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How hypnosis can help your athletes to produce their top performance

Gordon Manning explores how hypnosis can help to give sportspeople a competitive edge.

In the quest for improved performance, most athletes and sportspeople turn to ergogenic aids of one sort or another. Athletes use all kinds of scientific technology in their endeavour to improve, including equipment, training advances, nutrition, and even applied sports psychology, which will usually include focusing and visualisation techniques for improvement.

Hypnosis is an ergogenic aid used by many top athletes and teams that have been around for many years and are now making a comeback - perhaps due to the recently increased publicity that hypnotherapy is receiving.

'The fact that the mind rules the body is, despite its neglect by biology and medicine, the most fundamental fact which we know about the process of life'. Franz Alexander, MD.

Hypnosis in sport

Hypnosis in sports has a long history and was often used under different names, mental or autogenic training being two. According to Les Cunningham in his book, 'hypnosport', In the 1978/79 tour of Australia, England cricket captain, Mike Brearley consulted a medical Hypnotherapist. Also, in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the Russian team took no less than 11 hypnotists. You do not need to look too far in any sport to find great champions using hypnotic techniques to improve performance. The reason most of them do not like to talk about it is because of the age-old myth that hypnosis is a magical power to make you do things, plus there is the unfounded fear of having one's 'power' taken away. This is untrue; all subjects have total control over their minds and bodies. The subject is consciously giving their approval to the hypnotist's suggestions.

A huge element in this perception of mind control regarding hypnosis grows from 'Stage Hypnotists'. Some Hypnotherapists claim that stage hypnotists do the image of hypnosis more harm than good and that the perceptions created by stage hypnosis sometimes generate fear and misunderstanding in the minds of the general public.

On the other hand, it is good that they create awareness of clinical hypnosis and some of the benefits it has. Incidentally, if the hypnotist suggests something that is fundamentally against an individual's morals, then he or she will rapidly become consciously aware again and come out of hypnosis.

The suggestion is not a phenomenon that works only on the unconscious mind; its use can be just as effective at a conscious level. Countless experiments by psychologists and physiologists have proven that the human being can change his or her beliefs significantly enough to alter the body in some remarkable way. Pain is eased, or physical ailments cleared up in situations where drugs were unable to assist. Likewise, athletic and sporting performance can be increased dramatically in many areas; style correction, technique, speed, and strength enhancements are particularly useful.

Firstly, we need to look briefly at what hypnosis is before we can understand what it can do for the athlete/sportsperson and how coaches may use a Hypnotherapist to help with the improvement of their athletes.

In simple terms, hypnosis is the word used to describe a state in which a person's mind remains calm, concentrated, and aware whilst their body becomes completely relaxed. They experience a tremendous sense of well-being and peace of mind, sometimes even euphoria or bliss. In this state, the mind is more receptive to positive suggestions, and it is possible to access areas of the mind that are beyond the expected level of conscious awareness, i.e. the subconscious

Every person in this world goes into hypnosis at least twice a day, when you go to sleep at night and when you awaken in the morning. You have to go through this level of hypnosis, to get from being awake and conscious to being asleep and unconscious, that is hypnosis. Another time in our lives, when hypnosis naturally occurs is during daydreaming, which is a type of visualisation. In this case, one is becoming more focused on a given subject and less aware of their outer experiences, although in hypnosis one is more aware at a subconscious level. This brings with it increased awareness of the body's senses.

If you could not go into some state of hypnosis you would not be able to do many other everyday tasks. Such a task would be mathematics; you would not be able to visualise in your mind sums or calculate them to any degree. Watching television would be a problem as it would be challenging to become associated with characters and plots, without imagining yourself in those roles. We will discover later how this type of association is compelling in 'sporting behaviour change'. Modern research has found that hypnotisability is directly related to intelligence and concentration.

We have all, at some time in our lives set an alarm clock to wake us up in the morning only to find that we awake a few minutes before the alarm goes off. So how or why does this happen? When we set the alarm, say to wake up at 6:00 am, we also program our subconscious to wake us up at that time. By looking at the clock whilst setting the alarm, we again synchronise our body clocks with the clock. Most people's body clocks run slightly faster than a standard 24-hour clock, so our subconscious wakes us up those few minutes before the alarm goes off. You can easily do without an alarm clock by repeating to yourself a few times over that you will wake at a specific time or after so many hours of sleep. The important thing is when you do this, as it works best when you are passing through a state of hypnosis on your way to sleep. So, the time to do it is when you are settled in bed, turned the lights off, and are starting to drift off to sleep. We will come back to this method later and use it in other ways.

