What Is Sports Hypnosis and How Does It Work?

What percentage of your sporting performance depends on what is going on in your mind? What percentage of your training do you commit to the mental aspect of your game?

Elite amateur and professional athletes are always looking for ways to give them that extra advantage. They know that the discipline needed to go faster, further and higher, to be more accurate, more powerful or more agile requires mental stamina, confidence, commitment and courage. Every minute in performance is backed by hours of practice, sessions in the gym, careful control of nutrition and exacting programmes of rest and exercise. And the discipline required to sustain the rigorous programme required to be an elite athlete starts in the mind.

After the preparation comes the performance in the sports arena, and again the ability to deliver perfectly under pressure, to build on achievement and move on from disappointment requires highly developed mental skills.

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

Recently top athletes have been turning to visualisation techniques and to hypnosis to prepare their minds for the discipline of practice and the rigours of competition.

Olympic gold medalist, Mary Lou Retton used sport hypnosis to help win many medals in gymnastics.

Tiger Woods has been a disciple of sport hypnosis since he was 13. He uses sport hypnosis to calm his mind before golfing matches.

The Russian gymnastic team has used hypnotherapists at the Olympic Games for years.

Others who have used hypnosis to improve their performance include former England cricket captain Mike Brearley, Mr Olympia Lee Haney and heavy-weight boxing champion Mike Tyson. Tennis star Andre Agassi, worked extensively with Anthony Robbins, utilizing NLP and hypnosis. Phil Jackson, coach of the Chicago Bulls basketball says that they practised daily self-hypnosis when he coached Michael Jordon and the Bulls to their six NBA Championships.

Despite the enormous success hypnosis has brought to top athletes, and its obvious effectiveness, hypnosis is still regarded with suspicion by some, mostly because of the “mythology” that surrounds it.

Most people are first exposed to hypnosis either through a stage performance or through reference to it in movies and television shows. In these contexts hypnosis is usually shown as a magical ability which enables the practitioner to take control of other people and force them to do his bidding. While very entertaining it also raises fears in most people about what happens when they “go under hypnosis” and what could happen if they let themselves be controlled by someone who “messes with their mind”.

Of course on stage or in movies, the apparently mysterious aspects of hypnosis are exploited for their entertainment value. The fact is you are not “under hypnosis” as you would be “under anaesthetic” but very alert and focussed. And the hypnotist cannot control you but requires you to accept and comply with suggestions every step of the way. You can only be hypnotised if you want to be hypnotised, and the suggestions only work if you agree to go along with them.

Another problem with the general understanding of hypnosis is that is offers instant success. Having seen in entertainment how the hypnotist apparently instantly brings about a change of behaviour in the subject, the belief arises that in hypnotherapy the practitioner can throw a mental switch and past negative behaviours are instantly transformed into positive behaviours. It is not surprising that, with these high expectations and impossible claims which have entered into the “lore of hypnosis” the less gullible and more scientific person responds with some scepticism.

The truth about hypnosis is far more mundane, rooted in the natural operations of the mind. And yet, while working within the realm of the ordinary and natural, hypnosis does deliver remarkable results effectively and comparatively quickly. But is not possible to take a school boy in the under 15C cricket team and send him out of the therapy session performing like Jacques Kallis!

The surprise element of hypnosis is that it works with the natural powers of the mind. And because most people don’t realise how powerful the mind can be, when they see it demonstrated they become overawed and respond in the same way they would to a demonstration of magic.

So, hypnosis does produce remarkable results using the spectacular power of the mind. But the way is does so is very ordinary, natural and, in some cases, quite boring.

Hypnosis works on that fact that when the mind is relaxed from the Beta state of around 20 cycles per second to the Alpha state of 7-14 cycles per second it is more open to suggestion. This, by the way, is something everyone experiences usually daily as they drift into and out of sleep. A very natural process.

In this state the critical faculty is suspended (ever had weird dreams?) and suggestions can be more easily received by the subconscious mind.

These suggestions can be verbal affirmations, but usually, especially with sports hypnosis, they are visual suggestions which invite the person to see themselves performing at the level they wish to perform. Because the imagination is heightened in the hypnotic state the person actually experiences the action in their mind, going through the identical mental process they would experience if they were doing it on the sports field.

The power of hypnosis therefore lies in the mind believing it is carrying out the action and therefore enjoying the same mental aspect of the training that it would in real life. The advantage of this process is that the mental rehearsal can occur hundreds of times in a single hypnosis session without the accompanying physical exhaustion. The mind learns and adapts to the required behaviour while the body rests.

Given that all physical behaviour starts in the mind, when it comes to performing on the sports field the mind is well rehearsed to control the physical behaviour. Provided the physical body has been trained to perform the skills and cope with the physical requirements of the sport, the results are usually exceptional.

More recently, advances in our ability to observe the brain through technology such as MRI scans has shown us how the brain changes according to what it experiences and learns. Discoveries in neuroscience, especially in the area of neuroplasticity, show that the mind actually “rewires” itself as it takes on experiences. The more the experience, such as a thought or action, is repeated, the stronger the wiring becomes. These discoveries shed some light on how hypnosis actually works. By introducing an idea or concept to the mind in a highly focussed way, and by repeating that thought in the absence of all other distractions when the mind is open to suggestions, hypnosis is likely to assist in developing the neural pathways required for the desired new behaviour. And because the mental rehearsal required for the “rewiring” can take place repeatedly in short periods of time without physical exhaustion, it becomes highly effective technique for improving performance, motivation, confidence, commitment and concentration.

Hypnosis is neither magical nor unnatural. It is not a strange experience as it uses a state of mind most of us enter twice a day, and it is not a high speed cure. But used correctly and within reasonable expectations, it can and does produce exceptional results and has been shown to change performance, behaviour and attitudes where other methods have failed.


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