When Trauma Impacts Performance

A Brainspotting Cure for the "Yips"

David Grand

As therapists, we too often fail to recognize that significant changes in a person’s inner state don’t always lead to desired changes in performance. Early on in my work with performance blocks, I was struck by how often the root of the problem could be traced to traumatic experiences, especially with athletes.

One of the most common athletic performance blocks I treat is something called the yips, the loss by an accomplished athlete of an ability to perform a seemingly simple task that was once almost automatic, like an expert golfer suddenly being unable to drop a three-foot putt. It’s primarily a sports concept, but it can be found in all walks of life, such as a surgeon whose hands inexplicably start to shake in the operating room, or a courtroom attorney who struggles to get words out during a trial. I’ve found that the medical treatment is usually ineffective. Instead, I believe the symptoms found in the yips can more accurately be understood as a form of trauma-based dissociation.

Rick’s Yips

The case of Rick, a 19-year-old division-one baseball catcher who’d inexplicably lost the ability to throw the ball back to the pitcher, offers an example of how unacknowledged trauma and dissociation can undermine an athlete’s performance. When he came to see me, Rick had been taken off the playing roster by his coach, and had already worked with two different sports psychologists to no avail. His throws were still either sailing over the pitcher’s head or spiking into the ground. Baffled by how his throwing arm seemed simply not to take orders from his brain, he’d started suffering severe anxiety attacks.

In our first session, I asked Rick, “Have you ever had any big humiliations or failures in your sports?” I asked this question because, in addition to injuries, failures and humiliations often accumulate as sports traumas. Rick shrugged but didn’t answer. When I pressed for more details, he said, “You know, the usual, people calling me loser, choker, head case. Sometimes the coaches berated me in front of the team and even in front of the people in the bleachers. If I dropped the ball, they’d tell me I sucked and make me run for an extra 30 minutes after practice while everyone else showered.”

“Didn’t that bother you?” I asked, trying to ascertain the extent of Rick’s denial.

“They do it to everyone. I guess I had it coming, especially after the whole throwing problem started” he replied. At this point, with the mention of his throwing block, Rick pulled in his legs and looked down.

“Tell me what happened,” I urged gently.

Tearing up he answered, “They started calling me a wuss. Every time I made a bad throw back to the pitcher, the coach would yell that out. My teammates picked it up and started to call me that name behind my back.”

As we talked, I learned that Rick had always been a gifted athlete, playing baseball, football, and lacrosse in school. His adopted father was a former athlete who drilled Rick hard, regularly pulling him out from school during lunch to hit ground balls to him on a rocky baseball infield. It wasn’t uncommon that the ball would take an errant bounce and hit Rick in the head, throat, or shins. “Shake it off,” his father would tell him.

Using Brainspotting with Performance

Brainspotting is a therapeutic approach I’ve developed over the past 12 years to access the emotional and somatic areas deep in the brain, bypassing the areas of thought and language. Through an integration of EMDR and Somatic Experiencing, it focuses on using eye gaze and body awareness to access and process traumatic memories that may be difficult to bring to consciousness otherwise.

Using the Brainspotting approach, I guided Rick to remember the last time his arm had locked up throwing back to the pitcher, and he chose the practice from the previous day. I asked him how activated he felt on a Subjective Units of Distness Scale (SUDS) from 0 to 10 (0 being neutral and 10 the most). It wasn’t hard for Rick to summon up his activation, as he’d been obsessing about the incident all day. He shot back, “Nine.”


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I next asked where he felt the activation in his body. He said, “In my stomach and my shoulder.” To get more comprehensive access to two different somatic systems, I slowly scanned a pointer across Rick’s visual field, looking for the spot where he felt the most body activation. In Brainspotting, a client’s feeling of somatic activation is used to locate hot spots in the visual field that trigger emotionally intense memories. Once located, clients are guided to maintain a gaze on these spots while mindfully observing their internal experience.

I noticed Rick’s eyes riveted on a spot on the wall as if he was watching the coach’s back right there, so I put the pointer down, recognizing that Rick had spontaneously found his own Brainspot. “Keep looking at the spot on the wall and tell me how activated you are from 0 to 10,” I said.

Rick answered, “10.” Tears began pouring down Rick’s face as he spontaneously recalled a torrent of hurtful incidents with his father, both on and off the field. Some memories were recent, and some were from early childhood, and they jumped around nonsequentially.

After about 45 minutes, I guided Rick to recall the memory of his initial shoulder injury and how his coach had turned his back on him. He looked amazed and shared, “It’s like the images have splintered apart. I can’t explain it, but I can barely make them out.” These significant changes in imagery usually accompany a reduction of symptoms and indicate that the frozen trauma in the brain is releasing.

“How activated do you feel from 0 to 10?” I asked.

He said, “It’s a two. It’s barely bothering me.”


Talk therapy alone is limited in its reach into the early trauma history that resides in the unconscious regions of the brain and in the body. In many cases, Brainspotting and other state-of-the-art brain-body-based approaches can achieve results that more traditional methods can’t, providing a powerful healing modality that needs to be individualized for each client and integrated with other treatment techniques. Gone are the days when we relied solely on the relationship or nonrelational approaches in working with trauma. Now more and more therapists are learning how to mindfully marry them together.


David Grand, PhD, is in private psychotherapy and performance/creativity enhancement practice. He’s the author of Brainspotting: The Revolutionary New Therapy for Rapid and Effective Change, This Is Your Brain on Sports, and Emotional Healing at Warp Speed.

This blog is excerpted from "A Cure for the Yips," by David Grand. The full version is available in the November/December 2015 issue, The Mystery of Gender: Are Therapists in the Dark?

Illustration © Sally Wern Comport 

Topic: Trauma

Tags: Anxiety | anxiety attacks | brainspotting | consciousness | Dan Siegel | emdr | psychotherapy | PTSD | the human brain | therapy | David Grand | the brain

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1 Comment

Monday, January 9, 2017 2:59:37 PM | posted by DONA J.
As a therapist using Brainspotting with many of my clients I have found it to be dynamic and life changing for clients. The eye placement directs the focus on the limbic system in the brain which holds our memories, beliefs and trauma. I recommend finding a therapist who offers this type of therapy. Dona J. Airey LCSW, ACSW