Honing the mental edge for success
by Michael Braunstein
"Ninety percent of the game is half mental."
- Baseball Hall-of-Famer Yogi Berra,
former Yankee catcher and Mets manager.
Yogi Berra may have had his numbers screwy when he said that, but his intention was accurate nonetheless. The mind and body are linked and nowhere is that fact more evident than in athletics and physical performance.
According to legendary hypnotherapist Gil Boyne, founder of the Hypnotism Training Institute of Los Angeles, even prehistoric man relied on mental images to enhance performance.
"Ancient cave drawings uncovered in France suggest that early hunter-gatherers etched drawings of successful hunting scenes on cave walls in such a way that the last thing they saw on the evening before a hunt was the image of tribe members succeeding in killing herd animals," Boyne has told his students. "That way, the hunters could rely on their subconscious mind to hype them up for the hunt in the dawn hours."
Primitive tribes have long been known to work themselves into a trance-like frenzy in preparation for battle. War dances and incantations have always been a part of intertribal conflict. The wildest in preparation may not always have succeeded in the confrontation, but the importance of the process was never overlooked.
Modern-day warriors on the athletic field have taken a page from history to use mental imagery and subconscious motivational techniques to enhance performance too.
"Athletes are excellent subjects who see tremendous benefits from hypnosis," Boyne has said. He should know. In 1984, Olympic gold medallist Mary Lou Retton sought Boyne's help to gain a mental edge in the Los Angeles Olympics. She went gold. Sylvester Stallone utilized Boyne's techniques to improve his athleticism in doing his own stuntwork. Boyne's use of hypnosis with them and others has helped their athletic performance.
A number of world-class athletes have done likewise.
THEY CALL IT "THE ZONE"
To understand how the mental aspect of the game can best help an athlete, we must understand how the mind is associated with physical performance.
When a sports psychologist, coach or player addresses the mental part of the game and does so only from an intellectual use of the mind, the effects can be limited. Giving a player a pep talk or telling them certain positive things to think is certainly a step in the right direction, but unless a motivator is skilled in providing the athlete with a means to reach the subconscious mind the effort is lacking in potential. Sometimes a gifted coach or team motivator unknowingly stumbles upon a technique that activates the subconscious. An example might be an emotion-based videotape presentation. Or a coach might give an inspiring talk and play on the athletes' emotion á la "win one for the Gipper." Often without realizing it, they are accessing the subconscious by the simple fact that the subconscious is the seat of the emotional mind. Heck, for over a century, film score composers have been using music to access the subconscious. Or did you never get a chill when you hear high pitched tremolo violins in a scary movie?
But there is a more direct route to the subconscious and that is through the use of hypnosis.
To simplify, the mind can be considered to have two parts, or more accurately, two functional thought systems. These two parts are commonly referred to as the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. One need not be a scientist or psychologist to understand the simple differences. In fact, there is no scientific delineation between the two so-called parts of the mind. (As a matter of further fact, there is no scientific agreement on what comprises the mind at all!)
A commonsense approach tells us that the "conscious" mind is the part of the mind we typically associate with intellectual endeavors. It is logic-based, evidence-based and is great at trying to analyze things. It is analytical, filtering and critical. We associate it with tasks like dealing with numbers or alphabetizing things or just "figuring things out." But our mind is much bigger than that.
The subconscious, or as some say, "the other 90 percent of our mind," handles everything else! That part of our mind directs our body's digestion, breathing, heartbeat, immune system, controls our muscles when walking, even does most of the driving of our car when we travel from place to place. (When was the last time you had to consciously think about how much gas to give it or how much pressure to put on the brakes? Probably back when you were first learning to drive.) The subconscious allows our body to do things with an ease and ability that our conscious mind could never match. Most of the time, athletes train the subconscious by using the technique of repetition. An action repeated correctly over and over, trains the subconscious to perform the task without conscious thought.
Any athlete who has heard the term "the zone" or has experienced that feeling when they are playing knows that it is a time when they are performing at their most natural and without really "knowing" how they got there. In fact, athletes often remark that a player who is playing exceptionally well is said to be "playing unconscious."
