When Thomas Edison famously noted “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration”, he likely had no idea how many times his words would be repeated within the context of sports. As successful athletes are fully aware; emotional, cognitive and psychological qualities have a powerful influence on performance. Hypnosis represents an increasingly popular approach within sports psychology programs because of its ability to promote these important internal mechanisms among athletes.
This article will delve into the application of hypnosis in sports; with specific attention given to how it has been used as a tool by some of the most famous sports figures (e.g., Tiger Woods). Research evidence surrounding the efficacy of hypnosis across different types of professional sports will also be addressed, as well as its use within nonprofessional and youth sports programs.
So, let’s take a closer look at the role that hypnosis plays in the diverse world of sports.
Hypnosis as a Valuable Tool among Athletes
Although the use of mental training in sports has been around for over 60 years, it is gaining recent recognition as a useful mental tool among coaches and sports psychologists. And, while rigorous research examining the effects of hypnotism on sports performance is limited, such studies are becoming more prevalent within the scientific community. For example, in a research project comparing the impact of different psychological techniques on sports-related outcomes, it was reported that hypnosis and biofeedback represented the best approaches for improving athletic performance. Additionally, a large-scale study using secondary data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) examined the use of ‘complementary and alternative medicine’ (e.g., hypnosis, yoga, massage, etc.) as a way of enhancing sports performance. Results indicated that hypnosis was included among the specific alternative approaches that benefited athletic performance.
The Goals of Sports Hypnosis
Sports psychologists employ hypnotism with the aim of managing anxiety, improving performance, and helping athletes with recovery. For example, hypnosis has been used among college athletes in India for the purpose of reducing performance anxiety. Similarly, as the psychological aftermath of training and competition is often challenging for athletes, hypnosis has been used in recovery efforts aimed at creating a more effective mindset.
Additionally, sports psychologists often strive to promote self-efficacy, which is believed to be one of the most powerful predictors of achievement among athletes. Hypnotic suggestion has been proposed as an important technique for promoting sports-related self-efficacy in the following ways:
- Helping an athlete to remember prior experiences of mastery and to reappraise less than optimal performances
- Enabling an athlete to vicariously experience the successful performance of teammates
- Providing an athlete with a positive and supportive inner dialogue
- Reducing an athlete’s anxiety and improving his/her ability to control cognitions and behaviors. Studies by Barker and colleagues have further indicated that hypnosis enhances self-efficacy in elite judo, cricket leg-spin bowling, and professional soccer. Additionally, for the latter two sports, performance was also improved by the use of hypnosis.
Flow States in Sports
Athletes typically strive to feel “in the zone” while performing. This sensation is also referred to as a ‘flow state,’ which involves the positive experience of complete absorption in an activity that is both spontaneous and effortless. In other words, during a flow state, one is so happily absorbed in on what they are doing, that their thoughts and actions flow freely. As the ability to focus and avoid distraction is essential during sports, a flow state is optimal for athletes.
Growing evidence suggests that the most successful athletes use psychological approaches, such as hypnosis, for the purpose of enhancing flow and performance. Research also has indicated that hypnosis is a particularly effective psychological tool for achieving a flow state in sports and enhancing athletic performance. For example, hypnosis-induced flow states have been associated with improved golf outcomes among members of the elite senior European Tour of golf professionals. Similarly, hypnosis aimed at increasing flow states has been found to be effective in improving competitive road race results among nationally ranked cyclists.
Tiger Woods and Hypnosis
My Mind is my Biggest Asset. I Expect to Win Every Tournament I Play. –Tiger Woods 
Tiger Woods is an American golf icon who, at the ripe age of 21, became both the youngest man and the first African American to win the Masters Tournament. Following this win in 1997, Woods went on to win 13 more championships and 79 PGA Tour events. He was also the first golfer to win the U.S. Masters, U.S. Open Championship, British Open Championship and the PGA championship at the same time. There is no doubt that Tiger Woods is a golf phenom who continues to be a force to be reckoned with in the game of professional golf.
Tiger’s Early Parenting and Coaching Influences
Tiger has described the magic behind his game as involving a combination of psychological, physical and metaphysical concepts. Coached by his father, Earl Woods, Tiger began learning golf at a young age. Woods Sr. was an Army officer who became engaged in psychological operations —including hypnosis, during the Vietnam War. Drawing from his military experience, he integrated hypnosis into his coaching strategy by having Tiger work with a hypnotherapist before games. By using hypnosis in this way, Tiger learned how to play golf while “in the zone.”
Buddhism and Visualization
In addition, the influence of his mother’s Buddhist philosophy helped Tiger to experience a sense of calm while on the golf course. Visualization also represented a key component of Tiger’s mental coaching.
Mother Rocking Baby = Good Swing
He was asked to imagine such things as a mother rocking a baby, in order to achieve a rhythmic and smooth swing.
