go around feeling because you have to focus on something else. So how do you separate, if something shows up before a game or a competition, do you go there? Do you go into that feeling or do you say : Okay, not now. And then you go do your thing.
Okay so if you think of a a tennis player..and if you look at Andy Murray and Djokovic. Over the last 18 months they ‘ve had long layoffs with injury. And then they come into play and then they are still not ready. And so they lose. But why they are trying to do is that they have learnt over the years to have the ultimate focus. And just to explain what happens is that I use concentration as an overall description of what actually happens when we go to focus on something.
And we have a camera over here. And if you like, the camera is looking at a wide perspective and that’s how I see concentration. So imagine that you are scanning your camera over an area and then something captures your attention and then you look and then you zoom in. And for me symbolically that’s how the concentration is bringing our thoughts into one direction and that something captures our attention and then we zoom into it – is the focus. But that is dynamic.
And so as psychologists we call this attentional focus. So it’s not just in the moment. It’s being consistently reproduced. We are focused. We are in the moment.
And then something happens to distract us. A sound. A shout. A plastic bag blowing in the wind in the eyes of a horse. And that breaks that dynamic experience of attention and focus. Attention and focus.
So when a rugby player goes to do a kick over the post for a penalty and he has placed the ball. What I do with them is that I create an imaginary bubble that they can step into and cut out all the sound and all the other influences so they can sustain that attentional focus.
They have their pre-kick routine so that they go into: Stand, step back look at the ball look at the post – breathe. And the breathing calms them down. Then they are creating the image that they have already practiced. Then they are looking at the angle. Then they are noticing what’s happening in terms of the wind. And then at that moment they are ready to go. And then they follow through and then they keep the direction and the ball goes where they are looking over the post. Perfect.
But then -even though they might be in their bubble – they are close to the touch line and one of the opposing fans shouts it: You are rubbish. You are rubbish! You’re going to miss!
And he hears it and he allows it to interfere. And then his breathing changes and then as his looking at the post ,he is doing it quickly. He is not doing it with calm. And then what – as he hits it he curls the ball and his leg is moving slightly over to the left. And he misses.
Just the same as in the world cup in the penalty taking. SO, it’s fascinating
When you’re a skier. Imagine doing slalom where the moments that you have in between each gate are so fast that if you make one mistake, accumulatively, by the the third turn you’re out. Or you lose an edge and you’re just straight out. It’s concentration And so part of how you sustain that is with rhythm. It’s the rhythm of the movement. It’s like music and it’s with the breathing
But it also means that your attentional focus is not just on the gate that you’re coming into. It’s what’s gonna go afterwards. So that you’ve got a certain line that you’re going to take and come out of and get ready. It’s all about preparation and execution.
And like with racing car driving for 50 minutes, 1hour and 20 minutes, absolute focus. That’s what you train yourself to do. But you need to be able to be calm, you need to be in the moment, you need to be in the zone.
And being in the zone is defined as having that attentional focus being in the moment and by definition: not distracted.
And you can do that – you can guide yourself in there right. With the way you talk to yourself…
You can. However when you use brain spotting, not only can you use an eye position to release and desensitize a negative experience . You can use it to recreate a highly positive one. This is what I do with the racing drivers, so when they are about to start the race they go into a eye position where they remember being successful in their start on the grid…. or that this is a circuit that they always do well in.
And so whether you are a tennis player or a gymnast or a pianist – it doesn’t matter.
You can remember an event where you did extremely well…where you were totally in the zone, where you really felt good. And even with your eyes closed, your brain will take your eyes to look where you were looking at the time.
And now, as I open my eyes, that’s where I was looking. That’s the eye position for that memory. And when I breathe, what I’m doing is that I’m setting that position, and then I’m remembering the feelings that go with it.
And it all happens in a matter of seconds.
Okay, so brainspotting is not “just” about – healing a trauma. You can also use it proactively to get in a state that you want to be in?
Excellent. Now that’s useful.
It’s very useful. And the thing is that that’s what your brain is used to doing. If we allow it.
Now, have you ever had anyone say: “I’m a little worried about that. Because what if I look a millimeter too far this way, is something bad going to happen to me?”
Well, sometimes that can happen. Sometimes you can have the same eye position for a number of different memories. So that’s why, in the control of this, it’s your thought about your experience. And it’s also like anything else, you can train and practice to do this.
