Brain Power

As I mentioned in my last blog, I have experienced several concussions in my past when I was playing soccer. Following my last concussion, I expressed many symptoms both physically and emotionally. Even after three years I still have problems with memory, attention and headaches. In the book, “This Is Your Brain On Sports,” the authors, Dr. David Grand and Dr. Alan Goldberg, discuss the many affects of both physical and emotional traumas on the human body. When we choose to play a sport, we are choosing to expose our bodies to all sorts of negative experiences. Regardless of the outcome, trauma leaves behind in our bodies “remnants of these previous negative performance experiences that generate the sense of danger, physical tension, and self-doubt that interfere with optimal performance” for athletes, according to Dr. Grand. These symptoms ultimately result in athletes failing to succeed in areas of their sport that used to be so basic and simple for them. The book uses Mackey Sasser as an example. Sasser was a very well known catcher for the 1988 New York Mets. In 1990, he hit .307 and continued to amaze fans as the team’s catcher. However, Sasser occasionally struggled with throwing the ball from home plate to the pitcher. Sometimes he would throw the ball and it would be a soft flip rather than a hard throw and as time passed, these struggles grew more and more consistent. Newspapers started putting up headlines that said, “Sasser Throwing Away His Career, and after leaving the Mets and signing with the Mariners, his career quickly went downhill until he finally retired in 1995.

sasser

Sasser’s issues with throwing wasn’t the first time that Dr. Grand and Dr. Goldberg had seen athletes struggle with simple actions in their sport. In every sport, there are athletes that develop this problem. For example, control pitchers may lose their accuracy, a golfer’s wrist may jerk while putting on the green and a tennis player may double fault at break point. For catchers, this problem is referred to as Sasser Syndrome, in golf it is called the yips and in gymnastics and diving, it is called balking. Although this problem expands across all sports, Dr. Grand and Dr. Goldberg think they have figured it out what causes it in athletes.

First of all, doctors in the past have tried fixing these problems by focusing on the athlete’s conscious mental strategies, such as applying behavior techniques to guide the athlete to relax under pressure, to change his or her negative talk, letting go of past mistakes and mentally rehearsing peak performances. However, Dr. Grand and Goldberg think that these Repetitive Sports Performance Problems (RSPPs) are not easily resolved with mental-toughness training. Instead, their theory is that, “All repetitive sports-performance problems, like yips and severe slumps, have trauma bases that operate outside the athlete’s conscious awareness and control, and unless the underlying physical and emotional traumas are determined and directly addressed, the block might reduce but not fully release.” Ultimately, the root of the yips, as in Sasser’s case, can be traced to their trauma and injury history as well as their inability to “shake off” the effects of the negative experience. These lasting effects then lead to trauma symptoms such as panic, helplessness, flashbacks, dissociation, and avoidance, which clearly affect an athlete’s performance.

When Dr. Grand and Dr. Goldberg started working with Sasser in 2006, he was unable to continue with his goal to coach in the majors out of fear that he would not be able to throw batting practice. However, after a few meetings, Dr. Grand discovered that Sasser had suffered a number of significant injuries during his high school, college and professional career. He also had many unfortunate non-sports-related traumas early on in his childhood such as his father who suffered from a severe rheumatoid condition that left him crippled in pain as well as Sasser’s younger brother being hit by a car. The doctors’ solution however, was to use brainspotting, a process that uses eye positioning to figure out where trauma is held in the brain. This method basically helps the athlete process the underlying traumas that are disrupting performance. Dr. Grand targeted the various injuries and traumas from Stasser’s life and after some time, Stasser reported feeling more relaxed and comfortable with himself. He also gained more confidence with throwing the baseball and was finally able to throw the ball without any problems. Nine months later, Stasser said, “It’s gotten to the point where I really don’t think about throwing. It just feels good, and I can locate the ball where I want.”

Overall, besides being an interesting aspect of sports, it is evident that many athletes suffer from RSPPs whether they know it or not. This issue among athletes proves that the brain plays a major role in sports. Should athletes start putting more time and energy into developing their mental strategies? Dr. Grand and Dr. Goldberg would say yes, but there are many people who think that an athlete’s ability to overcome injury and trauma is a skill that separates the good athletes from the best. This idea also emphasizes the importance of treating the brain with care. After experiencing many concussions of my own and watching the growing number of concussions in NFL players, I think that it is crucial for athletes to start treating concussions more seriously. The fact that the brain has so much influence over our actions in sports, which has been clearly exhibited in Sasser’s life, reminds us that the brain is one of a kind and should be treated that way.

Sources:

Grand, David, and Alan S. Goldberg. This Is Your Brain on Sports: Beating Blocks, Slumps and Performance Anxiety for Good!Indianapolis, Ind: Dog Ear Publishing, 2011. Print.

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