Sports Hypnosis

Sports Hypnosis and the Flow State

One of the most intriguing aspects of sports hypnosis is its relationship to the flow state. This mysterious state of almost transcendent involvement in an activity is something that many sportsmen and women have experienced at some time or another. Perhaps the most famous example is attributed to the golfer Arnold Palmer, who played a shot into the rough just as a loud and noisy goods train passed along the tracks by the side of the course. Afterwards, his caddy mentioned what a shame it had been that the train had happened to pass just at that particular moment - to which Palmer replied, "what train?" So thoroughly immersed in his game had he been that he literally hadn't noticed it passing.

So what is the flow state, and how does it connect to sports and sports hypnosis?

The term "flow" was coined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book of the same name (1992). Csikszentmihalyi identified the flow state as a state of effortless, unconscious skill, those times when we become so involved in an activity that we seem to transcend ourselves and become as one with what we're doing. Anyone can experience flow at any time, whilst engaged in any activity. Sport just happens to be the sort of activity that lends itself to the experience, and where the results are immediately obvious.

Csikszentmihalyi talks about the 10 key characteristics of flow, namely - working towards clearly identifiable goals within clearly identifiable rules; concentration on a narrow focus of attention; a loss of self-consciousness, such that what you are doing and your awareness of what you're doing merge into one; a distorted sense of time; the ability to respond instantly to feedback from your activity; a balance between ability and challenge - the activity is neither too taxing nor too easy; a heightened sense of personal autonomy and control over the activity; a sense of intrinsic satisfaction and reward from the activity; a feeling of transcending bodily limitations, such as hunger or fatigue; a feeling of total absorption in the activity.

These characteristics are a general pattern, rather than a tick-list to be completed. In other words, you can experience the flow state without necessarily experiencing all of these feelings at once. For example, you might experience the flow state whilst chatting with friends, or even watching TV or reading a book by yourself. Those sort of situations don't necessarily imply a clearly identifiable goal.

As Csikszentmihalyi's list demonstrates, the flow state is something that we might expect to occur during a game of sport, where the rules and goals are clearly defined, and where attention is narrowly focused on a physical activity. The subjective, distorted sense of time is interesting in this context, as many sportspeople have said that time seems to slow down when they're really "in the zone" (a common description of the flow state). The footballer George Best, for example, once said that he couldn't believe how slowly the opposing team played, giving him plenty of time to outmanoeuvre them. To the spectators, of course, Best was playing with incredible skill at incredible speed.

The flow state, then, is intrinsically hypnotic. The narrowed focus of attention, the loss of self-consciousness, the utter absorption in an activity, even the distorted time could all be descriptions of hypnotic trance and deep trance phenomena. In psychobiological terms, the unconscious mind has taken over, leading to a sort of waking trance in which the body can realise more and more of its potential, without the interference of conscious doubts or anxieties.

There have been a number of academic studies on the effects of hypnosis, performance and the flow state. For example, a study by B.L. Vasquez of Washington State University found that basketball players who used hypnosis to access the flow state scored significantly better in dribbling, defence and shooting than a control group who just used relaxation techniques (#1).

The flow state can also be noticeable by its absence. Any form of tension will disrupt it, such as excessive focus on the results of a game rather than the process of the game itself. This is why players often perform better in practice sessions, or in games which are played just for fun, than in genuinely competitive games. In a practice game, the player is free to enjoy the game for its own sake, to get that sense of intrinsic reward and satisfaction, which opens them up to the flow state. In a competitive or tournament game, the results suddenly become very important indeed. This means that focus can shift from the game to the possible outcome, causing emotional tension, which in turn causes muscular tension, which directly affects the ability of the player to play. A footballer taking a penalty will score if they're in flow, and miss if they're worrying about how important it is that they find the back of the net.

Obviously, most sports players would benefit from being in the flow state more of the time. Sports hypnosis offers a quick and reliable way to do this. One common way is to use hypnosis to vividly re-create a time when the player was previously in the flow state, and then transfer those feelings to future games.

Although it seems mysterious, flow is a perfectly natural state of mind that we all experience at some time or another, even if we don't call it by that particular name. In the general run of things, we enter the flow state in an unpredictable, almost haphazard fashion. Sports hypnosis takes control of the process, and puts it at our disposal.

(1) The effects of hypnosis on flow and in the performance enhancement of basketball skills. Vasquez, B. (2005). Thesis (Ph. D.) Washington State University, December 2005.