By Dr. Michael Lardon
Annual Review of Golf Coaching 2009

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.


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

or psychiatrist.

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.