The Role of Hypnosis in Sport - by Carly Felstein

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Research suggests that high levels of self-efficacy are associated with optimal levels of sports performance. Bandura (1) defined self-efficacy as “a belief in one’s capabilities to organise and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments”.

One technique, with the potential to foster increased self-efficacy, is hypnosis.

However, there is a stigma around hypnosis that must be demystified for it to be taken seriously in sport and adopted as a useful tool. Portrayals of hypnosis by the entertainment industry, where participants are immediately made to engage in strange behaviours, are a fallacy. More accurately, evidence exists that supports the use of hypnosis in the domains of medicine, dentistry, and psychotherapy. For example, hypnosis has been reported to relieve acute and chronic pain, and for the treatment of anxiety disorders, self-esteem issues, phobias, obesity, smoking, and psychosomatic issues (2). The list goes on.

The intrigue of hypnosis and the pursuit of meaningful psychological gains in sport is inescapable. So how much of winning and beating your opponent is down to psychology?

Athletes spend their entire lives training, honing and perfecting their physical tools to prepare them for competition. Weight training conditions muscles and increases strength, and physical activity improves fitness and endurance. But it can be argued that sports performance is 100 per cent about the mind. It is about a state of flow – doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, for the right effect. If the mind isn’t happy, training may not happen at all, or training may very well be wasted (3).

So how can the phenomenon of hypnosis play a role in sport?

The scientific exploration of hypnosis is centuries old. Guiding behaviour and guiding the imagination to such an extent that it becomes reality, with a sense of non-volition, is the embodiment of hypnosis: deconstructing psychology, increasing the power of positive thought and removing the power of negative thought (3). Hypnosis has always fascinated and challenged academics, scientists and laypeople, and will continue to do so for years to come. At its core, hypnosis is a very personal event and the phenomenon itself lies in an individual’s private experience of hypnotic suggestion.

To achieve a state of hypnosis, the procedure itself must begin with an introduction by the hypnotist, informing the subject of what’s to come, which includes suggestions for imaginative experience. This description therefore distinguishes hypnosis from other forms of suggestion that do not invite this type of participation by the subject - i.e. placebo and illusion. Following the introduction, the hypnotist administers the first, main imaginative suggestion, operating as the induction of a hypnotic state. For example, the subject closes their eyes. In order for the hypnotic procedure to produce a meaningful result and experience for the subject, it is important they have the right attitude, motivation and willingness; an approach mirrored in sport. The better the attitude, the better the performance (4).

We embody our thoughts, so the precise use of language during hypnotic suggestion is important, and behaviour can be guided using the right words. If a word involves a physical action or stimulates imagination of a physical action, it fires up the motor cortex. No tightrope walker would ever be successful if they conditioned their thinking with messages of “don’t fall” or “don’t trip”. Instead, they focus on what they need to do: “keep walking”. When an urban tightrope walker was asked how he achieved such amazing feats, hundreds of metres in the air, he replied: “because I can do it on the ground”. Changing your perception changes your cognition, which changes your reality – a process that can be initiated and supported by hypnosis (3).

In a team sport setting, coaches reel off motivational speeches and a whole host of messages before, during and after games, which may be a prime opportunity to use hypnotic suggestion to bring about changes in emotions and thought patterns, as well as emphasising key points that individuals need to be achieving. Ideally, the ultimate goal for hypnotherapists is to develop the athlete’s ability for self-hypnosis as a pre-performance routine and life skill. The practice of self-hypnosis encourages autonomous use of the technique. However, practice makes permanent, not necessarily perfect, so the practice must be correct and deliberate for the outcome intended (5). A further example, in the case of a competitive athlete, may be the use of hypnotic age regression to access suppressed information from an individual’s past to enhance performance or return to a previous level of performance that can no longer be achieved (6).

Accurately measuring a hypnotic state is a contentious issue and will remain so until more valid and reliable measures are obtained. However, numerous studies show that hypnosis affects emotions, thoughts and perceptions, and that high levels of performance can be positively influenced by a hypnotic intervention (6). When an athlete is unhappy with their current level of performance and knows from previous experience that they can do better, they could either be harbouring pressure-induced fear and anxiety or seeking that extra edge to maximise their sports performance and achieve marginal gains. Hypnosis is an exciting and encouraging tool to be explored in the sports arena.

References:

1. Bandura A (1997). Self-efficacy:The exercise of control. NewYork, NY: Freeman.
2. Barker et al (2013). Using hypnosis to enhance self-efficacy in sport performers. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. 7(3):228-247.
3. Turner G (2018). Experiential Aspects of Utilising Hypnosis in Enhancing Sports Performance. Lecture presented at The Royal Society of Medicine. Available at: https://videos.rsm.ac.uk/video/experiential-aspects-of-utilising-hypnosis-in-enhancing-sports-performance [Accessed 6 December 2018].
4. Nash M R & Barnier A J (2012).The Oxford handbook of hypnosis: Theory, research, and practice. Oxford University Press.
5. Barker J (2018). Using Hypnosis to Enhance Athletes Self-Confidence and Develop Performance: Future Research and Practical Reflections. Lecture presented at The Royal Society of Medicine. Available at: https://videos.rsm.ac.uk/video/using-hypnosis-to-enhance-athletes-self-confidence-and-develop-performance-future-research-and-practical-reflections [Accessed 6 December 2018].
6. Stegner A J and Morgan W P (2010). Hypnosis, exercise, and sport psychology. Handbook of Clinical Hypnosis. 641-665. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.