For example I work with Jenny Jones who won bronze medal in snowboard slopestyle in Sochi. She became the first Britton ever to win an Olympic medal on snow. And when I met Jenny it was her psychologist who introduced me to her. I was in Bristol in England at the time and Jenny is from Bristol. It was Christmas time …She’d been concussed so much from a fall in the previous October in Austria. Fell back, hit her head. And she still had a concussion. She was imbalanced and so we used the brainspotting to remove the concussion. And that’s one of the things that I do which is really a development.
I’m not the only brainspotter who does it. I have a colleague in Boulder, Colorado that does it and I’m training one of my fellow trainers to also do it. Using the same technique – it’s different in operation, you have to be incredibly patient
because it can take up to two and a half hours to remove deep concussion. And not only just in one session. But that’s what I did with Jenny. And then we worked on… She had one of the longest injury histories of anyone I ever know. Sh’es broken so many things. If you think about your skiing history and then snowboarding and the number of times you have fallen and so. And then banged your head, banged your back.But we finally got her ready to snowboard. And she did an internal competition an, international one outside of the Olympics. And came 4th. She hadn’t been on the board for like five months.
But when she went to Sochi, I said to her: Look, your coach is going to push you too hard because that’s what he feels that he needs to do….and for me, I feel that it’s the wrong thing. I said to her: Be more sustained and gradual in your development. And we even used imagery and brianspotting together to deal with the movements of each part of her routine.
And that’s what gave her the capability to perform. She won bronze and it was totally life changing.
This was 2014. It changed her life. And she then went into media because I persuaded her to start to build another career beyond snowboarding – even if it’s connected to snowboarding. And she has a chat show on radio and so on. And she’s a fantastic person. She is very funny. She is very engaging. But she is also shy.
So all these dimensions of the individual all come into the performance.
So we can manage and control these things for ourselves, and there are techniques outside of brainspotting that psychologists have been using for a very long time and that you too have learnt for yourself – but brainspotting is pioneering. It’s different. It works. Your brain does all the work. There is no failure.
So just to recap on the brainspotting…
Whenever a trauma – in the broad sense of the word – happens to you, it kind of leaves a stain in your brain?
And every time you experience something similar or something that takes you there, this…what happens to this? – Some point gets activated up in the brain?
You’re absolutely right. Because the brain remembers everything. And so much of this activity is subconscious. Then, if you have a memory that’s similar to something that you are currently in the context of, your brain will remember it. Just like going to a restaurant. Your brain remembers all the restaurants you have ever been to.
And if there’s one where you had a terrible time, where you got food poisoning, you will be recalled “Oh, I ate fish in that restaurant” and so you have an emotional response.
So your brain triggers a previous memory. Subconsciously. And that’s what actually directs your behavior in that moment. It’s not necessarily the very thing that’s happening.
And so when we go back and we desensitize that memory, there is nothing left to trigger.
In the same way that we can use a positive experience from your history to reinforce, automatically when you look and remember what’s happening int the moment.
And the trigger can be anything from a physical pain in the knee or shoulder to a reaction?
Yes or something that somebody says to you…
“you won’t win this race1” – oh, my coach used to say that to me when he got annoyed with me… or one of my parents would say it in the belief that it would motivate me.
And then, you know, you grab all you ski poles and even though it’s freezing cold here, you are tacky, your hands are hot and there is something going on in the back of your neck and you are going: Can I do this, can I do this?
And then you miss the first gate because you are going to freeze.
This is all created by your brain, so that when we change the way that your brain works, it doesn’t happen. We can become re-traumatized, but in the work, what we do is remember only. We don’t re-experience because when we re-experience we can and do re-traumatize.
So you ‘re absolutely right, these are triggered responses.
So when you have had two knee injuries and you go back to perform and you’re thinking about your left knee, your brain is already thinking about your right knee injury that happened five years earlier.
And if you have doubts about that, they then add to what’s happening in the moment.
Trauma is accumulative. Concussions are accumulative.
But this approach can deal with multiple levels of trauma. And when I do the assessment I can see themes in people’s lives that appear disconnected but actually they’re connected.
I bet you can. Like we can physically, I bet you can see that emotionally when you are trained.
Excellent. Thank you so much for doing this. I really enjoyed this talk.