The Use of Hypnosis and Hypnosis-Based
Performance Enhancement Strategies in the
Field of Sport Psychology
by Derek Serino
The quest for perfection as it pertains to human performance is evident throughout recorded history. While the philosophical origins of this phenomenon can be traced to the Greek notion of arête, the pursuit of excellence, as well as the value that is placed upon its achievement seems to be an essential component of human nature, transcending the boundaries of culture and custom. The admiration commanded by those who achieve this level of performance, be it in the area of academics, art, or athletic performance, has naturally resulted in the adoption of many “methods” by which excellence might be achieved. This seems to be especially true in the area of athletics, where the factor of competition can be seen as an added incentive for performance improvement.
While the concept of enhancing performance through physical acts (namely the mastering of physical tasks via “practice”, although more indirect methods, such as strength training, are also common) has long been accepted as the most reliable method of improving performance, it is only recently that the benefits of mental preparation have been seriously considered. As the field of “Sport” Psychology continues to widen in scope and application, various techniques associated and methods of mental “practice” are becoming increasingly popular among therapists, trainers, and most importantly, athletes. Despite the widespread implantation of techniques such as imagery training, self-talk, and visualization, there is still a great deal of debate as to the effectiveness of mental practice, as compared with more traditional methods of performance enhancement. Furthermore, there are questions as to how mental practice techniques compare with each other (pertaining to the issue of effectiveness), as well as other issues such as practicality, and perhaps most importantly, how comfortable athletes are with implementing particular techniques into their training. In the interest of investigating these and other issues related to mental skills training, three studies were selected to serve as a “framework” by which a clearer understanding of these issues might be attained. To illustrate the variety of methods available for performance enhancement via mental skills training, the studies selected were specifically concerned with techniques that attempted to enhance performance via the participants’ consciousness, by means of hypnosis, or some variation thereof. It would seem advisable to provide at least a cursory review of the research involving the benefits and limitations of mental practice techniques, as in so doing, a suitable backdrop will be constructed, by which comparisons and conclusions might be elucidated.
As the competitive level of sport increases (e.g., high school, college, pro), the difference in the skill level of the athletes at a given level seems to decrease. Correspondingly, any practice technique that might provide even a small gain in performance level is viewed as extremely valuable (Onestak, 1991). While more attention is usually given to negative and dangerous methods of performance enhancement, such as the use of steroids and other drugs, only recently has there been even any significant attention given to alternative methods of performance enhancement.
As anxiety and arousal have been shown to have a significant influence in performance, the majority of these “alternative methods” are concerned with controlling or optimizing the levels anxiety and arousal during performance. The two most prominent theories of concerning the relationship between performance and arousal are drive theory and the inverted-U hypothesis (Yerkes-Dodson Law), although the former has proved less attractive in the long run, due to testability issues and the context-specific nature of the relationship between arousal and performance (LeUnes & Nation, 2002, chap. 4). According to the inverted-U hypothesis, the optimal level of arousal for the successful performance of a given task is negatively related to the degree of cognitive processing involved in that task. It is this understanding that has underscored the need for developing more specific mental practice techniques, both in terms of the task being performed (physiological vs. psychological), as well as in regard to the individual performing the task.
As research has generally shown mental practice to be a viable approach to performance enhancement (Onestak, 1991), much effort has been expended in the attempt to determine methods of maximizing the effects of this approach. The development of variations in both the application and combination of mental practice techniques, such as including the aspect of feedback and emphasizing visualization perspective (internal vs. external), are becoming more plentiful. As more and more athletes are becoming aware of mental practice techniques, the need for more precise techniques and research continues to grow, increasing the opportunity for progress in the field of sports psychology (Onestak; LeUnes & Nation, 2002). Furthermore, a greater emphasis should be placed on testing and devising new techniques to be employed in the assessment and control of arousal.
Hypnosis and Performance Enhancement
It is not overly-optimistic to hypothesize that the field of sports psychology provides a wonderful opportunity for psychology in general to develop a more respected presence in the scientific community. An interesting example of this is the use of hypnotism, in various forms and fashions, as a technique of performance enhancement. There exists an interesting irony in this, as hypnotism (the association between psychology and hypnotism having always been a source of scientific skepticism towards and within the field) now stands in position to be studied as legitimate and effective technique, thanks to sport psychologists. (This becomes even more ironic when one considers sport psychology and its status within the field of psychology, as compared to more scientifically lauded branches such as cognitive science or developmental psychology.) The afore-mentioned studies, which will be used in considering the validity of hypnosis as a method of improving athletic performance, are all excellent (despite contextual and other strategy-based differences) examples of creative design and implementation of psychologically-based performance enhancement within the field of sport psychology. While there are always means by which an experiment or study might be improved upon, each of these studies demonstrated the basic effectiveness of hypnosis-based strategies on athletic performance.
