[Nancy Wheeler A Balanced Life 5 Centerpointe Drive Suite 100 Lake Oswego, OR 97035 Tel: 503 684 4112 e-mail: ]

THE WINNING EDGE IN SPORTS:  A recent Wall Street Journal article (February 11, 2002) brings recognition to the field of hypnotherapy. Bronze medal Olympic champion Adam Malysz used hypnosis for his ski jump victory: "And before ascending the ramp and lurching down that icy slide in the 90 meter event, he descended an imaginary staircase-20 slow deep steps into a trance." (1) Then again, the Soviets and Eastern block countries have used hypnosis much longer than other countries for sports enhancement. Eleven hypnotherapists accompanied the Russian Olympic team in 1956.

On the evening of June 2nd 2002 the L.A. Lakers beat the Sacramento Kings in overtime in the 7th game of the Western Conference Championship. After the game coach Phil Jackson credited his morning practice of self-hypnosis, meditation, and visualization with giving the Lakers the belief that they could win. Coach Jackson insists that the Chicago Bulls practiced daily self-hypnosis when he coached Michael Jordon and the Bulls to their 6 NBA Championships.

It is well known among golfers that much of the score depends on how a golfer thinks. Ben Hogan says, "Golf is twenty percent technique and eighty percent mental." (2) Jack Nicklaus has stated many times that he believes that golf is 90% mental preparation and only 10% skill. He prepares for matches by visualizing problem putts and mentally rehearsing how he will execute each drive.

Boxer Ken Norton has used hypnosis training before his famous victory over Mohammed Ali. That was the fight in which he broke Ali’s jaw. Mark McGuire uses hypnosis to help him relax. Even Tiger Woods is believed to have done extensive hypnosis and meditation and continues to use a hypnotic trigger to focus his mind. (3)

Most professional athletes who use hypnotic techniques to help them perform are reluctant to discuss the matter openly. Perhaps it would appear to the public to admit weakness, perhaps some publicity concern around the stigma of "hypnosis" or perhaps they don’t want to give away to competitors their own prescriptions for success.

Some key areas hypnotherapists can be of service to the professional, amateur or recreational athlete regardless of age, skill level or sport include 1) mental imagery and mental rehearsal of positive experiences or feelings, 2) confidence and belief in self, 3) concentration and focus, 4) dismissal of negative experiences, mistakes or losses, 5) anxiety control. Overall, this means practice in feeling, thinking and being the best one can be whether it’s for sports improvement or life. Hypnotherapists frequently work with confidence, anxiety and concentration in a wide variety of applications, and sports is no exception.

Specific mental imagery skills for sports are a key component in reaching the winning edge. At the elite sports training centers, mental tools such as visualization, imagery and mental rehearsal are becoming an increasingly dominant part of the training regiment. Athletes watch video/digital recordings of their own successful performance or that of a favorite sports idol. Hypnosis can then be used to integrate desired changes or rehearse a success or win until it becomes part of the athlete’s reality. With hypnosis, all the senses, feelings and positive thoughts can be enhanced and put into action. Posthypnotic cues can be used to rapidly trigger a state of calm, confidence or energy whenever needed. For instance, Iwan Thomas used the post-hypnotic cue of gently tugging on his left ear lobe moments before the gun sounded to start his world cup 400meter race. This cue brought him to a heightened state of concentration and helped him block out the noise of the crowd. He won the race and had the best season ever. Robert Fargo, a hypnotherapist who works with athletes at his hypnosis clinic in Windsor, England says, "What hypnosis does is it takes the champion’s best performance, makes it available 100% of the time." (4)

Mental rehearsal of a precompetition routine develops consistency and improved performance. Hypnosis can be utilized to remember and practice mentally the routine used on a previously successful event or to create and rehearse a series of actions that are used prior to an event. Focus on a routine allows less time for the intrusion of negative thoughts, which give birth to anxiety and tension, two leading causes of failure in performance.

Hypnotherapists can have an active role in assisting athletes of all skill levels to reach their ideal performance state, often referred to as "the zone." J.E. Loehr (1986) found the following conditions to be key to optimal performance: physically relaxed, mentally calm, low anxiety, energized, optimistic, enjoyment, alert, mentally focused, self-confident and in control. (5) The value in controlling the onset and maintenance of the flow state through hypnosis is unlimited. Ken Perry (PGA pro) summarizes it well: "I notice when I’m in the "zone," when I’m playing really good golf, I hear nothing. I hear no cars, people, no nothing. I’m so focused, so tuned in, and it’s so easy. But if I am a little off sync, I back off until I can go into my routine."

Anchors and dismissal techniques can be included in a sports hypnotherapy session as well. By exploring the visual, auditory and kinesthetic modalities present during a success, win or even "the zone," positive cues or "anchors" can be identified and rehearsed. Anchors, for example, may include the smell of the grass, the sound of the bat hitting the ball, the feeling of running past the base, etc. Accessing these anchors before, during and after an event can create a positive mental state, give added energy or calm when needed and reinforce improvements or enhanced performances. Having an image or word/phrase to let go of or dismiss a negative move, mistake or event is important in any performance. For example, the baseball player could put the negative picture in a glass frame and shatter his picture with a baseball. Practicing this with hypnosis helps make it automatic following the actual incident. Such a tool serves to clear the mind of the distractive reinforcement of mentally repeating the event and the accompanying negative thoughts, thus reducing anxiety and quickly recapturing the necessary focus and concentration needed. (6)

Hypnosis can also be used to remove emotional blockages from the past that are affecting performance, relieve insomnia (especially prior to an important event), manage anger or other inappropriate reactions, assist in healing from injuries, improve pain tolerance and control negative habits. Habits may include dietary choices, practice schedules, alcohol/drug usage, self-nurturing and many more. Hypnotherapists can be instrumental in assisting the professional or recreational athlete to not only be the best they can be, but also to remind them to have fun. Improvement occurs when an athlete remembers the origin of their involvement-the kid in themselves enjoying the sport with pure and innocent delight. If you enjoy what you do, you are always a winner!

Artie McMurtrey, Larry Skolnik, Nancy Wheeler: Oregon 2002


1. Barry Newman, Berry. (2002, February 11). The Key to Ski Jumping? Never Think About It. The Wall Street Journal.

2. Miller, Larry. (1996). Beyond Golf. Walpole, NH: Stillpointe Publishing, pp106.

3. Andrisani, John. (2002). Think Like Tiger: An Analysis of Tiger Woods’. Mental Game. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

4. Gains, Paul. (1998, December 29). Vital Signs Performance; For Athletes, Better Focus With Hypnosis. Health and Fitness

5. Loehr, J.E. (1986). Mental Toughness Training for Sports: Achieving Athletic Excellence. New York: Plume.

6. Glad, Wayne and Chip Beck. (1999). Focused for Golf. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, pp24.