Hypnosis and Sports Performance
Tiger Wood's bibliography states that during his teen years, a sport psychologist used hypnosis to help him focus on the moment when playing golf (Milling & Randazzo, 2016). A trained mind is key for success in any sport and Psychological Skills Training or Mental Training focuses exclusively on teaching mental skills to enhance athletic performance. Some of the mental skills athletes learn come from cognitive behavioral techniques to help athletes regulate thoughts and emotions elicited during competitions, which will lead to better performance (Weinberg & Gould, 2019).
Hypnosis can be used alone as a skill to help athletes regulate thoughts and develop performance-enhancing behaviors (Tramontana, 2011). Also, as a skill, hypnosis can aid other mental skills (imagery, confidence, attention control, and arousal regulation). According to Liggett (2000), hypnosis can enhance mental practice (imagery) by improving imaginative ability. Carlstedt (2016) used active alert self-hypnosis to help athletes control attention, self-talk prior to the critical moments of competition, and arousal. In (2013), Barker, Jones, and Greenless reviewed studies that used hypnosis to enhance the self-efficacy of athletes, which is one of the most important attributes leading to better performance. The goal of the intervention was to boost Bandura’s source of self-efficacy and consequently modify the athlete’s self-efficacy beliefs. And in (2016), Milling and Randazzo reviewed seventeen studies that had enhancement in athletic performance as the outcome measure.
Mental Training or Hypnosis?
A clear definition of hypnosis in sports is not available yet; some professionals want it to be more related to therapeutic benefits (Clinical Sports Hypnosis) and helping athletes overcome psychological symptoms and problems which can indirectly influence performance. Coaches, sport consultants, and sport and exercise scientists want an applied, coach-oriented definition (Mental Training Hypnosis) focused on enhancing athletic performance.
The two definitions within the sport setting proposed by Straub and Bowman (2016) are:
- Sports hypnosis is defined as the use of hypnotherapy with athletes in order to improve sporting performance.
- Sports hypnosis is a form of mental training that can contribute to enhancing athletic performance.
1. Carlstedt (2016) used 15 minutes of good performance video-guided induction, followed by 15 minutes of active alert hypnosis, and 5 minutes of post-hypnotic reinforcement to enhance the athletic performance of a tennis player in practices and competitions. Hypnosis was implemented in the mental skill, and the athlete was high in hypnotic suggestibility.
2. Liggett (2000) investigated if imagining during a hypnotic state would increase the clarity or intensity of imagery in four dimensions; visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and affective. Progressive relaxation induction was utilized, followed by deepening techniques. The 14 athletes participants were high in Hypnotic suggestibility.
3. Barker, Jones, and Greenless (2013) reviewed studies on using hypnosis to improve athletes' self-efficacy, which can indirectly help the athlete experience less anxiety, improve confidence, aid skill development, improve attention, and increase persistence and effort. The intervention included general and specific ego-strengthening, self-hypnosis, and a performance routine where self-hypnosis was implemented. Like Carlstedt (2018), the hypnosis intervention was implemented in the athlete's mental skill. All athletes were high in hypnotic suggestibility.
4. In (2016), Milling and Randazzo performed a review of the literature on controlled and single cases using hypnosis to enhance athletic performance. The controlled studies had a between-subjects or mixed model design in which hypnosis intervention was compared to one or more alternative interventions, or no treatment condition to enhance sports performance. Studies that did not use a performance measure as an outcome variable were excluded. Not all studies measured hypnotic suggestibility.
1. Tennis performance improved as measured by observation of desired behavior, Heart Rate deceleration (HRD) as a measure of focused attention on the task at hand, and a decrease in the number of times that technical errors occurred. However, this is data from a single case study, and HRD is still an exploratory method to measure improvements in performance. Data were collected during the real-time competition (Carlstedt, 2016).
2. Liggett (2000) study showed that hypnosis enhances the subjective intensity of imagery. Athletes experienced sports situations more vividly and were more involved emotionally. Even though imagery skills are improved in hypnotic states, there was no direct measure of performance improvement.
3. The three studies reviewed by Barker, Jones, and Greenless (2013) showed that self-efficacy improved and became consistent compared to baselines, as the results were maintained after months. However, competitive performance was not evaluated.
4. Milling and Randazzo's (2016) review indicated that hypnosis is an effective intervention to enhance athletic performance in multiple individual and team sports. Even though the outcome measure was performance, it was not measured during real competitions. The mechanism by which performance is improved is still unknown. It is possible that mechanisms that improve athletes’ confidence (self-efficacy, controlling self-talk, improving sports skills with imagery) help athletes regulate performance anxiety, leading to improved performance.
Hypnosis is a probably efficacious method to enhance athletic performance if combined with other mental training interventions and incorporated into athlete training (self-hypnosis). However, more studies that measure improvements in performance instead of facilitating psychological states that are related to better performance are needed. Also, improvements in performance could be measured during real-time competitions.
I am a Ph.D. student in the Psychophysiology program.
As a mental performance consultant, I received a master’s degree in sport and performance psychology.
As a professional athlete, I traveled worldwide and competed for more than ten years representing Hawaii and the USA in the Bodyboarding World Tour.
My experience as an athlete gives me first-hand insight into the joy and happiness of winning as well as the agony and embarrassment of defeat. No graduate schools can teach you that.