Sports hypnosis, as the name suggests, is simply hypnotism directed towards improving sports performance. It’s used by all levels of sportspeople, from amateurs to top level professionals, and it’s successfully used to get better results in just about every type of sport. But how does hypnosis, which is concerned with the mind, help with sport, which is all about the body?
The idea of mental factors being just as important as physical factors in sport is nothing new, and is probably as old as sport itself. In the 20th century, this idea was developed by the new science of psychology. The term “sports psychology” has been in use since at least the 1920s, and the Soviet Olympic squads of the 1950s famously employed teams of psychological coaches. Sports psychology began to be taught at universities, and it gradually became big business, as major league teams and players added sports psychologists to their staff. Sports hypnosis is part of this movement, and can be seen as a practical sports psychology tool.
The Concept of Mental Rehearsal or Visualization
Certain hypnotic principles make hypnosis particularly suited to sports improvement. First of all there is the concept of mental rehearsal or visualization. Any form of mental visualization is hypnotic, since it involves using the imagination to rehearse the future. This is something that we all do all of the time quite naturally; from imagining what we’re going to have for lunch to planning what we’re going to say at a forthcoming job interview. Hypnosis provides a structure for this natural capacity, and sports hypnosis directs it towards improvements in a player’s game.
A tennis player, for example, might use sports hypnosis to vividly imagine returning their opponent’s serve. A golfer might hypnotically experience the perfect swing. Soccer players might use sports hypnosis to mentally rehearse taking penalties, or saving penalties if they’re the goalkeeper.
In all cases, mental rehearsal works in the same way. The mind cannot tell the difference between real and imagined events. The same neural pathways, muscles reactions and body chemistry are activated whether you imagine returning an opponent’s serve, or when you actually do so on the tennis court. Hypnotic mental rehearsal, then, is a way of getting in extra practice, with the added advantage that you can consistently rehearse success in your own imagination, which is not necessarily the case in real life practice.
Creating Positive Expectation
The second sports hypnosis principle, which follows on from mental rehearsal, is creating positive expectation. Expectation is a powerful force in human motivation and behavior. We’re all seeking to fulfil our expectations, good and bad, all of the time. For example, if you go into a meeting expecting it to be boring, it’s highly likely to be tedious beyond belief. If you go into the same meeting expecting to hear information that will be useful to you, you’ll probably find it more interesting. Expectation is like a picture frame that we’re constantly trying to fill with the right picture.
This has a significant physical effect, too. If you’ve ever been getting ready for a night out, only for it to be cancelled at the last minute, you’ll know just how physically uncomfortable and irritating it can feel. Expectation releases dopamine, the motivating hormone, and fulfilling that expectation releases serotonin, the satisfaction hormone. In sports terms, dopamine gets you running from midfield towards goal, and serotonin is the feeling you get when you score.
Sports hypnosis, then, is all about creating the right sort of expectation and channeling all of that dopamine in the right direction. For example, a sports player might use hypnosis to build expectation of doing well in a forthcoming tournament. The release of dopamine creates a mental and physical urge to seek satisfaction and completion, making them far more likely to live up to their own expectation and do well in the tournament.
The third sports hypnosis principle addresses the downside of the first two. It is, of course, quite possible to mentally rehearse failure and to build negative expectations! This might come about as the result of a bad experience, or it might be something that’s become established over time. This can become a vicious circle. Players perform badly because they expect to perform badly, which just reinforces their expectation of bad performance. Hypnosis is an effective way of breaking this vicious circle, because it deals directly with the part of the mind that keeps the unhelpful habit in place.
The Principle of the Mind-Body Connection
Finally, sports hypnosis works on the principle of the mind-body connection. Although Western science and thought has tended to treat the mind and body as two separate entities, advances in neuroscience and neuropsychology have shown that the two are inextricably linked. Mind and body are in constant communication, with a flow of neurotransmitters from the brain to the cells of the body and back again. The mind tells the body how to behave, but the body can tell the mind how to think and feel too.
This has profound implications for sports performance, of course, as hypnosis can be used to encourage the right sort of messages to be transmitted from the mind to the body – a more relaxed stance when taking a golf swing, for example, or an extra degree of determination that helps you overcome physical resistance in an athletics event.
The main theme of these sports hypnosis principles is that they all work with the unconscious mind. This is why hypnosis is so well suited to sport, which is all about unconscious, instinctive reactions. Indeed, it could be argued that sport itself is a hypnotic activity, since it fixes the players’ attention and lets the unconscious mind take control at least when it’s being played well. By improving the quality of unconscious responses, hypnosis provides sports players with an invaluable “secret weapon” that can dramatically improve performance.