A Sampling of Scientific Research on Sports Hypnotherapy/Imagery

(These abstracts are available through PubMed)

Effects of a cognitive intervention package on the free-throw performance of varsity basketball players during practice and competition. Kearns DW, Crossman. J. Percept Mot Skills. 1992 Dec;75(3 Pt 2):1243-53.


To examine the effects of a cognitive intervention package on the free-throw shooting performance of basketball players, with 3 Canadian male university caliber basketball players ages 20, 22, and 24 years, during practice and in competition single- subject multiple-baseline design was implemented. Each subject was introduced to the imagery-rehearsal intervention at different times during the 14-week competitive basketball season. Free-throw data were collected during 50 practice sessions and 32 games. Data from both practice and competitive situations were examined using a comparison of graphed means. In the practice condition an increase in free-throw performance for all three subjects occurred during the post treatment intervention. In the game condition, Subjects A and B showed post treatment improvement. The cognitive intervention package consisting of visualization and relaxation can be an effective strategy for improving free-throw performance of some basketball players. Further research should involve control-group examination using a larger sample across a variety of tasks.

Hypnotic susceptibility, cognitive dissociation, and runner’s high in a sample of marathon runners.
Masters KS. Am J Clin Hypn. 1992 Jan;34(3):193-201.


I studied the hypnotic ability of marathon runners as it relates to cognitive dissociation while running and to runner’s high. Dissociating runners use a cognitive style in which they cut themselves off from the sensory feedback they would normally receive from their body. Marathon runners demonstrated high hypnotic susceptibility scores. Additionally, use of dissociation as a running strategy during the marathon was positively related to susceptibility, and runners who dissociated in training had higher susceptibility scores than did other runners. Runner’s high was not related to hypnotic susceptibility; however, it was positively related to dissociation. The most common description of runner’s high was general relaxation, whereas the least used description was total euphoria. Surprisingly some runners defined runner’s high in ambivalent or negative terms. These results were related to the processes of self-hypnosis and to the positive mental health benefits of running.

Therapeutic imagery enhanced by hypnosis. Torem MS. Psychiatr Med. 1992;10(4):1-12.


This paper has reviewed the history of using imagery as a powerful change and healing agent in humans. It has been a rather underused technique in the practice of Western medicine and psychiatry. I hope that the specific examples and techniques described herein will stimulate and motivate the reader to adopt them in their clinical practice and creatively develop new strategies and techniques applicable in other fields such as sports, the arts, education, and the human life cycle.

A case study of improved performance in archery using hypnosis. Robazza C, Bortoli L. Percept Mot Skills. 1995 Dec;81(3 Pt 2):1364-6.


Active-alert hypnosis and traditional hypnosis procedures can be combined and applied in sport following the lines of an isomorphic model. A case study of improved shooting performance in an adult expert archer after 20 weeks of mental training is reported.


Enhancing imagery through hypnosis: a performance aid for athletes. Liggett DR. Am J Clin Hypn. 2000 Oct;43(2):149-57.


This value of imagery in sports is widely acknowledged. The contribution of hypnosis to enhancing athletes’ performance is also recognized, but the value of hypnosis in enhancing imagery has little recognition. The reason for this neglect is explored. The study used Martens’ Sport Imagery Questionnaire, which asked the participants to image 4 different situations in their own sport–practicing alone, practicing in front of others, watching a teammate, and competing. Participants reported their subjective impression of vividness on four dimensions–visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and affective. The 14 athletes participating imaged each situation in and out of hypnosis–half of the time the imagery in hypnosis came first and half after. The participants reported that the imagery under hypnosis was more intense for each dimension and more intense for each situation. Whether the imagery was done under hypnosis first or after was not significant. The findings suggest that hypnosis substantially enhances imagery intensity and effectiveness.

Hypnosis, the brain, and sports: Salient Findings July 2002. Nash MR. Int J Clin Exp Hypn. 2002 Jul;50(3):282-5.


Three particularly noteworthy articles addressing hypnosis have been published during the early portion of 2002. All, to a degree, address biological aspects of hypnotic response. One of these articles is a thoughtful summary and synthesis of neuroscience/hypnosis research to date, describing how neuroimaging techniques offer new opportunities to use hypnosis as a manipulation and to provide a means of studying hypnosis itself. A second article focuses on the physiology of sports and the usefulness of hypnosis in the practice of sport and exercise psychology. Finally, the third article describes a study of brain activation during actual and imagined handgrip during hypnosis.


The effects of hypnosis on flow states and performance. Pates J, Palmi J. Journal of Excellence.2002 (6):48.


This study examined the effects of hypnosis on flow states and short-serve badminton performance in 4 competitive female players. The investigation utilized an idiographic single subject multiple baselines across subjects design combined with a procedure that monitors the internal experience of the participants (Wollman, 1986). The method of intervention utilized in this study involved hypnotic induction, hypnotic regression and trigger control
procedures. The results indicated that all 4 participants increased their mean short-serve performance from baseline to intervention. Three of the 4 participants also increased their mean flow scores and indicated that during the intervention phase they had felt more relaxed, calm, determined, happy and focused when compared to the baseline phase.


The hypnotic belay in alpine mountaineering: the use of self-hypnosis for the resolution of sports injuries and for
performance enhancement. Morton PA. Am J Clin Hypn. 2003 Jul;46(1):45-51.


