Enhancing Performance in Sports,
Intellectual Activities, and Everyday Life
Ronald A. Havens & Catherine Walters
Estimated reading time: 15 minutes, 25 seconds.
Our purpose in this chapter is to describe a hypnotic technique we use to help our clients enhance their performance in almost any enterprise. Our approach remains fairly constant no matter what area of life a person wishes to improve. Whether a client wants to lower his or her golf score, become a better salesperson, develop new interpersonal skills, or simply feel better emotionally, we conduct our sessions in essentially the same manner.
ENHANCING FUTURE PERFORMANCE
After an initial diagnostic interview to determine why the person is there and what he or she wants to accomplish, we use hypnosis to clarify the thoughts, sensations, emotions, and behaviors that individual associates with the desired outcome. During this trance session, the client is instructed to imagine how it will feel to accomplish the desired goal and to examine all of the elements of this imagined situation, including the events that led up to it. This utilization of the individual’s own prior experiential learnings and understandings to establish the treatment outcome ensures that the particular objectives, personality, and background of that person are taken into account and that the prescribed changes truly suit the activity under consideration.
On the other hand, the client’s reservoir of experiential learnings and understandings is not the only possible source of guidance at this point. Relevant information from the professional literature also may be incorporated into the hypnotic suggestion process if necessary. For example, an ever-growing body of research consistently shows that success in virtually every endeavor, including everyday life, depends on an optimistic attitude and a positive sense of self-efficacy (e.g., Taylor, 1989; Maddi & Kosaba, 1984). Accordingly, we routinely include suggestions regarding these attitudes as the person develops the imagined experience of a successful outcome.
We also routinely include suggestions designed to promote a condition of highly focused attention. Obviously, one must focus one’s attention on an activity to perform it with any degree of success. What is less obvious, and less widely known, is that a particular state of highly focused attention is commonly associated with exceptional performances in virtually any area. For example, Gallwey (1974) taught tennis and golf players to enter into a state of “relaxed concentration” to improve their game. Lozanov (1978) found that students could learn a foreign language more efficiently in a similar state that he called “concert pseudopassiveness,” and Gilligan (1987) attributed the “controlled spontaneity” frequently observed in the performances of professional musicians, athletes, and psychotherapists to this condition of absorbed attention. Zeig (1985) described the way in which Milton Erickson reportedly predicted the winners of a track meet. He would choose those who were “concentrating and focusing.” Race car drivers refer to this state as “streaming” and athletes in general talk about being “on” or “in the zone.” Given the similarity of this experience to the absorbed attention typical of a hypnotic state, it is natural and useful to incorporate a description of it as a desirable outcome of therapy for most clients.
Furthermore, individual activities, such as target shooting, require a narrow internal focus of attention for peak performance (Maxeiner, 1987), whereas team sports demand a more diffuse and external focus (Nettleton, 1986). When such information is available for the pursuit being considered, it is added to the client’s own understandings via the suggestions we offer regarding the goal state.
The specific steps involved in this intervention are as follows:
- Conduct a trance induction or any other procedure designed to stabilize and redirect the client’s attention inward. Ideally, the person will be in a receptive, passively observant frame of mind before the therapist proceeds to the next
- Explain to the person that in the same way that it is possible to remember and relive a past experience, it also is possible to use imagination to “remember” an event that has not yet happened. Quickly add that the person can, for example, “remember” what it will feel like when the person realizes that he or she accomplished whatever it was that brought the person to you in the first place. Indicate that the client already knows how it will feel to do so and suggest that they he or she pay attention to those feelings and sensations now. While he or she is locating and becoming familiar with how it feels to succeed, suggestions for different aspects of the experience can be provided, such as a sense of satisfaction, well being, or excitement.
- After the client begins to identify and experience the emotions and sensations associated with accomplishing the desired goal, the experience is expanded and clarified, one sensory pathway at a time. Details about that future situation are gradually filled in by asking the person to pay attention to physical sensations, sounds, and sights. Eventually the person is asked to take cognizance of where he or she is, who else is there, what the date is, and so on.
- As the person vividly imagines being in that future situation, happy and satisfied with a successful outcome, he or she is asked to “remember” the actual experience of succeeding. This step can be omitted if the goal is a change in emotional or psychological state, because it is often difficult to identify exactly when such changes occur, but if the objective is enhanced performance of some specific mental or physical activity, then it is a useful part of the process. The client has an opportunity to “experience” (and thus rehearse) how it feels to perform in a successful manner, and the therapist has an opportunity to include suggestions for particular actions or states of mind that are known to enhance performance in that endeavor. For example, this is an appropriate time to suggest that the client “remember” how it felt to be effortlessly focused and undistracted, to be sure of himself or herself and yet amazed by his or her own abilities. This alsois an appropriate time to suggest that the client examine things about the situation that seemed to make it easier to perform so well, that is, to become aware of any changes in attitude or approach that apparently helped to create a positive outcome.
