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Sports of the Mind

Yogi Berra, the famous New York Yankees player and manager, once said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical.” While his math was intentionally, and humorously, wrong, he made a key point—the mental side of sports is often more important than the physical side. 

As a sports performance specialist, I’ve worked with professional athletes that struggle with confidence, become angry after a loss, or have trouble bouncing back from an injury. Sports challenges like these can be even more significant for the majority of us that are only involved in sports for health, recreation and enjoyment. According to a recent Golf Magazine survey, the average golfer spends 71 minutes a week practicing, plays 46 rounds a year, and spends $2,776 a year on equipment and training. What’s interesting is that very few of these golfers spend any time or money on improving their mental performance. 

Ask any golfer what he/she does when standing over the ball, and you’ll quickly hear the number one problem most casual sports participants face. My clients all tell me similar stories: “I go through my mental routine … remembering what my swing coach said, making that adjustment to my wrist position that my cousin recommended. I scan the hole to make sure I’m not lined up with the water, and then I say a quick prayer that I don’t slice the tee shot out of bounds like last time.” This mental rundown of things to do and possible failures is the same for most people standing at the free throw line, batting in the company softball game, or bowling with friends in a Thursday night league. Frankly, we’re overthinking our sports.

If you think about the times that you did really well in an event, you’re more likely to find the times when you got into a “flow,” a rhythm or “The Zone.” Understanding these hallowed zones, rhythms and flows can be really useful for everyone from the casual golfer to the professional field goal kicker.

The first thing to understand about that state of flow is it doesn’t come from a good performance, rather it results in a good performance. Too often, we look back on a game and think that we hit a clutch shot and then found the zone. Sports performance research shows the opposite is likely true—we settled into a zone and our shots became more accurate because of it. If this is true, then the most important thing to improve your game is to find your mental flow. In this regard, mental training becomes more important than physical training.

It’s also important to understand what that mental flow actually is. Being “in the zone” is an alpha brainwave state similar to daydreaming, meditation and hypnosis. Most athletes will tell you that their zone is a place where they don’t have to think about their sport, rather they just play. No thought, just flow. That alpha brainwave state is the minimization of conscious thought and the maximization of subconscious flow.

The conscious mind can only handle about nine things at a time, so it can quickly be overwhelmed. The subconscious mind, on the other hand, handles millions of things at once. It’s the part of your mind that takes care of heartbeat, blinking, breathing and digestion. It makes sense that an athlete would be better served by the part of the mind that adjusts dozens of muscles at a time, accounts for thousands of possible opponent moves, or gauges the necessary swing speed. But when we are ready to serve, shoot or putt, and we think about what we have to do or what we don’t want to happen, we are engaging our limited conscious mind.

As a hypnotist, my job is to help my sports performance clients stop using their conscious mind and start using their subconscious mind. “You’ll never think your way into better athletics,” I’ve told more than one client. When it comes to sports, from my perspective, thinking is the problem.

One of my favorite athletes of all time, martial artist Bruce Lee, said: “A good martial artist does not become tense but ready. Not thinking yet not dreaming, ready for whatever may come … . When there is an opportunity, I do not hit, it hits all by itself.”

 

What Lee was referencing was that alpha state—the famous zone that all athletes seek. What we do as hypnotists is help people train their mind to find it—not through thought but through focus. Because when you can find that spot between thought and dreaming that Lee references, you can sink long putts consistently, hit a curveball, serve an ace, surf the swell, or do anything else you want to do in life.

Randy Hampton is a writer, social scientist, hypnotist and blogger living in Honolulu. 

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