The author, an experienced alpine mountaineer, sustained several traumatic climbing injuries over a two-year period. This article describes her multiple uses of self-hypnosis to deal with several challenges related to her returning to successful mountain climbing. She used self-hypnosis for physical healing and to enhance her motivation to resume climbing. While training for her next expedition, she successfully utilized self-hypnotic techniques to deal with acute stress and later post-traumatic symptoms that had emerged related to her climbing injuries. She describes her use of hypnotic ego- strengthening, mental rehearsal, age progression, and “Inner Strength” as well as active-alert trance states. Her successful summitting of Ecuador’s Cotopaxi at 19,380 feet was facilitated by “The Hypnotic Belay” which permitted her to secure herself by self-hypnosis in addition to the rope used to secure climbers. In 1994, the author returned to the Cascade Mountains where she had been injured three years earlier and reached the summit of Mount Shuksan. This time she was secured by “The Hypnotic Belay.”

The use of relaxation, hypnosis, and imagery in sport psychiatry. Newmark TS, Bogacki DF. Clin Sports Med. 2005 Oct;24 (4):973-7, xi.


Hypnosis is a procedure during which a mental health professional suggests that a patient experience changes in sensations, perceptions, thoughts, or behavior. The purpose of this article is to briefly describe the use of various methods of relaxation, hypnosis, and imagery techniques available to enhance athletic performance. The characteristics that these techniques have in common include relaxation, suggestibility, concentration, imaginative ability, reality testing, brain function, autonomic control, and placebo effect. Case studies are provided for illustration.

Imagery use by injured athletes: a qualitative analysis. Driediger M, Hall C, Callow N. J Sports Sci. 2006 Mar;24(3):261-71.


The purpose of this study was to expand our knowledge and increase our understanding of imagery use by athletes in sport- injury rehabilitation using a qualitative approach. The participants were 10 injured athletes who were receiving physiotherapy at the time they were interviewed. During the interviews, the athletes provided extensive information about their use of imagery during injury rehabilitation and it was clear that they believed imagery served cognitive, motivational and healing purposes in effectively rehabilitating an injury. Cognitive imagery was used to learn and properly perform the rehabilitation exercises. They employed motivational imagery for goal setting (e.g. imagined being fully recovered) and to enhance mental toughness, help maintain concentration and foster a positive attitude. Imagery was used to manage pain. The methods they employed for controlling pain included using imagery to practice dealing with expected pain, using imagery as a distraction, imagining the pain dispersing, and using imagery to block the pain. With respect to what they imaged (i.e. the content of their imagery), they employed both visual and kinesthetic imagery and their images tended to be positive and accurate. It was concluded that the implementation of imagery alongside physical rehabilitation should enhance the rehabilitation experience and, therefore, facilitate the recovery rates of injured athletes. Moreover, it was recommended that those responsible for the treatment of injured athletes (e.g. medical doctors, physiotherapists) should understand the
benefits of imagery in athletic injury rehabilitation, since it is these practitioners who are in the best position to
encourage injured athletes to use imagery.

Does motor imagery enhance stretching and flexibility? Guillot A, Tolleron C, Collet C. J Sports Sci. 2010 Feb;28(3):291-8.
doi: 10.1080/02640410903473828.


Although several studies have demonstrated that motor imagery can enhance learning processes and improve motor performance, little is known about its effect on stretching and flexibility. The increased active and passive range of motion reported in preliminary research has not been shown to be elicited by motor imagery training alone. We thus compared flexibility scores in 21 synchronized swimmers before and after a 5-week mental practice program that included five stretching exercises in active and passive conditions. The imagery training program resulted in selective increased flexibility, independently of the stretching method. Overall, the improvement in flexibility was greater in the imagery group than in the control group for the front split (F(1,18) = 4.9, P = 0.04), the hamstrings (F(1,18) = 5.2, P = 0.035), and the ankle stretching exercises (F(1,18) = 5.6, P = 0.03). There was no difference in shoulders and side-split flexibility (F(1,18) = 0.1, P = 0.73 and F(1,18) = 3.3, P = 0.08 respectively). Finally, there was no correlation between individual imagery ability and improvement in flexibility. Psychological and physiological effects of motor imagery could explain the increase in range of motion, suggesting that imagery enhances joint flexibility during both active and passive stretching.

Barker and Jones have done much research on hypnosis and sports, especially cricket and judo. Here are a few of the studies:

Using hypnosis, technique refinement and self-modeling to enhance self-efficacy: A case study in cricket. Barker, J. B., & Jones, M. V. (2006). The Sport Psychologist, 20, 94-110.

Using hypnosis and technique refinement to enhance self-efficacy in a cricket leg spin bowler. Barker, J. B., & Jones, M. V. (2005). Journal of Sport Sciences, 23, 176-177.

The use of Hypnosis in developing self-confidence and enhancing performance in leg spin bowling. Barker, J. B., & Jones, M. V. Paper presented at the English Cricket Board (ECB) Medicine and Science in Cricket Conference, Loughborough, UK (September, 2003).

Using hypnosis to increase self-efficacy: A case study in elite judo. Barker, J.B., & Jones, M. V. (2005). Sport & Exercise Psychology Review, 1, 36-42.