After spending the 2011 baseball season as the team psychotherapist for the Colorado State University-Pueblo Thunderwolves – (see “Performance Work with College Baseball Pitchers, A Case Study,” Podium Sports Journal July 2011) – I continued to have contact with several of the players who had not graduated the previous year and had returned for the 2012 season. I have also been working on a book about the 2011 season, tentatively titled “The Last Angry Season,” due to the effects of a negative head coach on the psyche of the players. With this in mind, I resigned to only work with those players who sought help with one exception, that being a senior right fielder by the name of J.T.
The first opportunity to work with J.T., using the neurobehavioral technique “Brainspotting”came in late November of 2011. I had had a previous discussion with his Mother and I expressed to her my desire for J.T. to have a good senior college season. I asked her to have J.T. contact me if he was interested in working with me. The reasons for my wanting J.T. to have a good senior season were threefold; first, he is a great young man with strong moral character; second, he works harder than most baseball players I have seen at the collegiate level, and finally; he has three strong baseball skills that include a strong arm, good speed, and he can hit for power.
Brainspotting in its use with sports has been written about in Podium Sports Journal previously, but new information and research is evolving regularly. Dr. David Grand, speaks to the origins and nature of the work in this YouTube video, however, applications such as that in baseball are evolving as we speak and are discussed generally in this article.
Fall ball was over by the time we first worked together but J.T. was still intent on his own methods in preparation for his last year of college baseball. He was struggling with the fact that he had begun to feel the pressure of his senior year and the need to produce in order for the team to be successful. We had three Brainspotting sessions at the end of November through the First of December. At the focus of these sessions, we sought to find the sources of his anxiety at the plate and employ our focus on calming his limbic/autonomic system activity. Arousal in this part of the nervous system is customary, but great athletic functioning in many sports is linked to effectively managing this aspect of the nervous system. J.T. experienced this in noteworthy ways. He reported that he felt more relaxed at the plate, and that while he was still chasing some balls out of the strike zone, he wasn’t stressing out about it and it wasn’t carrying over into everything else in his life. He reported feeling great and required no further work at that time.
By his own admission, J.T. had a propensity to press when he was at the plate. The season started in mid-February and even though he and I had done the three sessions a couple months prior to the start of the season he struggled early. Perhaps it was the fact that when we worked together previously there were no games and therefore the stress level was not comparable to actual competition. Perhaps it was due to changes in his personal life. Or it could have been that during the time we worked together there was minimal contact with the coaching staff. Whatever the reason or reasons, his statistics in the first 12 games of the year were indicative of his plate anxiety: 8 for 41 hitting for a .195 batting average with 4 extra base hits and 6 runs batted in. The last two games of this period he struggled greatly going 0-9 during those games. The date of the last game of his struggles was March 4 and I contacted J.T. and asked if he thought we had more work to do. As most athletes are highly motivated, he agreed.
Anxiety and the use of Micro-Movements
While J.T. was going through his early-season struggles, I had the fortunate experience to attend a sports performance workshop being taught by one of the primary trainers in Brainspotting, the highly respected Lisa Schwarz. During this training she talked about various ways in which to employ the techniques with baseball players. One particular method she taught working with pitchers caught my attention. She informed the trainees that she had done micro-movements with pitchers and had even done so blindfolded! As a former coach, I understood all too well the value of “chunking” the game down to its basic fundamentals (See Daniel Coyle’s, “The Talent Code,” for a great example of how great coaches accomplish “chunking”). To do so and have the athlete blindfolded was brilliant in terms of allowing the athlete to find where in their body they are holding traumatic or fear-based material without use of the visual cortex. This allows them to find distress, and may even prompt where the distress is being held. Once determined, it is much easier to employ the process to release it, and neutralize that neuromuscular energy. It also allows the athlete to gain more trust over their athletic movements and the brain/body processes needed to gain mastery over the sophisticated athletic movements they perform. In J.T.’s case, that meant hitting the baseball.
This was the stage as J.T. and I set forth for our two March Brainspotting sessions. The sessions took place on back-to-back days. During the first session, it was revealed that there was much stress on the young man in his personal, athletic, and academic lives. Personally, he had several close relatives who had been diagnosed, and were battling life-threatening illnesses. Athletically, he continued to stress over the perception that the team was dependent upon him to produce runs while trying to please an abusive coaching staff. Academically, he was attempting to maintain a rigorous schedule of engineering classes while preparing for the difficult exams that lay ahead in that field. We found where he was holding the various distressing material and were able to achieve a “squeeze-lemon zero” (a “squeeze-lemon zero means that the negative affect felt in a person’s body has completely gone away) within a 2-hour session.
For the second Brainspotting session we went to the baseball field and proceeded with the use of micro-movements. Since it would not be safe or possible to do this with live pitching, we focused on batting-tee work. First I blindfolded J.T. and had him go through his hitting motion 6 times using micro-movements with both eyes covered. This task he performed flawlessly. I used my observant self, making sure to track any signs of distress or anxiety without him having the use of his eyes. Next we did some goggle work with the batting tee. First, I covered his left eye leaving his right eye open, which coincidentally was also his dominant eye. As with the blindfold, I checked first for any signs of distress or anxiety and J.T. reported that he had some activation standing at the tee focused on the ball sitting on top of the tee. While it was only a level 2 on the SUDS scale, we processed the anxiety out to a squeeze-lemon zero and continued with the micro-movement session. We then moved to having his right eye covered using the goggles and did more micro-movements with no anxiety or stress. Finally, J.T. uncovered both eyes and had him perform micro-movements before moving on to full-speed tee work where he reportedly had the best subsequent batting tee session that he had experienced in a long time.
