Sports Hypnosis

How Can Sports Hypnosis Help?

Tiger WoodsHypnosis and sport have long been connected, with many players, both amateur and professional, turning to hypnosis to raise their game. Athletes such as Iwan Thomas, boxers such as Nigel Benn and golfers such as Tiger Woods have all been hypnotised to improve their performance and to get better results. But what are the specific ways in which sports hypnosis can help?

First of all, hypnosis can be used to actually increase strength and endurance. Our bodies are capable of more than we think they are. Many people will have had the experience of finding a sudden burst of speed to get out of the way of an oncoming car, or being able to lift seemingly impossible weights if somebody is trapped underneath. In the ordinary course of things, we simply have no need to access these capabilities. They only become available to us in extreme situations and emergencies. This means our tremendous reserves of physical power can only be reached in a haphazard and unpredictable manner.

In sports terms, this means that long distance runners, for instance, may or may not be able to find that little bit extra to get past the "wall" of pain and exhaustion. Hypnosis can make the process much more reliable, perhaps by visualising performing with increased strength and endurance, so those qualities become associated with the sport, or perhaps by building the belief that the athlete is strong, powerful, easily able to endure and exceed their personal best times, and so on.

Hypnosis can also be used to get a sports player in shape in the first place, by increasing motivation to train, for instance, or to help with weight loss (or weight gain, in certain circumstances). Improved physical capabilities have obvious benefits for sports performance, with the added advantage that using sports hypnosis to get them is entirely legal!

Perhaps a more significant way in which sports hypnosis can help, however, is in accessing resourceful mental states. W. Timothy Gallwey popularised the concept of the "inner game" in his series of best-selling books. Every athlete or sportsperson is, in effect, playing two games - the outwardly observable physical game, and a game inside their head. This acts as a running commentary of thoughts, expectations, beliefs and feelings about the physical game, which can have a profound effect on how that physical game is played.

This is very clearly demonstrated by what happened after Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile in 1954. Up until that point, it was generally accepted that human beings simply couldn't run a mile in under four minutes. The "inner game" that every runner played in their minds reflected this belief. How Bannister changed his own "inner game" to break that record isn't recorded, but the effect is obvious. Suddenly, dozens of athletes found they could overcome this supposedly innate restriction. Their "inner games" were updated to include the new facts. This is also an example of how mental attitude can affect physical capabilities.

Sports hypnosis deals directly with the part of the mind that plays the "inner game". The first strategy is to eliminate any negative elements of that mental game. Golfers, for example, often talk about "the yips" - a sudden loss of ability when taking a particular type of shot, such as a short putt. Although this seems to be a physical problem, its roots lie in the mind. For whatever reason, the unconscious mind has associated that particular shot with feeling anxious. Every time the golfer goes to take that shot, the mind obligingly serves up the feeling of anxiety, which just reinforces the idea that this shot produces "the yips". It's a vicious circle. Hypnosis helps by stopping that vicious circle before it starts in the mind, perhaps by using visualisation to imagine feeling calm and in control when taking that shot. This points to the second strategy of sports hypnosis, which is to bring positive feelings and states into the "inner game".

This can be done in a number of ways. Visualisation can be used to evoke the players best games or finest moments, for example, before linking those feelings to the current game. Or resourceful states might be found in other areas of the player's life that don't seem, on the face of it, to have anything to do with their sport. For example, a tennis player who gets unhelpfully nervous before a match might feel perfectly calm delivering a presentation before a large audience at work. This is a useful mental resource that can be hypnotically transferred to the tennis match.

Sports hypnosis can also be used to create mental resources if none are immediately obvious. For example, the player might be encouraged to visualise playing their game as if they were their favourite sports star. This can be amazingly effective. In his book Habit Busting (2002), the personal trainer Pete Cohen writes about working with a cricketer whose performance had suffered following a series of bad mistakes. Cohen asked the cricketer to visualise a player that he truly admired, and then to imagine that he was that player every time he went out onto the field. Not only did the cricketer's performance dramatically improve, he became so immersed in his role that he didn't answer to his own name when somebody called it out during the match!

In the end, sports hypnosis helps by creating and reinforcing this sort of mental focus. Sport and hypnosis are both about focusing attention, so they're a natural fit. Sport is also a vivid, sensory and physical experience that is easy to imagine, and where changes and improvements are immediately obvious. This means it responds very well to positive visualisation.

A word of caution, however. Although sports hypnosis can improve mental and physical performance, it can't turn you into the world's best player overnight! You still have to put in the hours of practice and training in order to progress. What sports hypnosis can do is make that practice so much more rewarding.