- The next step is to ask the client to remember, from that future vantage point, some of the significant events that took place along the path leading from now, sitting in your office, to the desired result. These events are mentally “reviewed” to “remind” the person about what led to the hoped-for end product and to set the stage for their eventual occurrence, but there is no need for the events to be reviewed in sequential order, nor is it necessary for the client to understand how those happenings contributed to that conclusion. In fact, it is best if the client views them as a selection of unrelated events that simply pop into the mind. Throughout the entire process, the client is encouraged to wait for different aspects of the experience simply to emerge or appear and not to create them on purpose. Even if what springs to mind does not make sense or seem relevant, as is often the case, the person is asked to observe passively and allow things to unfold in whatever manner they do without interfering or attempting to alter them.
- Finally, as the trance and the session are brought to a close, the client is told to forget about the things that have occurred and to allow the unconscious mind to assume responsibility for turning these imagined events into Although some clients are able consciously and intentionally to follow their own “unconscious” advice, others tend to alter matters in a way that merely perpetuates previous patterns of action and reaction. Thus, whenever possible, it is desirable to elicit amnesia for these experiences and to offer a posthypnotic suggestion for their eventual accomplishment in a seemingly spontaneous manner. When this suggestion is successful, clients engage in the activities that lead to the desired outcome without realizing that there is a method to it. Looking back on it, they typically report, “One thing just led to another.”Although we would love to take credit for inventing this approach, the basic rationale and structure of the technique presented here were derived directly from the work of Milton Erickson.
In our book on Hypnotherapy for Health, Harmony, and Peak Performance (Walters & Havens, 1993), we point out that Erickson was less concerned with what people were doing wrong in the present than with getting them to do things right in the future. He encouraged the development of attitudes and behaviors that would eventually result in successful adjustment and emotional well-being. He elicited the positive attitudes, states of mind, and behaviors that he knew would allow his clients to accomplish their goals, whether those goals involved enhanced athletic performance, academic performance, or performance in everyday life. Erickson concentrated on what people could do, and he devised an impressive array of techniques to help them build better futures for themselves. He used direct and indirect hypnotic suggestions, implications, metaphorical anecdotes, and straightforward behavioral assignments to get people to begin thinking and behaving in healthier, more productive ways. The approach outlined here is based on one of these many techniques, a technique Erickson called “pseudo-orientation in time” (Erickson, 1954).
Because Erickson usually devised a unique therapeutic intervention to suit the needs and personality of each unique person, it may seem some what presumptuous to reduce his approach to one specific strategy to be used with a broad range of problems. Nonetheless, we believe that it is appropriate to do so. Few practitioners can emulate Erickson’s creativity or wisdom and, luckily, most of the time it is not necessary to do so. We propose that it is possible, instead, to use his pseudo-orientation-in-time technique with virtually every client because it is the one intervention that captures the underlying essence of Erickson’s seemingly endless list of strategies. By concentrating on one particularly powerful Ericksonian hypnotherapeutic approach, it is possible to condense his insights and genius into a manageable procedure.
Pseudo-orientation in time is one of the few techniques Erickson used with more than one patient, and it is the only one of his techniques that seems to be useful for almost any presenting problem. In his original publication on the topic, Erickson (1954) described his use of this technique with five very different patients, all of whom enjoyed successful outcomes. Each patient eventually engaged in the activity he or she had foreseen in the age-progression visualizations, and each did so with no recognition that he or she was following his or her own self-generated prescription for success.
In another publication (Erickson & Rossi, 1977), Erickson even described using this approach on himself to prepare for the unpleasant situations he realized he would eventually encounter as a physician. He projected himself into an imagined future, figured out how to cope with the unfairness and unpleasantness of the events he was likely to face in his practice, and emerged from his reverie ready to continue with his career. Given the nature of that career, it is safe to conclude that his intervention worked.
Like most of Erickson’s interventions, the pseudo-orientation-in-time approach focuses the client and the therapist fully and solely on the future. In addition, because it is centered around the client’s self-generated imagined experience of accomplishing the desired objective, this technique relies heavily on the client’s own “unconscious” learnings and observations to define both the goal state and the steps required to arrive at that goal. Once the desired future and the steps to that future are identified, then the client is instructed to forget about it and to allow this outcome to unfold automatically or “unconsciously.” No other strategy seems to capture the essence of Erickson’s approach more directly or completely, and no other approach seems to be more consistently successful.
Jason, a 17-year-old member of a local high-school track team, consulted our office to improve his performance in the 1,600-meter race. His coach suggested that he seek professional help because he repeatedly lost races that, theoretically, he should have won. During practices, his lap times were consistently fast. During actual competition, however, he was unable to maintain a fast pace throughout a race. He started and finished fast, but always faded during the middle laps and lost too much ground to catch up and win. As Jason described it, he was always fired up during the first third of the race, discouraged and ready to quit during the middle third, and then would become angry and try to do his best again for the final third of the way.
