Use self-hypnosis to put yourself in the "zone"

Tripp Schwenk has mastered the art of hypnosis  Credit: Al Bello/Allsport
Minutes before the finals of the 200-meter backstroke at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Tripp Schwenk stood behind the blocks, picked a spot in the distance, and unfocused his eyes.

As he dived deep inside himself, the pressure, noise, and intensity faded from his consciousness. He stood motionless as he dropped into a hypnotic trance, automatically seeing the race unfold before him stroke for stroke, automatically hearing the word smooth echo in his head.

Coming out of his trance before being called to the blocks, Schwenk exploded from the start and swam to a silver medal, finishing just behind teammate Brad Bridgewater.

Since he was 15, Schwenk has been using self-hypnosis what he calls putting on his stone face before every big race. He tries to find a secluded spot where he can preview the perfect race in a relaxed state.

Sometimes the images pop into his mind automatically, unconsciously. Other times he has to put them there, adjusting them when necessary. Just before these images play, he repeats the words explode and power for his 100s and smooth for his 200s.

Self-hypnosis helped Schwenk win the 200-meter backstroke at the Nationals in 1989 and set an American record in the same event in 1995.

What is it?
Hypnosis taps directly into the unconscious part of your mind. Unlike your conscious mind, which has a more limited scope, your unconscious is a vast storehouse of past learning, memories, and resources. Your unconscious mind also controls a great deal of your learned behavior. Speaking, walking, running, throwing a ball, writing creatively, swimming correctly, and nailing a flip turn are just a few of the things your unconscious is in charge of. Think back to your last awesome swim. Do you remember how you did it, or was your unconscious running the show?

Popular images of hypnosis pocket watch, wooden chair, helpless victim performing weird acts or babbling incoherently are outdated. As Schwenk and other practitioners of self-hypnosis know, a hypnotic trance is a state of heightened, not diminished, awareness. You can take yourself there with a little practice. People hypnotize themselves all the time without realizing it.

The zone of peak performance is actually a hypnotic trance, and so is daydreaming, losing yourself in thought, or spacing out. The trick is deliberately putting yourself into a state of altered consciousness and using it to your advantage.

Why use it?
To overcome conscious obstacles. All too often, your conscious mind gets in the way and you swim less than your best. With hypnosis, you can use your unconscious to develop more discipline and motivation, increase your self-confidence, and improve your ability to handle competitive pressure.

To let go: Say goodbye to your conscious mind while under hypnosis. It doesnt have to be involved for you to have a powerful learning experience. It happens all the time: You go to bed frustrated because you cant solve a problem consciously, only to wake up in the morning with a solution. While your conscious mind slept, your unconscious was solving the problem.

To mine your mind: Your unconscious mind is in charge of many behaviors. It stores all the experiences youve ever had in your life. By hypnotizing yourself, you can instruct your unconscious mind to retrieve these experiences and make them available for present and future situations. For example, say you were a confident and tenacious high school debater, through hypnosis you could retrieve those qualities to help you in your training as a swimmer.

Six steps to hypnosis

1. Know before you go. Make a decision about how long you want to stay in a trance and exactly what you want to work on. Lets say, for instance, that youre nervous about an upcoming open-water swim. Begin by asking your unconscious to do two things: Keep you in a trance for a certain amount of time, and review past experiences when you exhibited courage and confidence.

Youll want to apply your memories of what you heard, saw, said, and did those times to your upcoming open-water race. Always be sure to program in your mind the qualities youre looking for and where youd like to use them.

2. Prepare properly. Sit comfortably in a chair where youll be undisturbed for 10 to 20 minutes. Be sure your arms and legs are uncrossed and your hands are resting on your thighs or by your side. Remove all distracting sounds, lights, and images.

3. