Sports Hypnosis

How Effective Is Sports Hypnosis?

Although sports hypnosis is increasingly used by sportspeople of all levels and abilities, it raises a lot of questions. Do the impressive claims made by sports hypnotists have any basis in fact? How effective is it? Does sports hypnosis actually work? As it happens, there is a large body of evidence to suggest that sports hypnosis can be very effective indeed.

Sally GunnellFirst of all, there is what might be called informal evidence. This comes from sportsmen and women who may not have actually sat down with a sports hypnotist, but who nevertheless use hypnotic or self-hypnosis techniques to raise their game - even if they don't necessarily refer to them as hypnosis. A good example would be the British athlete Sally Gunnell, who broke the world record in the 400m hurdles in 1993. In the months leading up to the race, she'd spent a lot of time visualising herself winning it, over and over again, so that it felt as if she was actually there competing. She did this in such detail, and with such frequency, that when she won the race on the day, she said that she wasn't sure for a minute if she had actually done so, or if she'd only imagined it!

This type of positive visualisation is self-hypnosis by any other name, and as Sally Gunnell's example shows, it can be highly effective. Of course, she was a dedicated athlete, and might still have won the race had she not done this. However, other evidence tends to back up her results.

The case of Col. George Hall is particularly compelling. Col. Hall was a USAAF pilot who was shot down and captured during the Vietnam War. He spent seven years in a POW camp, and yet, when he was finally released, he found that his golf game had actually improved, despite the length of time he'd spent in captivity. How did that happen? Because all the time he was in prison, Col. Hall imagined playing perfect games of golf, time after time after time. He'd mentally rehearsed success, in other words, which directly translated into physical success when he was able to return the golf course.

Experiments consistently show the power of mental rehearsal. Australian psychologist Alan Richardson, for instance, conducted an experiment with three groups of basketball players. One group were told to do nothing, the second group were told to spend twenty minutes a day practising free throws, and the third group were told to spend twenty minutes a day imagining shooting perfect free throws. Unsurprisingly, the group who did nothing at all showed no improvement in their shooting ability, but the group who did nothing but imaginary practice showed almost identical improvement to the group who practised physically (an improvement of 23% and 24% respectively). It would have been interesting to see the improvement of a group who had combined physical and mental practice!

The important lesson to be drawn from all of this is that visualisation has to be positive in order to get the desired results. Col. Hall's game improved because he spent seven years imagining perfect games, without any of the slices, missed shots or detours into the bunker that a regular day at the golf course might produce. Similarly, Sally Gunnell probably wouldn't have broken the world record had she imagined herself getting nervous before the race, or hitting the hurdles, or settling for second place.

Positive mental visualisation, then, is a potent force - even more so when used in conjunction with sports hypnosis. The American researcher D. R. Liggett has shown that athletes experience much more intense and vivid visualisations whilst under hypnosis, suggesting that hypnosis is a useful "force multiplier" for the already considerable benefits of positive visualisation. (#1) Liggett also conducted an experiment with male gymnasts, who used hypnotic visualisation to execute several complex tricks for the first time, eliminating timing errors and increasing flexibility (#2).

A famous and early example of the effect of hypnosis on physical strength was given by J.A. Hadfield in his book The Psychology Of Power (1923). Hadfield used a dynamometer to measure the grip strength of a group of subjects, discovering an average grip of 101lb. The subjects were then hypnotised and given two suggestions in succession. The first suggestion was that they were very weak - the average grip fell to just 29lb. The second suggestion was that they were very strong - the average grip strength rose by nearly 50%, to 142lb. This is a simple but graphic demonstration of the ability of the mind to influence the physical capacities of the body.

A final area to consider is the effectiveness of hypnosis in an ancillary role to sports performance, for things like weight control and recovery from injury. A meta-study of the use of hypnosis in weight loss programs, for example, showed that the use of hypnosis increased weight loss by 97% during the program, and increased the effectiveness of weight control after the program by 146%. (#3) A Harvard Medical School study of the effect of hypnosis on bone fracture healing showed that a group of fracture patients who received hypnosis healed more quickly than patients who did not, enjoyed greater mobility and required fewer pain killers (#4).

Of course, hypnosis is not a miracle cure or a universal panacea, and it will not work for 100% of people 100% of the time, to 100% of its full potential. However, as the evidence shows, sports hypnosis is extremely effective in a number of areas affecting sports performance, and is an invaluable addition to any athlete's training regime.

(1) Liggett, D. R. (2000). Enhancing imagery through hypnosis: a performance aid for athletes. The American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 43(2), pp. 149-57.

(2)Enhancing the visualization of gymnasts.Liggett DR,Hamada S.Stanford University. The American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis.1993 Jan;35(3):190-7

(3) Kirsch, Irving (1996). Hypnotic enhancement of cognitive-behavioral weight loss treatments--Another meta-reanalysis.Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64 (3), 517-519.

(4) Using hypnosis to accelerate the healing of bone fractures: a randomized controlled pilot study", by Ginandes, CS, Rosenthal, DI. Alternative Therapy Health Medicine, 1999, March, 5(2), pp.67-75.