The utilization of hypnosis to effect desired changes in anxiety, whether in the case of self-administration (via transcendental meditation, visualization, etc.) or the manipulation of one person’s anxiety levels by another is by no means a new idea. Both Sigmund Freud and William James were familiar wrote extensively on this technique, and in the case of Freud, hypnotism was especially important as a means of gaining access to the unconscious. As demonstrated by Hale Whitehouse in their 1998 study, the principles of hypnotic suggestion are versatile enough to be useful, not only in manipulating an athlete’s anxiety levels, but in manipulating an athlete’s appraisal style concerning anxiety. This study studied the effects of an imagery-based intervention program in manipulating the intensity and direction of anxiety in soccer players. The design was based on the notion of hypnotic suggestion, administered by way of a video in which the words “challenge” and “pressure” were both spoken and shown on the screen. As the competition scenario used for this experiment consisted of taking a penalty kick during a World Cup final, with the score tied and a world championship directly dependent on the outcome of the kick (it’s hard to imagine a more anxiety producing situation in athletic competition), the manipulation could not be viewed as lacking in terms of anxiety-level. Progressive relaxation tapes (which included the words “challenge “or “pressure” in the spoken directions) were used to insure the desired anxiety level of the participants before showing them the video. An internal approach was used in terms regarding the visualization process, as the tapes were shot from the kicker’s perspective and the participants were instructed to imagine being inside their own bodies and to feel the subsequent physical sensations involved with taking the penalty shot. Participants were exposed to both the “challenge” and “pressure” conditions, with the corresponding relaxation tape being used insure a relaxed state (verified via heart monitor) prior to the video being shown. The results of this experiment demonstrated the effectiveness of this intervention strategy, as the participants reported experiencing higher levels of both somatic and cognitive anxiety, as well as a decrease in self-confidence, when exposed to the “pressure” condition.
Hale & Whitehouse (1998) have provided an interesting example of creativity in developing intervention strategies aimed at enhancing performance through the manipulation of athletes’ arousal. The use of manipulation checks, technology, and sport-specific imagery were all taken into consideration by the experimenters, leaving the issues of sample size and situation “realness” as the only serious problems in this study. In the case of situation “realness”, the obvious question is whether or not the results of an experiment using a hypothetical game situation can be generalized to an actual playing situation. Unfortunately, researchers are not likely to find many coaches or players willing to risk the outcome of a game by allowing experiments to be conducted during actual game situations. Thus, if these techniques are to be studied, researchers must find creative alternatives to actual play, in which the Hale & Whitehouse study provides an excellent example. In addition, the use of technology and measures (in this case the CSAI-2 Composite) that are widely used in sport psychology lend even more credence to the results of this experiment, while simultaneously providing feedback as to the strengths and limitations of these measures and devices. While the issue of sample size (N=24) and proficiency level (“experienced”) can and should be improved upon, they do not seriously detract from the results of this experiment, which demonstrate the applicability of hypnotic-based interventions in manipulating competitive anxiety.
While Hale & Whitehouse (1998) were concerned with the performance factor(s) relating to competitive anxiety in a specific context, Thelwell & Greenlees (2001) studied the effects of a “mental skills intervention package” as directly pertaining to performance. The performance situation employed consisted of a “gymnasium triathlon” (similar to the standard “fitness test”), which provided a more comprehensive array of performance activities rather than concentrating on a specific task. The strategies included in the intervention “package” were also more comprehensive (as opposed to specific), including the techniques of goal setting, relaxation, imagery, and self-talk. While the techniques of goal setting and self-talk are not directly involved in hypnotism, imagery and relaxation are integral to it, thus this experiment provided (Thelwell & Greenlees) provided an opportunity to study the effects of hypnotically-based methods when used in tandem with other techniques employed by sport psychologists. The participants (N=5) were young adult males, who were members of a local gym and were had previous experience in completing the “triathlon”, as an event organized by the gym. The participants were, for the most part, “recreational” athletes, who participated in occasional running competitions (held locally), once again bringing to light the issue of skill level. As previously noted, there is a considerable difference as to “room for improvement” between highly-skilled athletes and athletes such as those who participated in this study; however, as highly-skilled athletes represent a very small percentage of the total population participating in sports, this is really not a problem unless one is trying to apply the results of this (or similar) studies to athletes competing at higher skill levels.
