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Hypnosis, Flow, Clutch States and Performance in Elite Golfers



Elite athletes often report moments in their careers where what they think will happen does happen. In optimal performance research the concept of making something happen is encapsulated in the clutch sate experience described by Hibbs (2010) and later Swann et al., (2017). The information gathered from their studies tells us great athletes think the improbable is possible. Hibbs, for example, provided data that supported the proposition that the best players in baseball were able to identify important moments in the game and produce performances beyond their statistical norms. He called these baseball players clutch players.

In basketball you will see similar performances from the basketball elite. Compare the performance statistics achieved by Steph Curry, Labron James and Michael Jorden in the first 3 quarters of a game to the final quarter of the game. The great players in the clutch situation (the final quarter of the game) show phenomenal performances and digits. I believe these great moments are manifestations of quantum thoughts. Great golfers think they can hold improbable shots, great basketball players think they can make 10 shots in a row and great footballers believe they can score a hat-trick. In other words, extraordinary moments in sports history are a consequence of quantum thinking. Quantum thinking manifests itself in reality through quantum collapse and the observer effect.

The facilitation of quantum thinking in athletes is a practitioner’s problem. Interventions designed to produce quantum thoughts have not been devised. Hypnosis appears to be a fruitful methodology to implement this strategy because of its application of suggestion in the formulation of new ideas (quantum thoughts).

Hypnosis and Flow States

In the field of applied sports psychology, hypnosis-based interventions are one of the most overlooked and flouted techniques available to sports psychologists. This is surprising because there are a number of controlled studies that indicate hypnosis interventions have a notable performance-enhancing effect on different athletic populations. For example, research conducted by Barker and Jones (2005, 2006, 2008) has highlighted that hypnosis can be used to enhance the performance of footballers, cricketers, and martial artists. Additionally, other researchers have discovered that hypnosis improved the performance of badminton players (Pates & Palmi, 2002), cyclists (Lindsay, Maynard, & Thomas, 2005), golfers (Pates & Maynard, 2000; Pates, Oliver, & Maynard, 2001), and basketball players (Pates, Cummings, & Maynard, 2002; Pates, Maynard, & Westbury, 2001).

Pates and his colleagues obtained their positive results using a hypnosis intervention consisting of a hypnotic induction phase designed to create a state of deep relaxation, a hypnotic regression phase designed to help athletes relive an earlier life experience of their optimal performance, and a trigger control phase designed to bring athletes’ ideal performance state under the control of a stimulus (Pates et al., 2001, 2002; Pates & Maynard, 2000; Pates & Palmi, 2002). Interestingly, all of the researchers employing this intervention strategy observed that many of their participants experienced elevations in both performance and a psychological state described by Csikszentmihalyi (1975) as flow. The positive effects of hypnosis on flow have far-reaching implications for elite athletes because flow states are strongly associated with their best performances (see Cohn, 1991; Catley & Duda, 1997). Indeed, a countless number of elite athletes report flow is the crucial factor that separates winners from losers (Karageorghis, 1999; Unestahl, 1983). These findings imply elite athletic populations may have the most to gain from adopting hypnotic interventions into their mental training regimes.

With the notable exception of Lindsay et al. (2005), who investigated the effects of hypnosis on flow states and the performance of elite cyclists, studies supporting this proposition are rare. The current study aimed to change this trend by investigating the effects of a hypnotic intervention upon flow states and the performance of an elite Senior European Tour golfer in the ecological valid environment of real European Senior Tour events. Using Pates and Maynard’s (2000) intervention strategy, it was expected that during hypnosis the golfer’s experience of flow could be conditioned to a natural trigger (the grip on the golf club). It was then expected that after conditioning the player would experience a more intense state of flow and lower golf scores.

A case study in sports psychology

The participant in this study was a male Senior European Tour Player aged 52 with 2 years of Seniors European Tour playing experience. He had won no tour events and had no experience of mental training administered by a qualified practitioner. The training of the participant in hypnosis took place immediately after the completion of the first baseline and was divided into three stages. In the first stage of the intervention, the participant was encouraged to sit in a comfortable position and then was asked to focus on his breathing. Specifically, he was instructed to breathe deeply and to release air slowly while counting backward from Number 10. He was then given a 15-minute session involving progressive muscular relaxation (PMR). The technique, originally pioneered by Jacobson (1938), involved the golfer tensing and relaxing parts of his body while deeply inhaling. Suggestions asking the participant to contrast the differences between the tense and the relaxed muscles were given along with instructions to direct his attention to images of situations that were associated with relaxation. For example, the external image of a warm comfortable beach or the internal sensation of floating in the water.