The intervention in this case was quite simple and brief. Following an induction process, Jason was asked to imagine himself talking to his coach after winning an upcoming race. He was able to do this with little trouble, and he was also able to offer a verbatim account of his conversation with the coach about that race. He was then asked to remember what was different about the way he had thought about the various parts of the race and to tell his unconscious to make sure that these new thoughts arose during the next track meet. Finally, he was told to wake up without remembering much, if any, of the session. He left with a promise to return the following week and report what happened.
Jason later said that he had won his next race, although he did not know why. As he described it, he was really fired up during the first half of the race, and by the second half was getting angry and determined, just as he always did. It was immediately obvious that he had stopped split ting the race into thirds. He had solved the problem of becoming discouraged and tired during the middle third of the race by simply eliminating it from his thoughts. Interestingly, this was exactly what he had said to his coach during his imagined winning experience.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
Peak performance in any field is a function of multiple variables, including attitudes, emotions, innate talents, and practice. People who succeed have a clear idea of an attainable goal. They also know what they must do to accomplish that goal, and they have the willingness or desire to do it. Finally, they have optimistic expectations that they can and will reach their objective; they trust themselves and know how to get out of their own way. The techniques presented here are designed to provide these ingredients of peak performance to those who want and/or need them.
Hypnotic trance allows people to establish attainable goals. During trance conscious concerns, inhibitions, misunderstandings, fantasies, or wishful thinking do not interfere with the construction of a viable outcome. People are able to review the potential disadvantages or advantages of various goals and actions in a detached and careful fashion. The end product springs into awareness before it can be censored or modified by ordinary conscious considerations. Consequently, the imagined future is almost invariably compatible with the person’s needs and capacities.
This also is the case when trance is used to envision a series of actions or events that will lead to that imagined outcome. When conscious biases are bypassed, the end product is a set of activities, insights, or decisions that are quite appropriate for that individual and that lead almost inexorably to the desired outcome. Hypnotherapists merely help people discover what they already knew about their own abilities and potentials but were unable or unwilling to acknowledge.
People seek help from professionals because they want something different, something better, to occur. They want to change their thoughts, their feelings, their actions, and their lives, but those changes will take place only after they can envision them as happening in the future. Our vision of the future is a road map, a program, a guiding principle that modifies our present actions in ways that lead us toward that envisioned outcome. To explain his technique of pseudo-orientation in time, Erickson (1954) said, “Deeds are the offspring of hope and expectancy” (p. 261). When we expect more of the same, that is what our deeds create. But when we can imagine a better future so clearly that it actually seems possible, then we begin to think and behave in ways that lead us there.
Many different techniques can be used to attain enhanced performance, but few are as straightforward or as likely to meet the unique needs and capacities of each individual as the approach presented here. If you want to help others respond in ways that promote a better future, why not follow Erickson’s lead? Imagine the changes your clients will experience, first in their imaginations, then in their lives. Once you have envisioned such outcomes, you will find this approach hard to resist.
Points to Remember
- Focus on what will make things go right in the future. Not on what made things go wrong in the past.
- Remember that people need to know where they are going in order to get there. Help them develop a clear picture of a successful outcome.
- Always assume that the client knows at some level what goals and strategies are most appropriate and useful, but also remember to mention relevant information from the research.
- Encourage the client to enter imagined future situations by thinking about how it will feel to succeed rather than about what to do.
- After the client has a clear picture of a successful outcome and re views the events that led to to it, suggest that the unconscious mind can now accomplish these things and that the conscious mind can forget all about them.
Erickson, M. H. (1954). Pseudo-orientation in time as a hypnotherapeutic procedure. journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 2, 261-283.
Erickson, M. H., & Rossi, E. (1977). Autohypnotic experiences of Milton H. Erick son. American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 20, 36-54.
Gallwey, W. T. (1974). 1beginner game of tennis. New York: Random House.
Gilligan, S. (1987). Therapeutic trances: The cooperation principle in Ericksonian hypnotherapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Lozanov, G. (1978). Suggestology and outlines of suggestability. New York: Gordon & Breach.
Maddi, S., & Kosaba, S. (1984). The hardy executive: Health under stress. Homewood, IL: Dow Jones-Erwin.
Maxeiner, J. (1987). Concentration and distribution of attention in sport. International Journal of Sports Psychology, 18, 247-255.
Nettleton, B. (1986). Flexibility of attention and elite athletes’ performance in “fast ball games.” Perceptual and Motor Skills, 63, 991-994.
Taylor, S. E. (1989). Positive illusions. New York: Basic Books.
Walters, C., & Havens, R. A. (1993). Hypnotherapy for health, harmony, and peak performance: Expanding the goals of psychotherapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel.
Zeig, J. (1985). Experiencing Erickson: An introduction to the man and his work. New York: Brunner/Mazel.