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You're Getting Faster: Athletes Exercise Their Mental Muscles With Hypnosis 

May 10, 2002 NEW YORK (Columbia News Service) 

When United States Olympic luger Adam Heidt swept across the finish line in his fourth and final run at Salt Lake City, he extended his index finger in triumph. He was, temporarily, in gold medal position. 

Three other top contenders eventually shaved fractions of a second off Heidt's mark and nudged him down to fourth place. But for mental skills coach Bob Reese, there was a silver lining to his protege's medal-less finish: Heidt was consistent, finishing in the top five on each run, and he was relaxed. 

Thanks in part to hypnosis and visualization techniques taught by Reese, Heidt erased some of his mistakes from the 1998 Nagano Olympics, where he had struggled in a nerve-wracking opening run before salvaging a ninth-place finish. 

"What I got him to do, more than anything else, was to focus on what he could do rather than the mistakes he could make," said Reese, the author of a forthcoming book called "Train Your Brain and Develop the Winner's Mentality."

With a growing preoccupation on the mental side of sports, mental coaching has found its niche as a supplement to traditional coaching, and Reese, like many top trainers and sports psychologists, has embraced hypnosis as a training tool. Athletes can use hypnosis to overcome mental obstacles, maintain their focus and even block out pain. 

Competitors in individual sports are particularly interested in mental preparation. In golf, at least eight of the top 10 PGA Tour players, including Tiger Woods, have worked with a sports psychologist. Woods is a longtime pupil of psychologist Jay Brunza. 

But even though hypnosis has been used in some locker rooms for decades, hypnotherapists often have to overcome misconceptions. As the trainer of the National Football League's New York Jets, Reese learned that carefully chosen terminology can circumvent some of an athlete's mental blocks or fears. He used "high powered visualization" as euphemism for hypnosis and substituted "energy management" for relaxation because coaches dreaded the idea of their players being relaxed. 

Dr. Denise Silbert, a psychologist and golf hypnotherapist in San Diego, said that she encounters the same fears from her amateur athlete clients. "With hypnosis in general, people worry that you can somehow control them, which is totally untrue," she said.

In reality, hypnosis involves an induced state in which the body is relaxed but the mind is alert. During this state, the hypnotherapist makes suggestions and the subject can respond to them. For instance, a hypnotherapist can encourage an athlete to focus on positive images, like sinking a 20-foot putt. Alone on the course, the athlete's brain will then remember the positive suggestion, and -- hopefully -- instruct the body to act accordingly.

Effective hypnosis requires practice. According to Reese, that concept is lost on some impatient athletes. "Hypnosis is a powerful adjunct," he said. "It's not the be all and end all, the magic wand or anything like that." 

Reese also considers hypnosis to be closely aligned with coaching. Both mental and physical coaches teach skills and try to get players to respond to suggestions. Mental preparation can help a player reduce stress and distractions and even conceal pain. 

Pain management hypnosis has been particularly helpful for marathon runner Bette Jean Rosenhagen, a hypnotherapist and social worker in New York City. Rosenhagen said that distance runners can condition themselves to ignore distractions such as nagging pain or fatigue. "That's really what hypnosis is: selective dis-attention," she said. 

Athletes using hypnosis for pain management should be cautious, since pain is an important signal to the body, according to Dr. Ronald Kamm, the president of the International Society for Sports Psychiatry. "However, sometimes pain can be from emotional factors like stress," Kamm said. "In those cases, blocking out the pain can be helpful." 

Kamm suggests that pain patients either go to a sports psychiatrist, who has the medical training to understand the source of the pain, or work with both a physician and a psychologist to decide what makes sense for the athlete's long-term health. But he is convinced that the popularity of hypnosis has proven of its value for athletes. 

"In athletics, anything that's really successful is going to be copied immediately," Kamm said. "I think that those who excel in sports are those who manage their attention effectively."

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