What is sports hypnosis?

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 fulfill 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.


Sports hypnosis hits the mainstream

2008 Beijing Olympics: The only 2 shooters who won Gold Medals for the U.S.worked with a hypnotist and a hypnotist cured

1984: Time magazine reported that Mary Lou Retton used hypnosis to prepare for the L.A. Olympics and to block pain in her injured foot to win the Gold Medal.

1983: The Chicago White Sox hired a full-time hypnotist and made the playoffs.

1976: Rod Carew had a nagging injury that threatened his career. Through hypnosis, he turned the lingering pain into a .400 batting average.

1967: A dentist, Dr. Raymond Abrezol, guided the Swiss ski team to 3 out of 4 members earning medals using hypnotic techniques.

1959: Ingmar Johansson used Sports Hypnosis training before wresting the heavyweight boxing title from Floyd Patterson.

1956: Wleven hypnotists accompanied the Soviet athletic team to the Olympics inMelbourne.

In baseball: Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Maury Wills, Don Sutton, Mark McGwire reported using sports hypnosis to be able to relax for his baseball games.

Ken Norton used hypnosis to defeat Muhammad Ali (and broke his jaw) in the 1973 fight where Ken was a 7-1 underdog. Ali began using hypnosis soon after.

Jimmy Connors used Sports Hypnosis for his U.S. Open Tennis wins.

Australian Gold Medalist, Steve Hooker, of his fear in pole vaulting.

Tiger Woods began seeing Jay Brunza at the age of 13 for hypnosis and mental training. Phil Mickelson was trained by mental coach and hypnotist Dean Reinmuth

Greg Louganis, Wayne Gretzky, Steve Stone, Boomer Esiason, Freeman McNeil, Talmadge Griffiths and numerous NFL, MLB, NHL, Boxing, Olympic and Pro Athletes all use hypnosis today for that edge.

Tiger Woods and hypnosis

Serious athletes are often determined to find anything that will give them an edge over their competition, as well as help them perform optimally. Hypnosis and imagery have been utilized by  many such athletes to improve their game.

While some regard hypnosis as some mystical or magical form of mind control, it is actually a legitimate form of treatment which has proven to be effective in bringing about positive change,developing new habits and  behaviors, and releasing unhealthy or unproductive emotions, habits and behaviors. Many well-known athletes have  worked with highly trained hypnotherapists to achieve significant gains in their personal performance, regardless of their sport.

Since the unconscious mind is really the driving force between most of our beliefs and behaviors, it makes sense that a technique which elicits change at the unconscious level can be highly effective. Hypnosis is such a technique.

Hypnosis can help an athlete overcome issues of self-doubt which may be keeping him from moving to the next level. It can help an athlete hone his skills, fine-tune a technique, and have a level of self-belief and confidence which will enable him to excel beyond  what he may have previously thought possible.

Hypnosis can also help an athlete acquire the intense focus required to be at the top in his sport. Hypnosis can help an athlete overcome performance anxiety or pre-game jitters which can make the difference between winning a gold medal and coming in 6th place.

Tiger Woods is an excellent example of an incredible athlete who has used hypnosis to achieve a phenomenal level of success in golf. He has reportedly been utilizing powerful self-hypnosis techniques since his early teens. Not only has he used it to visualize every swing and stroke in his mind before carefully executing it on the course, he also uses it to “get in the zone”.

Self-hypnosis methods have helped him, like many successful athletes, quiet his mind, release any anxiety, and become 100% focused as he plays the game. Such laser focus can be especially important in a game like golf where onlookers and other things can be very distracting. Tiger  Woods has clearly shown how powerful hypnosis can be to conquer his mind and achieve extremely high levels of success.

As Tiger Woods can attest, imagery (or visualization) is an effective self-hypnosis technique which can help athletes perform better. A gymnast may visualize herself going through  every movement of her routine over and over in her mind. A basketball player may visualize himself making a perfect free throw shot hundreds of times. By using imagery or visualization, these athletes are conditioning their minds and their bodies to carry out the movements in reality just as they have performed them hundreds of times in their minds. Mary Lou Retton reported used visualization to help win the gold medal in gymnastics at the 1984 Olympics.