In a 1997 U.S. News and World Report article about the '96 Atlanta Olympics, sports psychologist Jim Reardon, commenting on the use of hypnosis in sports noted, "Most really good athletes are already in a state of trance while performing." Nothing could be more true. When an athlete is "in the zone," the subconscious mind has become dominant and their conscious thinking has gotten out of the way. They begin to feel like they "can't miss." And feel is the operative word. When an athlete is performing, they are almost entirely operating with the subconscious mind as the dominant part. Often they just call it "playing by instinct."
TO PUT IT WHERE YOU WANT IT, SEE IT WHERE YOU PUT IT.
Perhaps the most common application of mind in the area of athletics is the process known as visualization. Athletes are often taught to "see" in their mind's eye the successful event and the steps taken to reach the goal. They are told to imagine their success as they see it in the mind. To use a concept, to "imagine" is to put an "image in" the mind. When the image is emotionally strengthened by accessing the subconscious through hypnosis, and that visualization is enhanced by feeling an emotional emphasis with it, we are employing the "other 90 percent" of the mind.
Just trying to picture something in the mind is one thing. Actually picturing it in the subconscious is another. That's what hypnosis can help an athlete do.
Hypnosis is really nothing other than relaxing the conscious mind and therefore making the subconscious available for positive and beneficial suggestions. The effectiveness of these suggestions is relative to the way they are phrased, formulated and delivered. Emotionally couched and dynamic suggestions that utilize an athlete's own points of reference can be more effective than a generic batch of thought-out and analyzed suggestions. We're talking about the subconscious mind here! By its very nature, it responds to emotional phrases and colorful wording better than to intellectual or logical thought processes. The subconscious doesn't want to think. It wants to see or feel. By that token, it's likely a talented screenwriter or poet helping someone by hypnosis might be a better motivator than the summa cum laudé grad of the local psychology class. That isn't to say that the psych graduate couldn't be a wonderful hypnotist. But it's unlikely that those skills would have much to do with classical psychology.
One of the wonderful things about sports hypnosis is that the ideal situation is to teach the athlete the skill so that they can use it without the need of a therapist or motivator there. A number of highly motivated and successful athletes have learned to do just that.
Michael Jordan learned meditational techniques and was coached by the zen Phil Jackson. Jordan has been quoted many times about the mental aspect of the game. Several years ago, after his winning three-point shot propelled his team into the NBA Finals, Jordan was asked how he prepared in the huddle with three seconds left with his team down by two.
"I've been put in that situation enough times to just let things instinctively happen. My thought process is about successful opportunities like this in the past. You feed the mind with positive things and then just go out and let it flow," he responded.
Olympian gold medal shot putter Parry O'Brien competed for the United States in the Olympics from 1952 to 1964. He medalled each time. He was using self-hypnosis before it was "in." He also used yoga and visualization and listened to drumming to work into a "warrior state" as he called it.
Quoted in a 1997 Sports Illustrated article O'Brien said, "I'd record pep talks to myself, then I'd put the tape player under my bed, get into a sleepy state and let it all sink into my subconscious." O'Brien set world records 17 times.
THE SUBCONSCIOUS SULTAN OF SWAT
Mark McGuire demolished Roger Maris' single season home run record in 1998. He powered past Maris' 1961 mark of 61 and ended up with 70 swats. This was after four years of flirting with the record but never getting close enough to be a real threat. He solved the problem in '98. The mind/bat connection was his not-so-secret weapon.
McGuire recognized how tired he was getting mentally in the previous years and developed techniques of visualization entering a trance-like state for 30 minutes before each game and 30 minutes after. One of the side benefits of hypnosis is that the total relaxation that comes with the technique is in itself highly beneficial. The level of stress in the body and mind decreases and it can even lead to better health.
McGuire visualizes how the day's pitcher had pitched him in the past and would imagine how he saw himself performing against that pitcher in the upcoming game. For him to devote 60 minutes to visualization each day shows a level of commitment that sets him apart and helps explain his dominance in the statistics of baseball.
In a USAToday interview, McGuire put it simply. "The mind is power. Not everybody uses it."
In fact, everybody has to use it. But will you use it to help or to hinder? And given that, will you use all of it or just ten percent?