Hypnosis in sport has not been an unequivocal success. Research is inconclusive. For some participants hypnosis doesn’t work and for others it works very well. So well in fact that the performance of certain individuals rises so much that statistical analysis is pointless and that it seems as if these people gain superpowers. (The Oxford Handbook of Hypnosis: Theory, Research and Practice, Oxford University Press 2008) For instance, “Charles” was able to expand his endurance test from 90 weigth presses to 350 presses whereas even a top fit American football athlete was unable to press more than 100 times.
Hypnosis as such is still little understood. The best definition of hypnosis comes from stage hypnotist Derren Brown:
Hypnosis is convincing others to go along with your story.
This definition immediately shows that there are two kinds of hypnosis. A broadly defined hypnosis that fits Derren Brown’s definition and a narrowly defined hypnosis where our brain starts to work differently than normally. Although it is quite hard to find biomarkers of hypnosis, hypnosis does seem to influence the workings of our default mode, a specific default activity found in the brain. With the default mode being less active than usual in a hypnotic trance, it seems that the integration of our experience starts to falter. With Tononi’s Information Integration Theory of consciousness, it becomes understandable that with less data integration happening in the brain in a hypnotic trance, we also become less conscious. For it is scientifically very clear that a hypnotic trance is quite an alternate state of consciousness.
Hypnosis in football
So does this mean that there is a role to play for hypnosis in football? I think it does. First of all, too many players suffer from anxiety or depression, or both. For those players who like to take an unconventional approach to help them get over anxiety or depression, hypnosis is an option.
Research shows that hypnosis helps specific individuals particularly well for issues with endurance. Less so with tasks that involve strength or power. What is especially interesting is that one theory is that our unconsciousness sets limits to what we seem to be able to physically endure. It is reasoned that this limit is there to protect us from damaging ourselves by enduring more than we physically can endure. It seems as if hypnosis is able, again in some specific individuals, to remove this inhibition. “Charles” noticed that after hypnosis he thought he would quit pressing after 90 times consciously, but was then amazed that his arms continued to lift weights. Most fortunately, there is no damage in these individuals that go beyond what was thought to be physically possible. So it seems that our unconsciousness is overprotective.
Finally, there are individuals who later in their career are unable to reach previous peak performance, even if they are physically able to execute the task required of them. In these cases hypnosis can help an athlete to reach previous levels of performance.
One issue that I spot with the research, is that these scientists are trying to isolate hypnosis from other forms of suggestion. They want to research narrowly defined hypnosis. By doing this they try to exclude other factors that enhance the performance of football players. These factors are motivation, rapport, general suggestions and demand characteristics. Yet, these are all part of the broadly defined hypnosis.
So given that motivation, rapport, general suggestions and demands all help to improve the performance of players and, on top of that, for some individual players they can overcome issues with endurance, broadly defined hypnosis is quite important for football. If only for the fact that for the manager it is very important to get his players to go along with his strategy or tactics. Which is an excellent translation of “convincing people to go along with your story”, the best definition of hypnosis.
It has been difficult to scientifically prove the difference between hypnotic suggestions and general suggestions. One reason could be that a general suggestion is already hypnotic in nature. Yet, words matter. One experiment showed that with hypnotic pain control, depending on the words used in the hypnotic suggestions, the body and the brain consistently use a physically different way of blocking the pain. Using the right words has been shown to have a dramatic different effect on people hearing them.
So for football clubs I recommend checking which players like to go on an adventure and see what they can achieve with hypnosis. The next step is to test to see whether these players are easily hypnotizable. Finally one can test whether the performance of these players increases by using both narrowly and broadly defined hypnosis.
For managers and other staff members who need to influence their players by using words, it is imperative to learn to structure their language in so called hypnotic language patterns. Often people mean well, but formulate badly. If that happens, people often get the opposite effect of what they were trying to communicate. Most people I have worked with increased their personal effectiveness when they start using hypnotic language patterns. Even if they never hypnotized a single person in their life.