In therapy, hypnosis is used to bypass the critical consciousness to gain access to the powerful subconscious mind. It is then that either Psychotherapy is undertaken to release undesirable subconscious neurotic behaviour or suggestions are used to alter thoughts, feelings, and actions. In suggestion therapy Post Hypnotic suggestions are used, they act after the therapy is discontinued, usually in the form of positive affirmations to assist in self-esteem, performance enhancement, etc. Remember hypnosis is a state of altered awareness, it is not sleeping, or even unconsciousness, but a condition where the consciousness is more focused and said to be altered from normal waking states. The effects of suggestions are increased in these states, which psychologists term 'hyper-suggestibility'. It is in this state that athletes and sportspeople, with the help of a hypnotist, can use suggestions to help improve performance, style, posture, self-confidence, etc. This state is also used when using hypnosis to help speed recovery, and remove negative feelings, self-doubt, stress, and other hindrances to peak performance.

Let us now take a known concept from coaching and see how we can improve on this using hypnosis.

Visualisation or Mental Imagery

Most coaches at some time or other will introduce visualisation to their athletes. Visualisation involves the athlete seeing and experiencing success in their mind. Often they are asked to imagine doing something - typically something related to their performance, style, start, finish, or the like. Now the results from this will very much depend on whether the person doing the visualisation is a visual person or not - in other words, can they see themselves performing or not. A visual person will be able to close their eyes and see themselves performing the task correctly. Others find it difficult to see the image in the mind's eye. This inability to 'see' themselves makes it more difficult for the person to achieve the desired result. It may prove more beneficial for these people instead imagine another person doing the tasks - this sometimes helps as it dissociates the individual yet allows the mind to observe correct performance, style, etc. However, this is still not ideal, as it requires, at times, tremendous effort to maintain concentration during visualisation. Taking this to the next level and introducing a Hypnotist specialising in Sports Hypnosis we could achieve far greater results, as the hypnotist can help the athlete achieve a state of hypnosis and thus a state of higher awareness, thereby enabling far greater concentration and also improving the ability to visualise. Under hypnosis, a person would be able to better 'see' themselves performing the tasks with the advantage of the correct expected result being placed into the subconscious where it would form part of the individuals 'programming'.

Take as an example, the top Dance Sport International competition Ballroom Dancers. They have to maintain perfect style and posture whilst executing the correct technique for each step they take during their routines and being aware of where the other competitors are on the floor so that they do not collide. All this whilst dancing as a couple completely in harmony, in time to the music, and making it look flowing relaxed, and as if they are enjoying the experience. It takes approximately 2mins 30 sec to 3mins per dance, and they typically do 4 to 5 dances per round sometimes 6 to 8 rounds before getting to the final. A great deal of effort and concentration is required during competition. During training vast amounts of time are spent perfecting technique, sometimes hours and hours on just a few steps. This is so that it becomes a 'habit' - a good habit to perform the technique correctly. There are far too many aspects to worry about during the actual competition so the more that can become second nature or habit, the better. This process could benefit greatly from visualisation, especially if done correctly and 'felt 'during the visualisation. Hypnosis can help with this by enhancing the visualisation experience, making it more 'real', therefore helping with muscle memory and entrenching the 'habit'. This process can be used not only with technique but also with all aspects of the performance, for example, style, breathing, and posture amongst others. Whole dance routines are 'practiced' in the mind along with 'what if' scenarios - such as what to do if another couple is blocking your intended path.

Now take hypnosis and apply it to a track or field athlete, and we can see the benefits that can be obtained. A Javelin thrower instinctively knows when the throw is good as it just 'feels right' - so how do we get the athlete to perform like that most of the time instead of some of the time. Coaches will have the athlete practice and practice; correcting style, posture, and technique along the way, with feedback from the athlete on how it felt especially when the throw was a good one. Then ask the athlete to try and repeat the 'good throw' feeling on the next throw and have them try and remember that feeling so that it could be produced again in the future. Through hypnosis an athlete can be taken back to that good throw and all the elements of the throw replayed in the subconscious, this would entrench the feeling in the mind. Further to this, the athlete would be given the required suggestions so that during practice and competitions, it would be far easier to produce good throws.

Following on from this any underlying doubts the athlete may have about reproducing 'good throws' could be removed. It is known that self-doubt is one of the contributors to poor performance on the day of an event - even when everything else is done correctly, personal doubt can foil the best athlete. Remember, imagination is powerful and can override reason.