Flag = Focus
Also, he was asked to imagine a colorful flag in order to focus on a desired target rather than a water obstacle.
The Impact of Mental Coaching on Tiger’s Game
It is clear that this combination of parenting style, psychological coaching, and personal characteristics produced a champion of unparalleled excellence. In addition, this feat was achieved within a sport that requires an exceptionally calm and focused mind. Nonetheless, Tiger was able truly thrive within the pressure cooker of professional golf. This point is well-articulated in the words of one of Tiger’s longstanding mental coaches, “Tiger’s focus while competing under extreme pressure is uncanny. When Tiger stands over a shot preparing to swing and stares at the target, there’s a cool and calculating look in his eyes. When you look at him, you just know he’s visualizing the ball flying toward the target.”
Through hypnotism and imagery, Tiger learned how to control his creative and intellectual mind; a process he describes as being similar to sitting back and letting his training take over. In this way, hypnosis gave Tiger the mental stamina needed to “get out of his own way.” Based on firsthand accounts by one of his caddies, Tiger was hitting unbelievable shots during hypnotic states; which, interestingly, the golf prodigy didn’t always remember making. Overall, Tiger’s mental coaching (i.e., hypnosis and visualization) helped him play golf with confidence, concentration, intense focus on his target, and control over his emotions. It also enhanced his ability to learn from his mistakes.
Use of Hypnosis among Other Famous Athletes
Tiger is certainly not the only athlete to use hypnosis as a way of enhancing performance. Like golf, tennis requires an extreme level of mental toughness. It is therefore a prime candidate for the application of hypnosis. Like Tiger, tennis great, Billie Jean King used hypnosis to strengthen her mind so that she was able to thrive under pressure. The use of this technique likely helped her to accomplish her goal of dealing with tennis pressure with the following mindset: “No matter how tough, no matter what kind of outside pressure, no matter how many bad breaks along with way, I must keep my sights on the final goal, to win, win, win – and with more love and passion than the world has ever witnessed in any performance.” Many additional famous and highly-successful athletes have used hypnosis to enhance performance (e.g., Arthur Ashe, Dorothy Hamill, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordon, and Kerri Strug — among numerous others).
Types of Hypnosis Used by Athletes
Hypnosis is used among athletes in several ways. It may involve muscle relaxation, a specific visual focal point, or the visualization of a happy place. It also may involve different depths of consciousness (i.e., wakeful hypnosis versus deep hypnotic trances) and may be implemented by a professional or by the athlete him/herself. While deep-level hypnosis is what is typically pictured among lay people, sports hypnosis is often executed during an active-alert state. In this way, an individual who does not respond well to suggestions for deep relaxation is able to benefit from this type of training.
Wakeful hypnosis is also useful within contexts that are not amenable to an eyes-closed approach. During active-alert hypnosis, an individual receives direct suggestions that may be conceptualized more like coping skills designed to promote self-control. The hypnotized person, who might respond to the hypnotic suggestions with his/her eyes open, is able to apply the technique across a range of situations. Active-alert hypnosis, which is also referred to as ‘hypnotic wakefulness’, has been associated with enhanced performance among athletes across a variety of sports.
Self-hypnosis among Athletes
Self-hypnosis is a practical way for athletes to focus their minds so that they are able to experience a positive inner dialogue. Sports psychologists often teach self-hypnosis (which may also involve visualization) so that athletes are able to implement it on their own time. Additionally, some clinicians will record a client’s hypnotherapy sessions for use by an individual at home. Self-hypnosis techniques are easily accessible to the public, since one can find classes that are offered as part of an in-person or online hypnotherapy program. Overall, self-hypnosis is an effective technique for athletes to use during free moments between games or exercises, or while drifting off to sleep at night.
Role of Self-talk in Self-hypnosis
Hypnosis often involves the practice of examining one’s internal language in order to identify its impact on feelings, thoughts and behaviors. By modifying internal conversations so that they are more positive and confident, an athlete is better prepared to perform at his/her best. Self-talk (also known as ‘self-instructional training); is often the focus of sports psychologists for a good reason, since even minimal changes in self-talk have been found to significantly impact the ability to regulate thoughts and behaviors. Additionally, self-talk has been found to positively impact performance in sports requiring eye-hand coordination, fine motor skills, dexterity, accuracy, and precision
Visualization and Hypnosis
There is a lot of confusion about hypnosis and visualization, with some believing that the practices go hand-in-hand. On the contrary, the two techniques represent distinct concepts. In fact, visualization does not require a state of hypnosis. Instead, it is more analogous to “imaginative suggestion.” For example, a tennis player might be invited to feel in control and confident while imagining setting up for a serve. Hypnosis and visualization are frequently combined. This is because once an individual is in a relaxed, or hypnotic state, he/she may be provided with both suggestions and visualizations. Imagery during hypnosis has been described as a process of mental visualization that primes muscles for subsequent sports performance. That’s right – you can get a form of exercise just by thinking about exercising. But, nothing (so far) beats putting in the actual work. A combination of imagining doing something and doing it will provide the best results.
