Hypnosis in Sports

A major part of an athleteÕs performance is a function of his mental state, which can be profoundly influenced by suggestions, both hypnotic and waking. One of the major functions of the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the mobilization of bodily resources for emergency situations for emergency situations, enabling the organism to fight or flee more efficiently when angry or frightened. Increases of up to 33% in strength or endurance can be produced by the emotions of anger or fear. Hence, hypnotic or self-hypnotic suggestions are often used to psych up athletes prior to a performance. In addition to its use in mobilizing appropriate emotional responses, hypnosis is valuable in providing relaxation and increased self-confidence. This is particularly important in athletic activation that requires highly developed skills and concentration such as golf or archery. Kroger (1977b) improves the confidence of golfers in their putting ability by suggesting to them that the hole is the size of a sewer. Training in self-hypnosis is a valuable adjunct to the use of hypnosis in sports, and it renders hypnotic aid available to the athlete whenever needed. Heavyweight boxer Ken Norton habitually used self-hypnosis to prepare himself psychologically for a fight.

Callen ( 1983 ) had 423 long-distance runners complete a questionnaire concerning their thoughts and events commonly occurring during hypnosis

Fifty-four percent of respondents reported subjective feelings of being in an altered state of consciousness, which they produced by such methods as rhythmical breathing, repeating a phrase, counting, imagining music, or imagery. Fifty-nine percent claimed to be more creative while running, and 58% engaged in imagery, often to improve their time or distance. Callen suggests the large population of runners is a valuable resource for the study of spontaneous self-hypnotic phenomena.

Simek and Brien (1981) used hypnosis to develop the mental state required for optimal performance in members of a collegiate fencing team and in a professional boxer. One fencer was given the effective suggestion that every opponent with whom she fenced would remind her of a rival for her boyfriend. Relaxation instructions were given to the boxer to deal with his anxiety, which was causing him to freeze up in the first round. These instructions were followed with suggestions that his opponent was responsible for all of his problems, to marshal anger.

Professional sports are major industries with large amounts of money dependent on successful team performances. Hence, organizations like major league baseball teams have not been hesitant to employ staff psychologists to deal with players personal problems that may interfere with their job performance or to use hypnosis in the securing of peak performance from players.

Although hypnosis may be an aid in optimizing an athletes performance, it cannot create an ability that he does not have. A fighter may be made more aggressive by hypnosis suggestion but, if he cannot box well, hypnosis may result in his being hurt more than if he retained his more cautious boxing style. One major league pitcher who had problems with wild pitches and loss of control was aided by hypnosis in getting the ball over the plate more regularly, only to have the number of hits against him dramatically increase.

The use of hypnosis in sports, both professional and amateur, gives rise to ethical questions as to whether the practice should be prohibited. It is theoretically possible to use pain-reducing suggestions to improve the performance of a runner or even to permit an athlete with an unhealed injury to play, in a manner analogous to drugging a racehorse that has an injured leg. There is a distinction of course, between a racehorse and a human professional athlete who is able to understand the risks involved and provide an informed consent to the procedure. On the other hand, a high school or even a college athlete is often not mature enough to resist the pressure produced by feelings of duty to his teammates or school. He may thus be subjected to undue influence to consent to such an ill-advised procedure. The author regards the employment of hypnosis by psychologist in such a case as both a violation of professional ethics and malpractice.