In the second stage, and Ericksonian hypnosis technique known as a staircase induction (Hammond, 1990) was applied. The staircase induction consisted of a journey, one step at a time, down a flight of 20 stairs. As the participant took the journey, he was told to see each stair in front of him and feel the stair under his feet. At the bottom of the stairs, he was told he would see a door and beyond the door, he would see a room with a comfortable chair. The participant was then asked to sit down in the chair and to focus on a small cinema screen on which appeared a relaxing scene. Throughout this stage, suggestions were given to reinforce both the experience of the PMR, the deep breathing, and imagery techniques.

In the third stage, suggestions were given to help the participant regress and remember a multisensory experience of their best competitive performance. Specifically, he was asked to include visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory memories of his best performance from an internal perspective. His best performance was then conditioned to be released by a natural trigger. The trigger used was the grip of the golf clubs. The participant was then told to see himself rising from the chair and proceeding out the door and up the staircase. He was also told as he ascended the staircase that he would feel refreshed and alert. Once the participant reacclimatized to the environment, he was asked to access his ideal performance state by utilizing his trigger. The training was considered complete when the participant felt that the experience of his best performance was under trigger control. Upon receiving the intervention, the participant experienced an immediate performance effect, with the participant improved his performance from a mean of 72.8 during the baseline to a mean of 68.6 during the intervention. After finishing each tournament, I examined the player’s internal experience during tournament golf. The participant indicated that after the intervention he felt “calmer,” had fewer negative conscious thoughts, and reported that the intervention “stopped him thinking about the consequences of his shots” and “his overall score.” He also informed the researcher he was able to stay in the present:

“I was more focused on what I had to do next and it made me think one shot at a time . . . my concentration was also really good today nothing seemed to bother me. . . . I was completely focused on what I had to do”. The participant also noticed he had become “more rational about playing the game” and was “able to play with no fear.” At the same time, he revealed during the intervention phase he “thought more about making birdies” and “played more aggressive.” He also declared he felt more comfortable: “I feel, for the first time, I belong on this tour.” Interestingly, difficult and stressful moments during the tournament triggered images of his “favorite hole” on his “favorite golf course.” “Bad shots” also made him think about peak experiences from the past: “When I get into trouble or hit bad shots, I don’t know what you did, but it triggers great moments I have experienced in the past, like winning or my favorite hole on my home course.”

The participant also indicated that intervention made him have more fun and experience feelings of confidence: “I feel I can beat anyone in the tournament. I feel great out there. . . . It was one of the first times I had fun.” Perhaps the most strange finding was the participant’s report about the change in his perceptions and feelings of control: “I get over a putt and I get the feeling the ball is going in before I hit it. . . . When I get these thoughts the ball always goes in. . . . It’s like I know what is going to happen next.” He also explained that on some occasions he felt detached or dissociated from his swing: “I sometimes feel I am not swinging the club out there. . . . It’s almost like I am watching myself.”

The present study demonstrated that a hypnosis intervention may have a positive effect on the performance and flow experiences of an elite Senior European Tour golfer. The results are consistent with previous research that showed Pates and Maynard’s (2000) intervention strategy improved the performance and intensity of flow states in elite athletic populations (see Lindsay et al., 2005). The findings are relevant to sport psychology practitioners because they suggest hypnotic training may increase personal control overflow and the performances of elite athletes. This discovery supports the work of Unestahl (1983, 1986) who explicitly indicated that, in elite athletes, high levels of performance and positive emotions like flow states could be initiated through hypnotic techniques. Additionally, the results support the work of Cohn (1991) and Pates and his colleagues who indicated that improved performances can be achieved with techniques designed to facilitate the flow experience (Pates et al., 2001, 2002; Pates & Maynard, 2000).

The qualitative data also revealed some interesting findings. First, the data show that hypnosis may increase positive emotions such as confidence and fun. Second, it also appeared hypnosis elevates the feeling of mental relaxation resulting in feelings of calm. Third, the intervention appeared to improve the player’s ability to focus his attention on task-relevant information and to help the player cope with distractions. Fourth, the intervention appeared to augment positive thinking by suppressing cognitions such as judging, monitoring, and censoring, and fifth, the technique seemed to alter the golfer’s perceptions and feelings of control. Taken together, these findings are consistent with the outcomes of several clinical experiments (e.g., Crawford, Clarke, & Kitner- Triolo, 1996; Damaser, Shor, & Orne, 1963; Kirsch, 1994; Wadden & Anderton, 1982) wherein hypnosis positively controlled emotions, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. It also suggests Hypnosis can be used to facilitate the optimal performance state known as flow.