Hypnosis across Different Sports
Hypnosis has been widely used across a range of sports (e.g., gymnastics, hockey, baseball, skiing, ice skating, etc.). In addition, given the immense pressure and high stakes involved in soccer, the use of mental training has become increasingly common for this popular sport. Hypnosis also has a long history of implementation among Olympic teams, both past and present.
There is of course great variability in the emotional and psychological characteristics required for different types of sports; some require intense levels of quiet concentration. Others involve more fast-paced movement and physical dexterity. While current studies are limited, researchers are beginning to take an increased interest in the impact of hypnosis on specific sports. For example, in 2016, Milling and Randazzo completed a comprehensive review of studies addressing the effectiveness of hypnosis for sports enhancement. Results indicated that hypnosis was effective for improving performance across multiple sports, with the strongest results found for basketball, golf, soccer and badminton.
Using golf as an example, the researchers described three studies in which hypnosis was used to induce a sensory experience of an ideal competitive game in order to improve specific skills (e.g., average stroke performance). Notably, a positive effect of hypnosis on performance was reported for all three golf studies. Overall, this review suggests that sports which require a great deal of dexterity and coordination may be most amenable to positive effects of hypnosis relative to those that mostly rely on strength or endurance.
Use of Hypnosis for Learning New Sports Skills
Along with enhancing performance across different sports, there is evidence suggesting that hypnotism is beneficial for teaching new sports or improving motor skills. For example, researchers Jalene and Wulf used a brief hypnotic approach among college students to improve accuracy in throwing a tennis ball. The researchers reported this motor skill was improved among members of the hypnosis group. These findings have implications for the use of hypnosis among non-professionals or young people interested in developing athletic skills or learning a whole new sport.
Use of Sports Hypnosis among Young People
Hypnosis has gained recent popularity for use among children involved in various sports programs. For example, a recent study examined the use of hypnosis among 14-year-old Middle Eastern soccer players. Researchers administered eight weeks of cognitive-behavioral treatment which included both hypnosis and imagery. The results indicated that, compared to a no-treatment control group, the hypnosis group improved significantly in terms of athletic performance (e.g., fixed passing, moving passing, and shooting.
In addition, use of imagery has been found to build confidence and skills among both competitive and recreational soccer players, as well as among soccer players aged 7-8. Although more research is needed, there is reason to believe that including hypnosis as part of school interventions could have positive implications for students across a range of outcomes, with enhanced movement and sports performance included as likely benefits.
An Individualized Approach to Sports Hypnosis
Along with different sports, as well as the age and athletic level of the athlete; several additional variables impact the effectiveness of hypnosis on performance. The trainer’s hypnosis techniques, and the relationship between the athlete and trainer, also serve as important influences. Clearly, for hypnosis to achieve effectiveness, it must be tailored to the individual needs of the athlete (e.g., goals, strengths and weaknesses, feelings about treatment, personality type, specific sport or skill, etc.). Additionally, as athletes function optimally during a state of anxiety that varies by individual; any approach aimed at the modification of anxiety levels needs to be uniquely identified and addressed on a case-by-case basis. Similarly, it is essential that the type of hypnosis (e.g., self-hypnosis, active-alert hypnosis, deep hypnosis, hypnosis with imagery, etc.) is suited to the particular person. And finally, the best hypnotherapy results are achieved in the context of a positive and trusting relationship between the mental coach and the athlete.
Sports psychologists and trainers often use hypnosis in order to enhance performance by increasing key mechanisms such as confidence, self-efficacy, focus, and the ability to deal with pressure. Hypnosis also helps athletes to manage anxiety, to recover from training or competition, and to improve performance. Flow states (i.e., sense of being ‘in the zone’) represent an important predictor of success among athletes that may be enhanced with the use of hypnosis. Many famous athletes have employed hypnosis with great success; with Tiger Woods representing the most notable example. Tiger has achieved phenomenal success as an elite golfer; which, to a great extent, he attributes to his ability to control his creative mind with the help of hypnosis and visualization.
Although more scientific research is needed to investigate the impact of hypnosis among athletes, anecdotal reports and preliminary research have provided promising evidence for the benefits of hypnosis across a variety of sports. While some sports (e.g., golf and tennis) may be more amenable to hypnosis than others, the efficacy of hypnosis is dependent upon multiple individual variables (e.g., an athlete’s specific objectives, and the relationship between the athlete and the trainer). There are several hypnosis techniques from which to choose (e.g., active-alert hypnosis, self-hypnosis, hypnosis with visualization, etc.). Their effectiveness depends on the unique needs of the athlete. Overall, regardless of the level at which one participates in sports (i.e., professionally or recreationally), hypnosis is a popular and promising technique with the ability to enhance sports performance in a variety of meaningful ways.
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