In the last fifteen years, helping players on the PGA Tour as a sports psychiatrist, I
have rarely heard the term hypnosis used. However, hypnosis is often defined by a
state of attentive and receptive concentration, with a relative suspension of peripheral
awareness that is common when players are playing their best. This timely article by
Dr. Simon Jenkins presents a historic overview of hypnosis theory and practical
application. Dr. Jenkins’ presentation makes it easily understandable why the term
hypnosis is so often associated with the occult and is not well understood and often
Hypnotizability is a stable and measurable trait. Research has demonstrated that
highly hypnotizable subjects can alter the how their own brain-process stimuli. By
extrapolation, these research studies can lead one to hypothesize that a baseball player
in deep trance, while at bat, may in fact perceive the moving baseball with greater
speed and efficiency.
Some individuals are more hypnotizable than others, and hypnotizability in the
general population is thought to reflect a statistically normal distribution.
Hypnotizability is not a sign of weak-mindedness, nor is it intrinsically dangerous.
Hypnosis is not something you do with a client or to a client. At some level, all
hypnosis seems to be a form of self-hypnosis. If clients can be helped to understand
that they have the ability to influence their own mental processes, they will have
developed a powerful and practical tool. Indeed, as Dr. Jenkins asserts, hypnosis is
best utilized when it is well understood by the practitioner.
Dr. David Spiegel and Dr. Ernest Hillgard from Stanford University developed the
Hypnotic Induction Profile and Stanford Hypnotic Clinical scale, respectively. Dr.
Spiegel has suggested that hypnosis is best conceptualized by understanding its three
componets: absorption, dissociation, and suggestibility. Absorption refers to an
individual’s ability to mentally focus with complete immersion in a central theme,
such as completely falling into the experience of watching a good film and transiently
losing track of the surrounding world. Dissociation is complementary to absorption,
such that an individual can remove certain perceptual experiences out of conscious
awareness. This phenomenon may be an evolutionary adaptation that allows an
individual to endure horrific traumas involving the experience of pain, such that the
pain is dissociated from conscious awareness thereby facilitating attention to critical
survival tasks. Suggestibility is conceptualized as a heightened responsiveness to
social cues involving the suspension of conscious curiosity. It is a way that allows one
to believe whatever they are being told. These three components imply that hypnotic
trance may alter normal perceptual processing in productive ways.
AVOIDING THE TERM ‘HYPNOSIS’
In the world of sport, the application of hypnosis is insidiously present but rarely
discussed. In my clinical experience, most elite athletes engage in some form of selfhypnotic
techniques whether it is termed progressive relaxation, positive self-talk,
“getting into their game face,” or visualization. As sport psychologists and
psychiatrists, therefore, we have an opportunity to help athletes benefit from their
own natural ability to be hypnotized.
Like many clinicians, I often avoid the term ‘hypnosis’ when working with clients
because of the negative associations involved. However, before utilizing hypnotic
trance, I evaluate its likelihood, value and appropriateness. The client’s ability to
enter a trance-like state can be assessed by administering the Hypnotic Induction
Profile; a high score indicates that hypnosis is likely if resistance can be overcome.
Because psychiatric illnesses such as post-traumatic stress, anxiety and conversion
disorders all have a strong association with hypnotizability, a comprehensive clinical
psychological assessment is a prerequisite. If an individual has a history of
psychopathology, past hypnotic induction carries a greater risk of unmasking
repressed memories and accessing painful experiences that can lead to the destabilizing
of the client. Thus, use of hypnosis as a tool to enhance sport performance
may require considerable clinical experience and judgment.
Most PGA Tour golfers do not have psychiatric illness, but the possibility
nevertheless remains an important consideration that mandates solid clinical training
before getting involved with a client’s unconscious mind. In addition, highly
hypnotizable individuals may be given a variety of post-hypnotic suggestions that
may not be appropriate; e.g., “bark like a dog” or “kiss your friend’s wife”, when you
are awoken. The impressive phenomenon of post-hypnotic suggestion mandates that
the practitioner should not only be clinically trained, but also consistently practice
with the highest ethical standards.
If the clinician does not possess the necessary clinical training to navigate ethically
and therapeutically through the unconscious mind of the athlete, teaching selfhypnotic
techniques are preferable. Although self-hypnotic techniques often result in
lighter trance states, they can still be very effective. Self-hypnosis also involves the
three basic components of hypnosis, but because the trance is self-induced
inappropriate post-hypnotic suggestions are avoided and the phenomena of
unmasking repressed memories are rare.
Dr. Jenkins’ article provides clinicians, coaches and teachers with the necessary
overview if they want to take advantage of an athlete’s own gift for trance. When an
athlete is in trance they often perform their best. Whether the clinician actively
hypnotizes the client or teaches the client self-hypnotic techniques, the resulting
trance state often enhances the athlete’s sense of mastery, independence, and
confidence – all of which are fundamental goals of the practicing sports psychologist
Editor’s Note: Dr. Michael Lardon is an Associate Clinical Professor in the
Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. He also
provides general psychiatry, psychopharmacology and performance enhancement for
members of the PGA, LPGA and Nationwide Tours. He is author of Finding Your
Zone: Ten Core Lessons for Achieving Peak Performance in Sports and Life.