Toward A New Clinical Sport Hypnosis

We believe that imaging perfect performance and creating a relaxed state has been grossly and unnecessarily overephasized in sport psychology and, in particular, in sport hypnosis.  Sport psychologists, both academicians and clinicians, have been mired in an unrelenting and redundant emphasis on visualization and relaxation.  This does the field a great disservice.

As is the case with other clinical issues we treat, we should utilize the full armamentarium at our disposal and deploy all of the clinical skills available to us as practitioners of hypnosis.  Therefore, we should use alert hypnotic states and not just the traditional passive states.  Eyes open, walking and talking hypnosis will allow interventions to generalize ever more easily onto the playing field.

We should also elicit hypnotic phenomena to help athletes achieve their goals.  These include amnesia, hypermnesia, time distortion, age regression, age progression, negative therapeutic hallucination, positive therapeutic hallucination, and indeed, the entire range of the hypnotic phenomena (for further information on hpnotic phenomena, see Edgette & Edgette, 1995).

This model, based on the hypnotic and psychotherapeutic approaches of Milton H Erickson, MD, is highly individualized and interventions are tailored to the uniqueness of the athlete.  The range of application includes helping athletes with motivational problems, attitudinal problems, fears, distractions, and dealing with performance pressure.

The following examples illustrate the use of a variety of hypnotic phenomena and alert hypnosis to empower athletes to achieve a peak performance.

Negative Visual Hallucination

Many athletes spontaneously experience a hypnotic tunnel vsion when doing an eyes open trance.  Inducing hypnotic tunnel vision will allow athletes to focus more accurately on the task at hand while avoiding distracting stimuli such as spectators, judges and players on the sidelines.

What free throw shooter, pitcher, or golfer couldn’t benefit from negative visual hallucinations?

Future Progression

A hallmark of the Ericksonian approach, future progression can be elicited to assist athletes in breaking out of a performance slump while rebuilding and enhancing confidence.

  • A competitive eight-year-old horseback rider had suffered two bad falls, which had greatly impacted her confidence.  Utilizing future progression she was able to kinesthetically experience herself in hypnosis riding and jumping fences, reporting a great deal of enjoyment for the first time in years.

Posthypnotic Suggestion

This intervention allows athletes to implement the desired changes outside of the session and on the playing field.  Changes in perception, habitual patterns, and phenomenological experiences can be precisely orchestreated to take place automatically.

  • A golfer feels a rush of confidence and focus the moment he steps into the tee box.
  • A marathon runner experiences a surge of energy by touching her wristband.
  • The argumentative coach is reminded to slow down the moment he focuses his gaze on his wife sitting in the crowd.

Heretofore, sport psychology and sport hypnosis have been overly focused on two simplistic solutions, imaging perfect performance and relaxing, in an attempt to ensure that anxiety doesn’t interfere with performance.  We believe it is invaluable to help athletes to use the control knobs of perception, sensation, experience — the hypnotic phenomena — to alter their experience of sports so that they can adopt and hold on to a mental stance that will yeild optimal performance.


Edgette, J.H. & Edgette, J.S. (1995).  The handbook of hypnotic phenomena in psychotherapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Joseph Dowling, M.S. & John H. Edgette, PhD