Hypnosis and Clutch States

Qualitative studies involving event focused interviews have suggested optimal performance is also associated with a mental state called the ‘clutch state’ (Swann et al., 2017). According to Swann, et al., (2017) a clutch state occurs in competitive pressure situations where the success or failure of the athlete to perform optimally has a significant impact on the outcome of the contest. Clutch states transpire in clutch situations (see Hibbs, 2010) when athletes have to ‘make something happen’, for example, a basketball player who needs to sink a three-point shot to win a game or a golfer that needs to hole a putt to win a competition. This involves deliberate concentration, intense effort, and a heightened state of awareness (Swann et al., 2017). Interestingly, research show that clutch states and flow states share similar characteristics, namely, confidence, absorption, perceptions of control, enhanced motivation, enjoyment, and altered sensory perceptions (Swann et al., 2017). This implies that the phenomena are interrelated, and it is likely during real competition flow states and clutch states will be experienced at the same time.

The strong association between clutch states and flow states (see Swann et al., 2017) suggest interventions designed to enhance flow may also be used to heighten a clutch state experience. Previous research suggests hypnotic interventions may be employed for this purpose. Indeed, numerous studies show hypnosis to be a highly effective intervention strategy for enhancing flow states. Pates, (2013) for example, found a hypnotic intervention consisting of hypnosis, regression, and a trigger control technique improved the performance and flow state experience of an elite golfer. The implications of this study are far-reaching because it suggests during real competitions a hypnotic intervention may be a valuable performance-enhancing tool. Used creatively, hypnosis provides practitioners with a powerful transformational tool. It is perhaps worth noting here, in the sports psychology literature hypnosis interventions have consistently produced performance-enhancing results (see, Barker & Jones, 2005, 2006, 2008, Pates & Palmi, 2002; Lindsay, Maynard, & Thomas, 2005; Pates & Maynard, 2000; Pates, Oliver, & Maynard, 2001; Pates, Cummings, & Maynard, 2002; Pates, Maynard, & Westbury, 2001; Pates, 2013; Pates, 2020).

The next study attempted to extend the research of Pates and his associates by evaluating the utility of a hypnotic intervention on the performance and clutch state experiences of an elite golfer playing on the Senior PGA tour. More specifically, a clutch-based hypnosis intervention strategy was used to create a quantum shift in the player's subjective beliefs and thoughts.

A case study in Sports Psychology

Mr. B was a male golfer aged 50 years. He was in his first year of playing on the Senior Professional Golf Tour. Mr. B had a swing coach and over the past five years, he had received only technical training. His main goal was to win tournaments; however, he felt during competitions he could not achieve this objective because he struggled to perform in clutch situations. Indeed, he would miss putts or play poor shots when he had a chance to win. It was therefore deemed appropriate to give this golfer an intervention that may help him improve his performance in clutch situations. In the first stage of the clutch-based hypnosis intervention, the participant was encouraged to sit in a comfortable position and then was asked to focus on his breathing. Specifically, they were instructed to breathe deeply and to release air slowly while counting backward from Number 10. They were then given a 15-minute session involving progressive muscular relaxation (PMR). The technique, originally pioneered by Jacobson (1938), involved the participant tensing and relaxing parts of his body while deeply inhaling. Suggestions asking the participant to contrast the differences between the tense and the relaxed muscles were given along with instructions to direct their attention to images of situations that were associated with relaxation. For example, the external image of a warm comfortable beach or the internal sensation of floating in the water.

In the second stage, and Ericksonian hypnosis technique known as a staircase induction (Hammond, 1990) was applied. The staircase induction consisted of a journey, one step at a time, down a flight of 20 stairs. As the participant took the journey, he was told to see each stair in front of him and feel the stair under his feet. At the bottom of the stairs, he was told he would see a door and beyond the door, he would see a room with a comfortable chair. The participant was then asked to sit down in the chair and to focus on a small cinema screen on which appeared a relaxing scene. Throughout this stage, suggestions were given to reinforce both the experience of the PMR, the deep breathing, and imagery techniques.