The intervention strategy employed in this experiment was successful, as each of the participants succeeded in decreasing their triathlon performance times. The average decrease in time(s) for the intervention phase (as opposed to baseline performance times) varied from 16 seconds to 68 seconds, although there were instances of overlapping data points. No steps were taken to achieve clarity as to the comparison of effectiveness among the specific techniques employed in this intervention, which makes sense as this study was more concerned with demonstrating the superiority of a “package” approach to performance enhancement. While the findings of this study should be encouraging to proponents of “package” interventions, further replications of this experiment are needed if to reinforce the results obtained by Thelwell & Greenlees. The good news is that the limited scope of this experiment leaves open many avenues for further research and replication, namely in the areas of skill level, sample size and gender, and performance situation.
A synthesis of the main concerns of the two previously discussed articles is available via discussion of a third study, which was concerned with the improving the participants performance of specific task Pates, Cummings, & Maynard (2002) conducted an intervention which utilized hypnosis as the method of performance enhancement, as it related to the task of three-point shooting in basketball. This intervention strategy consisted of relaxation, imagery, and hypnosis (induction and regression), and was further complemented by the implementation (via hypnosis) of “trigger” controls. In this case, the problem of skill level was improved upon considerably, as the participants (N=5) were all basketball players competing at the collegiate level. Similar to the design implementations of the Hale & Whitehouse (1998) study, audio tapes (consisting of the relaxation sessions) and paper measures (FSS and practical assessment questionnaire)
were combined with established techniques of relaxation (progressive muscular relaxation) and hypnotic induction (Eriksonian “staircase” method) to establish a well-rounded, reliable foundation for the intervention. However, the success of the experiment was dependent upon the introduction of the basketball as a “trigger”. This was accomplished by conditioning each of the participants (while under hypnosis) to associate the basketball with his personal experience of optimal performance. This experiment was based on the notion of “flow”, which refers to the left-right shift which occurs in brain processing during performance, and more importantly the mental state associated with this phenomenon. As arousal and anxiety are important factors within the “flow” state, this builds upon the research previously discussed. The results indicate that this intervention was successful, as each participant exhibited an increase in three-point shooting accuracy. The ABA design implemented in this study allowed the experimenters the opportunity draw further conclusions as to the manner in which the participants experienced and responded to the intervention, which is obviously (although researchers could do with a reminder of this from time to time) a key element in the ability of sport psychologists to replicate and incorporate research findings into new strategies.
The effectiveness of hypnosis based performance enhancement, as demonstrated by the studies discussed, indicates that hypnosis can be an extremely useful “practice” technique in the hands of a skilled sport psychologist. Furthermore, in each of these studies, the participants were pleased with the both the strategies and their effectiveness, which is extremely important, as sports psychologists are dependent upon the willingness of athletes to implement the strategies they design. The problems previously alluded to concerning sample size, sample gender, skill level, and task “realness”, while important in the context of each specific study, should not be viewed so much as problems inherent to sport psychology, but as obstacles which sport psychology (like any other branch of psychology) must overcome. The use of hypnosis as a viable technique in performance enhancement is illustrative of the reciprocal nature of the relationship between sports psychologists and athletes, a relationship which is based upon trust and respect. Due to the recentness of this relationship between psychology and sports, psychologists must proceed with care and caution, lest the opportunity for a long and fruitful collaboration be sabotaged. In the end, the ability of psychology to provide reliable and consistent positive input concerning the area of human performance will only serve to validate the “necessity” of psychology as a science.
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LeUnes, A.D., & Nation, J.R. (2002). Sport Psychology. Pacific Grove, CA: Wadsworth.
Onestak, D.M. (1991). The effects of progressive relaxation, mental practice, and
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Pates, J., Cummings, A., & Maynard, I. (2002). The effects of hypnosis on flow states
and three-point shooting performance in basketball players. The Sport Psychologist,
Thelwell, R.C., & Greenlees, I.A. (2001). The effects of a mental skills training package
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