Forget “no pain, no gain.” There’s another way to improve your athletic performance.

Next time you’re revising your training plan for a key race, add mental training. It might be your competitive edge. More seat time and more pavement pounding may not offer near the benefit of being still. You won’t save time, just re-allocate it to mental training — hypnotherapy or meditation. Slowing down the brain to enter a state of “flow,” a trance-like state where time stands still, may allow you to break through to new race and performance achievements without logging more physical training time.

This flow state, attributed to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose book “Flow” describes the trance-like state, is when the alpha brain state is reached via hypnosis or meditation. Attributes of the alpha state include working towards clearly identifiable goals; concentration on a narrow focus of attention; a distorted sense of time; the ability to respond instantly to feedback from your activity; a heightened sense of personal autonomy and control; a sense of intrinsic satisfaction and reward; a feeling of overcoming bodily limitations; and a feeling of total absorption in the activity. To all athletes, no matter the sport, these describe “the zone” — that space-time environment when time stands still and through intense focus, anything becomes possible.

Csikszentmihalyi states, “Every person, no matter how unfit he or she is, can rise a little higher, go a little faster, and grow to be a little stronger. The joy of surpassing the limits of the body is open to all.” The trick, then, is to tap into that “flow” and channel it to our athletic pursuits.

Sports Hypnotherapy
Hypnosis can help. Sports hypnotherapy, a specialized field within the area of hypnotherapy, works through mental rehearsal, or visualization, creating a positive focus all basing off the mind-body connection. “Your subconscious mind doesn’t know the difference between reality and imagining” says Certified Hypnotherapist Kelly Locker, who practices with Happy Brain Counseling in Kirkwood.

Kelly Locker of Happy Brain Counseling in Kirkwood

Kelly Locker of Happy Brain Counseling in Kirkwood

Locker, who has been performing hypnosis since 2006, says that most clients she sees are ready for the treatments. In fact, in the process of dispelling the myths of hypnosis, she says, “most people who are coming to me, already have a level of interest. If you do not want to be hypnotized, this work will not be effective.” For the sceptic or those who have fear around the modality, she addresses common misconceptions. Yes, if you want to be hypnotized, you can be. No, you won’t say or do something that you don’t want to, and no, you cannot get “stuck” in a hypnotic state.

Most of us are predominantly fixed in a beta brain state, which is one of alert focused concentration. This is the state of performance, and while it is ideal for achieving our athletic goals, it can be prohibitive in allaying fears, setting new records and learning new skills. As we age, we spend more time in a beta brain state — this is one of the reasons why learning languages when young is ideal, as children are predominantly in alpha brain states. Without ample time in the alpha, theta and delta states, we can “get stuck” at our present levels or achievement.

All of us go into self-hypnosis hundreds of times each day without even realizing. Locker explains, “You know that time when you are driving and you arrive somewhere and can’t recall anything about the drive?” That is a self-induced hypnotic state. The key to better performance is to harness that innate ability and apply it for the desired results allowing “the body to perform as it is meant to.”

Hypnosis, which is merely entering the alpha brain state with a goal or goals in mind, allows for the subconscious mind to be dominant. Through work done in this highly creative alpha brain state, we can re-program ourselves to surpass our current boundaries and limitations.

In addition to athletic performance, hypnosis is commonly used for smoking cessation, overcoming stress and testing anxiety, weight reduction and phobias.

Hypnosis is not the only route to changed states in the brain. Meditation and yoga are also vehicles to the alpha state. “Head Games,” written by Alex Hutchison (Outside magazine, February 2014), shows a different path to similar results. Researchers are finding that elite athletes are able to better adapt and respond to the unknown without panicking. “The goal, then, is to train your brain to anticipate, and not overreact, to unexpected stress,” says the article. For runners, that might mean pushing through extreme temperatures in the painful late stages of races.

Whichever your vehicle, it’s time to realize that physical fitness is only one piece of the whole picture. And while, as athletes, we can’t win every race, with proper training of body and mind, we can do a lot more than most people ever imagine possible.

Finding Your Zone
What can you do right now to begin?

An individual can induce a state of self-hypnosis and conduct a short visualization exercise in as little as five minutes. Ideally, these sessions are conducted upon waking in the morning or right before bed, when the brain is already close to alpha state.

You want to make sure it is a rich kinesthetically as you can, with sights, smells and emotions, suggests Locker. For example, before a hard workout or key race, visualize the venue, make it as complete and rich as you can with your clothing, the weather, include any people around, the scenery, the smells and any tactile sensations like the feel of your familiar racing cap. Take the visualization through the workout or race, picturing finish times.

A meditative exercise you might try is simple breath awareness. Sit in a comfortable position in a place where you will not be disturbed. Focus on your breathing. As you continue, begin to count your breaths; each inhale plus the exhale is one complete breath. Each time you forget where you were, begin again. Continue this for at least five minutes and build each week by adding minutes.

To learn more about hypnosis, contact Kelly Locker at Happy Brain. Counseling via phone at 314-502-9072 or by email Happy-Brain is located at 12166 Old Big Bend, Suite 315, in Kirkwood, MO.

Author: Julie Bergfeld is the owner of Metro Power Yoga,