This blog post first appeared on the boxing and Mixed Martial Arts social networking website www.mynextmatch.com. The first in a series looking at sport from the hypnotherapists point of view.
Before the days of digital photography, I would spend hours in the dark-room, developing black & white prints using photosensitive paper in trays of chemicals. It was a beautifully slow process, one in which my whole focus was on that white rectangle of paper as the photographic image gradually formed in front of my eyes. And while I was immersed in this activity, I was unaware of anything outside the room, anything inside the room, and even unaware of myself being a living, breathing thing. All there was, was just the chemical smells and that white rectangle of paper; and that was it. My first experience of being in the zone.
Sportsmen and women talk about being in the zone of course. That mental state where the crowd fades out, along with the noise, and only the sporting activity exists, often without any apparent mental effort, or thought. Just that illuminated white rectangle of paper in an otherwise darkened room. And it’s a great feeling. A feeling where time and space doesn’t exist the way it normally does, the mind is quiet and the subconscious is allowed to take over.
As a clinical hypnotherapist I have a keen interest in recreating the very same feelings for therapeutic purposes…This state of mind is the perfect conditions for learning, for replacing harmful, negative patterns of behaviour with beneficial ones, and for reinforcing these new ones so that they become established instead.
For a sporting illustration of this, picture yourself skiing down a mountainside on virgin snow. After a few runs down you look back and realise that, apart from a few slight variations, you have pretty much skied the same path each time. That path could represent our (bad) habits; – or if you like, our neurological wirings of those (bad) habits. Using hypnotherapy, it’s possible to steer a new path and, over time the old ruts in the snow, where you skied down before, will have been covered over and vanished. Hypnotherapy treats anything from smoking to anxiety to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in this way.
When we do something, the relevant neurons wire together, and the more we do it the stronger those wirings become; making us more likely to do the same thing the same way, again. But it’s clearly not all bad habits that takes advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity. As Guardian journalist Amy Lawrence wrote in her review of Dennis Bergkamp’s biography:
The wall is outside Dennis Bergkamp’s childhood home, in a modest apartment block around the corner from a canal in Bos en Lommer. It was here that the young Bergkamp refined his technique with the kind of specifics that would not occur to most footballers. He worked his technique with such precision he would aim for a corner of a particular brick, time and again, with different pace and power and spin to see how it changed the ball’s trajectory and challenged his ability to tame it.
Sports people, more than anyone, (along with musicians of course) practice their technique over and over again, in order to be able to express themselves in the way they need to, without having to think. And whether it’s a particular punch, block, shot, volley, putt, first-touch or passage of music, they, more than anyone, know that it’s just down to focused repetition and visualisation.
And once these techniques have been perfected it becomes almost automatic, with only one thing hindering that automatic, zen-like flow from brain to action; The performers’ doubts, confidence and inner dialogue.
A quiet mind therefore, is absolutely vital; not just in sport, but in everyday life. The focus you gain from having that quiet mind, with no inner dialogue distracting your flow, no self-doubts playing tricks with your feelings of invincibility, and a mental strength which allows you to filter out any external distractions, is the key to success. And to think that for all the hours of physical, technical and tactical work sportsmen and women put in to be the best, plus all the sacrifices they make to get to the top or be the best they can possibly be, it’s amazing that so many overlook this.
If you would like a psychological advantage over your opponent and to get the best out of your training, practice and competitive performance…feel free to get in touch.