Similarly, self-doubt or negative thoughts can bring about an injury or cramp just at a crucial moment. Let us go back to our dancers. During a competition, a couple performing in a major competition with other top performers can perform exceptionally well. They have put in months and months of training, their technique is excellent they look good on the dance floor; they could easily place in the top three, except the man does not believe that he is capable of even getting to the final. He doubts his ability, he is not a confident person deep down, and although he portrays being confident and assured it is all a show. So how is this going to affect them during the competition, the early rounds are not a problem they sail through those, looking like podium finishers. During the semi-final he starts to feel a cramp in his calf - this has never happened before so why now. He tries to ignore the cramp however it starts to affect his style and eventually all he can think about is the cramp and that he must stop and pull out of the competition, after all, he has an excuse cramp got the better of him. Later during another competition at a high level, remember he is good enough to get through the early stages very easily; he time and again pulls out due to cramps. Their coaches and fans cannot understand why he always gets a cramp in the semi-final, usually one or two dances before the end of the round therefore not allowing enough points to get through to the final. They look so good during the early rounds, they are both supremely fit, and it is not due to the number of dances during the competition as they train for hours on end with no problems whatsoever. So what is causing the problem?

Let us call our male dancer, John. John, we have said is not a confident person deep down and more importantly, does not believe that he is good enough. John's subconscious has been programmed with this belief, and this manifests itself in a way to compound the belief hence the cramp. This feeds the belief that John now has self-doubt about ever reaching a final. All their fellow competitors encourage and tell them how good they are and that if it were not for the cramps, they would be in the final with a chance at a top-three finish. Subconsciously John does not believe this, and so the cycle continues. However, John's dance partner believes the coaches and other competitors, and put more pressure on John, adding more stress. Left to continue they would eventually split up and never reach their true potential.

Through hypnosis two approaches could be taken, one approach could be to address the cramp by programming the subconscious to relax the cramping muscle as soon as it starts to tighten, thereby avoiding the cramp and allowing them to continue. This would work fine for the competitions; however, depending on how the process was done, it could result in the belief manifesting itself in other ways. If after the hypnosis sessions they went into a competition and placed in the top three this may give such a boost and help to change the old belief into a new one, a more positive idea that they can win, and that John is good at dancing. This would be fine for John as a dancer but would not address the underlying belief of lack of confidence and self-worth.

The second approach would be to address the underlying problem thereby removing the self-doubt and reprogramming the subconscious so that moving forward, John becomes more confident and believes in himself not only as an athlete but also as a person. Incidentally, there would be no harm in using both approaches one after the other, thereby using the improved performances in competitions to reinforce the reprogramming of the subconscious. After all mental edge is often the difference between great and truly great and Hypnotherapy will enable people to use any of the best methods of actualising the natural potential latent in all of us.

To finish off, I mentioned earlier the alarm clock and how we do not need it to wake up - we need to tell ourselves that we want to wake up at a certain time and provided we truly believed that we would wake up at that time, we then would. This is self-hypnosis in its basic form. The same process can be used in other areas, including sporting performance. The main principals to remember is when we tell ourselves what it is we want to achieve, making the desire realistic (a realistic goal) and truly and sincerely believing in what we are telling ourselves. As an example, we could repeat to ourselves - just as we are dropping off to sleep - the following:

  • During my 100m sprint, I will concentrate on the finish line and not look at my fellow competitors during the closing stages.

Repeating this six times to ourselves and applying the principles above could help to improve our performance by stopping us from looking around during the latter stages of the sprints. Many other affirmations can be used to the same effect.

Hypnosis can help sports performance; you do not have to be a champion to use hypnosis. Simple self-hypnosis techniques can be learned and perfected by anyone and can be used for:

  • Visualisation/Mental imagery and rehearsal of future success
  • Focusing on success and strategy tools to get in the 'zone' when you need to
  • Overcoming mental blocks and barriers and phobias
  • Reinforcing self-belief, motivation, and positive thinking

Belief Success is achieved when the mind TRULY believes and sincerely EXPECTS the imagined result to happen.

Hypnotherapy Training

An effective and efficient way to learn Hypnosis is with the iNLP Center.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • MANNING, G. (2004) How hypnosis can help your athletes to produce their top performance. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 12 / May), p. 1-4

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MANNING, G. (2004) How hypnosis can help your athletes to produce their top performance [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Gordon Manning is a qualified Ballroom and Latin American Dance Teacher/Coach and has taught internationally. He has coached and choreographed at the international competition level, and himself competed internationally in both Ballroom and Latin American Dancing and has chosen to represent South Africa in 3 World Professional Championships. He is also a British Athletics Speed and Endurance coach, Massage therapist, Bowen Technique Therapist, and has done Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy since 1986.