By Mac E. Lancaster, BS, and Ran D. Anbar, MD
Sports are based on physical competition, but psychological training is a key part of becoming an outstanding athlete. Athletes need to monitor their mental health, not only to remain calm and goal-oriented but also to avoid injury.
For example, athletes experiencing depression, anxiety, and related mental health disorders are more prone to injury, longer healing periods, injury recurrence, and lower sports return rates (Rogers et al., 2023).
Fortunately, athletes can learn to employ hypnosis on their own as a psychological tool that can improve training outcomes and competitive performance (Li & Li, 2022).
Studies have pointed to the potential for hypnosis to help athletes boost their self-confidence, attention, memory, ability to learn and improve athletic technique, recovery rates, and sleep while reducing anxiety and fears (Li & Li, 2022).
Source: Ruth Peterkin/Shutterstock
Golf performance has proven to be one of the sports most impacted by hypnotic intervention (Milling & Randazzo, 2016). According to a recent case study, hypnosis may assist golfers in managing their emotions and thoughts during a high-pressure situation, resulting in a lower mean stroke average (Pates, 2021).
Hypnosis allows golfers to suppress negative emotions and elevate positive ones while inducing mental relaxation (Pates & Cowen, 2013). As a result, the golfer is more likely to achieve a state of flow, in which they adopt an ideal performance mentality of smooth, accurate execution with complete engagement in the task at hand (Pates & Maynard, 2000).
This blog reports of a firsthand experience from one of our 16-year-old patients, “Jack” (not his real name), who learned to use hypnosis, which subsequently benefited his golf game.
Using Hypnosis for Improved Sleep
Jack initially learned to use hypnosis to help improve his sleep quality. He used hypnosis for relaxation by envisioning a peaceful environment. He was taught to imagine using all five senses within that scene to make the experience seem more real and create a feeling of peace. He then was instructed to make a signal with one of his hands, which he could use anytime, and which would trigger his relaxation response even without doing hypnosis.
His sleep improved after learning to employ self-hypnosis. He reported that he used it every night just before falling asleep, beginning with his hand signal, and then drifting off into his hypnotic place on the mountains in Big Sky. He imagined himself snow skiing, paying attention to his senses as he moved down the slopes. He said he fell asleep after coming back from hypnosis.
Jack has used a WHOOP band (a wearable device that uses sensors to measure various biometrics including heart rate and temperature) for over a year to help improve golf performance by tracking his sleep, stress levels, and recovery.
Before learning hypnosis, he averaged three and a half hours of restorative sleep at night, which the WHOOP defines as related to the duration of rapid eye movement (REM) and deep sleep. Restorative sleep is a term that is frequently used to characterize sleep quality and length which positively affects mood, energy, and well-being throughout the day (Robbins et al., 2022).
After practicing hypnosis each night, over two months, the WHOOP band showed he averaged an extra half hour of restorative sleep each night.
Implementing Visualization to Practice Golf
Jack also used hypnotic tools to make direct changes to his golf swing. He explained that before learning hypnosis, when his coach gave him specific swing changes, he would understand the changes, but adopting them was challenging. He would rely on hitting as many balls as he could.
Once he employed hypnosis for his golf game, he visualized swinging with the changes suggested by his coach before even taking a shot. When approaching the ball he used visualization techniques to mentally picture his shot before taking two practice swings. He went through a mental checklist, confirming that each muscle involved in the swing was prepared, and then swung the club and made contact with the ball.
Further, utilizing his hand signal allowed him to enter a hypnotic state between shots to stay calm and centered. After employing a pre-shot routine while utilizing hypnosis he was able to make changes to his swing within a much shorter time frame and fewer balls hit.
Jack practiced positive self-talk when implementing swing changes, directing his focus on the outcome he wanted, as opposed to what he didn’t want. For instance, he noticed thinking “Don’t miss” was more likely to lead to a missed putt than thinking, “I want the ball to fall straight into the hole.”
Jack also utilized hypnosis to quickly improve his golf putting. Jack described how he learned to set himself up behind the golf ball, perpendicular to the hole, and waggled his putter club slowly while visualizing the ball falling in the hole at the exact speed and direction for a perfect putt.
Next, he reported getting into position to make his putt by stepping toward the ball and looking at the hole. He would take two practice putting swings while repeating to himself the mantra, “I see the ball fall into the hole,” and rocking his shoulders into position. He put his putter face behind the ball and went through his mental checklist using positive self-talk.
Finally, he looked at the ball, sharpened his focus, and followed through with his putt. As a result, he reported that his putts have gone in much more often than before he learned to employ hypnosis and positive self-talk.
Hypnosis not only holds promise for enhancing overall mental well-being in athletes but also proves to be a tool for refining specific aspects of performance, as demonstrated through our patient’s journey of improving sleep and golf performance. This patient example demonstrates the great potential of hypnosis as a mental tool in one’s athletic pursuit.
Mac Lancaster obtained his undergraduate degree in Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience at UC San Diego and performed the literature search for this blog.