Debating the role of hypnosis in elite sport

A number of elite competitors, including Tiger Woods and Nick Dougherty (golf), Andy Cole, Jerzy Dudek and Nathan Redmond (soccer) and Ben Cohen (rugby union) have successfully reported using hypnosis to aid their preparation and sport performance.

And hypnosis is an effective technique in many domains (including medicine, dentistry and psychology) that can bring about meaningful changes in individuals’ perceptions, thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

Despite these positive examples, the term ‘hypnosis’ is shrouded in misconception, myth and apprehension, because most views og it are influenced by stage shows. These often suggest hypnosis is a controlling technique as participants are made to engage in strange and often embarrassing behaviours. 

So what is hypnosis? 

Hypnosis typically combines the procedures of visualisation, relaxation, and hypnotic suggestions (words and metaphors about how a person would like to think feel or behave) to bring about changes in an individual client or client group (e.g. a sports team).

For example, an athlete suffering from low levels of self-confidence about running after a long-term injury would be presented with positive suggestions focused on thoughts and feelings about his or her successful running performance before injury. Suggestions are usually presented to clients following hypnotic induction and deepening phases based around imagery and relaxation. Once a person is relaxed, suggestions are more readily accepted by long-term memory enabling change to take place. Participants may also learn to go through such procedures themselves during self-hypnosis. 

But does hypnosis work?

Research exists on the use of hypnosis in relation to pain relief in both medicine and dentistry and as an alternative to anaesthetic in open-heart surgery and in dental extractions. In relation to sport psychology, Dr Jamie Barker and Dr Marc Jones from Staffordshire University studied the effects of hypnosis on sport performance. Their research has consistently revealed hypnosis to be effective in helping athletes to develop and maintain the appropriate mind-set needed for optimal performance, along with increasing their actual performance.

During preparation hypnosis could be used for relaxation and to focus an athlete’s mind, therefore reducing muscle tension and aiding concentration. The presentation prior to and during competition of positive suggestions about the feelings and emotions that relate to performing successfully may increase the likelihood of the athlete experiencing increased motivation and feelings of confidence and mayreduce anxiety too.