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  • John Pates

Transpersonal Sports Psychology

Updated: Jul 2

My interest in applied sports psychologist started in 1986 when I picked up Jean Williams book called Applied Sports Psychology and read chapter 8 written by a Swedish Psychologist called Lars Unestahl. At the time of his publication, he was working for the Swedish national sports teams using hypnosis as a transformational tool. The epistemology that lay behind his approach was controversial and unapproved empirically. In spite of these shortcomings the results he was reporting appeared remarkable and the theories behind his approach were magical and inspirational. The golf program, for instance, had helped create some of the world’s greatest golfers and the athletic program had produced Olympic champions.

In 1998 I trained as a hypnotherapist at Haringey Hospital in London and I made it my mission to provide evidence for Unestahl’s methodology. I had hoped to achieve this goal by directing several studies that examined the effects of Hypnosis on the performance of golfers and basketballers. I also examined the effects of Hypnosis on an optimal performance state called flow. My Ph.D. came out of these publications and by adopting this field of psychological interest I began my journey into the world of transpersonal psychology. At the time of my study, very few people were interested in this approach because it did not follow a scientific and clinical ideology. Today transpersonal psychology remains a taboo.

Unlike other philosophies in psychology, transpersonal psychologists have a special interest in the unconscious mind and transcending experiences that are associated with spirituality, altered states of consciousness, and extrasensory awareness such as intuition (see Shapiro, Lee, & Gross, 2002). It also includes the study of extraordinary human experiences such as peak performance (Privette & Bundrick, 1991), peak experience (Laski, 1961; Maslow, 1943; 1970) and flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; 2002). Meditation, guided imagery, hypnosis, and music are intervention strategies used by practitioners who advocate this approach (see Davis, 2003; Friedman & Hartelius, 2013).

In my view, transpersonal psychology introduces new methods of human inquiry that are appropriate to the study of optimal performance in sport. Sports psychologists have ignored this approach because traditional psychology committed to scientism and did not explore the athletes, inner life, and subjective experiences (phenomenal consciousness). The question of whether transpersonal psychology is an empirical science is an important one. For the reason that transpersonal psychology seeks knowledge through causes (Scientia), it is a science. For the reason that it includes direct experience (empiricus), it is empirical. For the reason that it utilizes problem identification; literature reviews; hypothesis construction; operational definitions; research designs; methodologies for observation, control, manipulation, and measurement of variables; data analysis; public communication, and evaluation of results, transpersonal psychology applies the scientific method.

Sports science must change their view of transpersonal psychology because traditional approaches are equipped only to catch certain kinds of fish. Transpersonal psychology encourages us to take a more liberal view of the psychological factors that may influence performance in sport. Rather than rejecting certain fields of study, it embraces the entire human experience. This includes both conscious and unconscious states. Transpersonal psychology can be defined, therefore, as the scientific study of states of consciousness. It recognizes subjective experiences such as spirituality, peak experiences, and intuition are important dimensions in human life. These experiences are trans they go beyond our ordinary personal self. For this reason, transpersonal experiences are generally regarded as "spiritual" rather than scientific. However, to awaken human potential psychologists need to look beyond the empirical and study realms of the psyche that go beyond the conditioned self and ego.

Optimal performance in sport is associated with altered states of consciousness such as peak experience, flow, and clutch states. It occurs in the transpersonal realm and therefore, should be studied using transpersonal methodologies and mediated by transpersonal intervention strategies. This viewpoint has been minimized and overlooked by the sports psychology community.

Experienced practitioners in the field of applied sports psychology will be aware that much of their athlete's physical and mental performance is profoundly affected by their subjective experiences. Experiences of trauma, anxiety, and depression, for example, are highly correlated with poor performance and mental illness, while peak performance, peak experiences, and flow correlate with optimal performance, physical health, and mental wellbeing. Additionally, our experience affects our development as athletes, and it is only through our experience that we find value in sport. For those who value it, sport stimulates a profound and meaningful encounter with something transcendental.

Interestingly, applied sports psychologists deal with the subjective experiences of athletes daily. It is the role of the psychologist to help the client understand the impact of these experiences. A client’s understanding and bearing of his or her experiences is perhaps the most powerful sport psychology intervention. Other interventions work best when they facilitate this intervention. A special interest of the transpersonal psychologist is the unconscious mind. For over 30 years I have studied the unconscious and its role in the performance of elite athletics. This has been my obsession.


Recently, new theories regarding the nature of the unconscious have evolved around quantum mechanics. The uniqueness of quantum mechanics is that it can explain the differences between the conscious and unconscious mind. It can also be used to explain why certain athletes can produce outstanding exceptional performances. In this paper, a quantum approach to understanding optimal performance is attempted. It is the flexibility of the quantum brain that makes the genesis of this new theory in the psychology of sport possible.



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