Athletes will often use imagery and visualization just before their event to achieve their desired goal. By closing their eyes and focusing on achieving their goal, they can improve their  performance. Once they have pictured it in their mind they then proceed to do it. Utilizing this technique is especially beneficial when the sport requires a brief burst of energy.

Another way that hypnosis can help competitive athletes is in dealing with pain and  injuries. Learning to dissociate from the pain can help them better cope with it and perform in spite of it. Relaxation methods can also be particularly helpful when it comes to managing pain which is a part of most sports. Hypnosis can also help athletes recover more quickly from a sports injury. By accelerating the recovery time the athlete can return to practice and competition more quickly, which can  be very important for athletes competing at the highest levels.

Even if you are not training for the Olympics or competing as a professional athlete, hypnosis can help you attain higher levels of performance in whatever sport you play. You can work with a  hypnotherapist, listen to hypnosis CDs or learn various self-hypnosis techniques such as those mentioned earlier. You may find your performance improving much more than you thought possible.


Hoop success with hypnosis

Chuck was a high school sophomore who played on the junior varsity basketball team. His father contacted me about his son’s tentative approach on the court and wondered if hypnosis could help. I described the hypnosis process and sent a brochure, but never heard back until a year later, when Chuck was on the varsity team. Chuck wanted to be a starting forward, and knew he had the skills; however he always came up short on the aggressive front, especially when the game was on the line.

Chuck made the team and continued to get his chances based on his practice performances. In the gym, he was a rebounding machine, and always dove across the floor for loose balls. At practice his nickname was “madman.” What propelled Chuck to pursue hypnosis occurred during one of his team’s games; he overheard a teammate refer to him as the “madam” instead of “madman.”

Chuck described going into “the zone” during practice where all that mattered was getting the ball and winning. At game time he was tentative, playing not to lose rather than playing to win. I told Chuck it was great that he didn’t need to learn how to be a winner in game situations that he already had all the skill and ability he needed. He just needed to unleash it when it counts the most.

In our first hypnosis session, I asked Chuck to recreate a particular practice in his thoughts. I wanted him to recall his most dominant practice. Chuck and his Dad both smiled, they knew exactly when it was. As a junior varsity sophomore he was asked to fill in with the varsity team practice.

He was catching a lot of flack by the varsity team because some of them thought he didn’t belong on their court. When Chuck caught an elbow to the head while going for a rebound, he knew he was being tested. Chuck passed the test. For the next two hours he put on a rebounding clinic. He carried his newfound confidence into every practice, but it never made it into game time.

My approach in our first hypnosis session was to amp up how good Chuck felt at practice. In hypnosis, I asked him to recall a recent practice and then had him imagine a magnifying glass over the image so it felt even bigger and better to him. I asked him to inhale all of the confidence, mobility, and skill he had that day, inhale it so it saturates down to a cellular level and begins to replicate within him.

As the session continued, I asked him to walk through the door of the practice gym. I explained that this door would open up into an opposing team’s gym and he would walk right out into the middle of a conference finals playoff game. As soon as he stepped through he would hear his name over the public address system announcing his insertion into a very important part of the game.

The twist with this scenario was that he got to carry all the confidence, mobility and skill he just created with him. In this game he was still the practice madman. So I told him to have fun, get into flow and do his thing; rebounding, boxing out and scrambling for the ball. All cylinders were firing and he was playing the game of his life. I gave him a moment of silence so he could fill in the blanks on his own.

At the conclusion of the session Chuck was quite enthused. He said it felt like he was really there. He felt like a major barrier had fallen and he could confidently move forward. The remaining two sessions involved some techniques which enabled Chuck to encapsulate all the past doubts so he would be completely free from now on as well as self-hypnosis training so he could recreate these empowering thoughts and images anytime he chose.

Chuck made the all-star team that year. His father sent me some newspaper clippings of Chuck leaping for a rebound. Many individuals get hung up on self-doubt and limit our expectations and accomplishments. I believe that the only limits we experience are self-imposed and hypnosis is the fastest most effective way to break through barriers and claim our true potential.

By: Paul Gustafson RN CH