It is important here to note here that the micro-movements that Lisa Schwarz taught at the Pittsburgh training in February needed to be done at least 6 times in order for the brain to remember it consistently enough to consign it to memory. That was the protocol I used in doing the batting tee work with J.T., first blindfolded, then with one eye at a time covered. Also, during all sessions with J.T. that took place it was highly important to maintain the dual-attunement model that is key to resolving traumatic material. In terms of trauma (in this case reminiscent of survival terror – there are four areas this neurological charge can affect an individual.) When one considers that many people believe that the fear of speaking in public is more traumatic than facing one’s own death – its important to note that an individual’s experience of the activation rules. Ms. Schwarz cited studies that identified these specific experiences of extreme neural activation. The four survival terrors that an athlete will experience are: 1) I’m going to die; 2) I’m a failure as a person; 3) I don’t exist; and 4) Mom/Dad/coach/universe doesn’t love me. One of the points of my forthcoming book is that coaches create attachment disruptions if they don’t provide a positive learning environment for their players. When the coach shows an empathic concern for them as people, this doesn’t acquire the same power. For J.T., who by his own admission was always conscious of the coaches being angry and perfectionist, he felt his acceptance was provisional, at best.
Anyone who has been around the sport of baseball, or any other sport for that matter, understands how any one of the things that was going on with J.T. during his senior season could disrupt his on-field performance. Having close relatives with serious life-threatening issues would be enough to send players autonomic nervous/limbic system into a hyper-vigilant state. This scenario can also invoke our own existential fears and thus trigger the first survival terror of “I’m going to die”. Having a coach who does not show any care or concern for his or her players will likely engage the fourth survival terror additionally – that being “the coach doesn’t love me.” And not performing on the field or in the classroom can easily invoke the last two survival terrors of “I don’t exist,” or “I’m a failure.” This is a ripe scenario for any athlete who wants to excel in their chosen sport, and I believe that all three were factors with J.T. difficulties this past season.
The hitting streak began the following game after the micro-movement session in a non-league contest on March 6 against the Regis Rangers. J.T. went 1 for 3 with an RBI against the Rangers, and it would be an interesting sidebar to the streak that it would begin, and subsequently end, against these same Rangers. Between March 6 and April 13, J.T. would go on a 22-game hitting streak that threatened to place him in the CSU-Pueblo record books. During the streak his numbers were impressive to say the least. J.T. would go 32 for 80 for a .400 batting average during those 22 games while also hitting for power with 5 home runs, 5 triples, and 11 doubles during those 22 games. When the streak ended on April 13 against the same Regis team that the streak had started, J.T. was scheduled to take his engineering exams the following day. By his own account, he admitted that in the back of his mind, the stress of having to take those crucial exams and “not going to be with the team on Saturday” was difficult to overcome on that day.
J.T. would finish the season with a .304 batting average with 9 home runs, 17 doubles, 5 triples, 51 runs batted in, 48 runs scored, 29 walks, and a slugging percentage of .586. His post-season honors included being named to the First Team Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference RMAC, honorable mention to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers’ Association All-Central Region Team, and he was First Team Academic All-District by Capitol One and the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA). By his own account, he fulfilled his goals for his senior season and as he moves on from his college baseball playing career, the next phase of his life will be one that I am certain to see him succeed even further. Not too bad for someone who did not fair well the first 20% of the season!
As for why we work with athletes to help them achieve their goals, let there be no doubt that Brainspotting is one of the most, if not the most effective tool sports professionals should have available in their tool box. I will close this article with a quote from J.T. sent to me in a card prior to his leaving for California to play baseball this summer: “Earl, I can’t thank you enough for all that you have done for me. My success this year was a lot of you and you guiding me along the right path and I can’t be more thankful for that.” That is what made working with J.T. all worthwhile! I hope you understand two things after reading this article. First, why I wanted so much to work with this incredible young man and to help him succeed and reach his goals. Also, because Brainspotting is what I believe to be the most powerful sports performance modality available. I thank Dr. David Grand and Lisa Schwarz for their tireless efforts to continue to improve our methods so that we can continue to help athletes achieve their goals at all levels.
I would like to personally thank J.T. for his permission to use his experience for this article and for his tireless dedication to the game and family that he loves dearly. To his family for being the type of supportive people that help young men and women to thrive and become successful adults. Dr. David Grand for his discovery of Brainspotting and his essential book with Alan Goldberg, “This Is Your Brain On Sports.” David has always been there anytime I have needed advice. Finally, the streak may not have happened if not for the amazing work and teachings of Lisa Schwarz, I’m forever grateful for your work and willingness to help regardless of the time and situation.
(For the sake of brevity I have purposefully left out many aspects of “Brainspotting” for this article. I suggest that the reader go to one of the following web sites to learn more: www.brainspotting.pro; www.lisaschwarz.com; or my personal web site, www.pueblotherapist.com)
About Earl Poteet, MSW
Earl has been a professional therapist/case manager/counselor/teacher/coordinator since his undergraduate days at the University of Southern Colorado in 1979. Graduating Magna cum Laude from Colorado State University in 2008 with a Masters in Social Work. Trained in the cognitive-behavioral aspects of human behavior and psychology of “Love and Logic”, his 30+ year history as a part-time professional stage and radio entertainer, he sought out training in Dr. David Grand’s Brainspotting to work with people in resolving their previous life trauma’s issues to achieve great progress in their lives.
Earl has worked in the world of athletics as a Head Baseball Coach at the high school, collegiate and semiprofessional level. He has served as an assistant football and basketball coach as well. In addition to playing baseball, football & basketball, Earl currently enjoys an occasional round of golf. Earl operates under the principle that everyone deserves the utmost that life has to offer and to live up to his or her personal and professional potential. Earl is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) in the state of Colorado.