In the third stage, suggestions were given to help the participant regress and remember a multisensory experience of a multisensory image of a clutch situation where he had to make a putt or shot to win an important event. The clutch performance was then conditioned to be released by a trigger. The trigger used was a verbal phrase “lets hole this shot”. He was then asked to play a round of golf in his mind and include a multisensory image of holing all of his approach shots from the fairways, holing every chip shot from around the greens and holing all of their putts on the green using the trigger. The participant was then told to see himself rising from the chair and proceeding out the door and up the staircase. He was told as he ascended the staircase that he would feel refreshed and alert. Once the participant reacclimatized to the environment, he was asked to access his clutch performance state by utilizing the trigger. This stage of the training was considered complete when the participant felt that feelings associated with the clutch state were under conscious control.

In the final stage of the training, the participant was led to the golf course and encouraged to play 18 holes using a pre-shot routine that involved using the trigger before every approach shot, chip shot, and putts in a pre-shot routine. The training was considered complete when the participant felt the feelings associated with the clutch state could be accessed under normal playing conditions. After completing the training, the participant was asked to commit himself to practice the techniques by playing a 40-minute audiotape of the live hypnosis session and playing a round of golf every day, over a 7-day interval between the first baseline and intervention phase of the study. In total, the player was given one live session, seven audiotape sessions, and 7 rounds of golf before the intervention phase. To ensure that the participant had listened to the audiotape recording, the player was contacted daily. The quality of the participants’ experiences was assessed by examining their thoughts, feelings, and cognitions immediately after each session. Finally, it should be noted that during the intervention stage the participant was not under hypnosis, instead, he was merely using the trigger as part of his pre-shot routine.

Upon receiving the intervention, the participant experienced an immediate performance effect. Specifically, the participant improved his performance from a mean of 74.5 during the baseline to a mean of 69.5 during the intervention. Additionally, the participant indicated that during the tournaments (the intervention phase) he felt “more focused on the task,” experienced “improved concentration,” “intensity”, “effort” and “commitment” to his shots”. He also reported several emotions that included excitement, confidence, and fun. The participant also reported a change in his perception during clutch situations, when he had to make a putt to save par or make a birdie. For example, he perceived his mind was controlling the ball “I felt I could will the ball into the hole...there were times when all I had to do is think about holing the shot and it would happen, it was the strangest thing”. The present study demonstrated that a clutch-based hypnosis intervention encompassing hypnosis, regression, a trigger control technique, and a pre-shot routine may have a positive effect on the performance elite golfers. The results are consistent with previous research that showed improved performances can be achieved with Hypnosis techniques designed to activate mental states that are associated with optimal performance (see Lyndsay, et al., 2005; Pates, 2013; Pates et al., 2001: 2002; and Pates & Maynard, 2000) The findings are relevant to sport psychology practitioners because they suggest a hypnotic intervention strategy, can be used to prepare elite golfers for real competitions.

The qualitative data revealed some interesting findings. First, the data show that the intervention enhanced several variables associated with clutch states, namely, concentration, intensity, and effort. Second, the intervention appeared to augment positive emotions such as excitement, confidence, and fun, and third, the technique seemed to alter the golfers’ perceptions during clutch situations making him believe his ‘will’ was controlling the ball. Taken together, these findings are consistent with the outcomes of clinical experiments wherein hypnosis induced positive emotions, thoughts, feelings, and fluctuations in perceptions (see Nash & Barnier, 2008).

A clear strength of this study is its ecological validity; rarely has an elite golfer using a hypnotic intervention strategy been studied during professional golf tournaments. The possibility remains, of course, that the positive results are an artifact of both participant and experimenter bias. Indeed, neither were blind to the outcome and so experimenter expectations or the demand characteristics of the experiment may have influenced the results (Kazdin, 1992). There may also have been either a Hawthorne or Rosenthal effect (Rosenthal & Rosnow, 2008). As in all studies involving psychological intervention, a placebo effect should not be counted out. Studies reveal that a client’s beliefs and perceptions of a psychological intervention have a significant effect on performance outcomes. Researchers exploring the effects of hypnosis for example (see Kirsch, 1994) suggest that hypnosis may be thought of as a nondeceptive form of placebo. Kirsch depicts hypnosis as a non-deceptive placebo, because, like placebo pills, it may change client expectancies about the future. Despite these considerations, the techniques employed appeared to play an important role in Mr. B’s performance. Indeed, no other intervention was employed at the time of the study which leads to conclude this hypothesis.

The results of the study indicate that a hypnosis intervention strategy encompassing hypnosis is an effective way of preparing professional golfers for significant competitions. Research on optimal performance in sport suggests music may produce similar performance-enhancing effects (see, Pates et al., 2003: Pain, et al., 2011; Pates and Kingston, 2020).

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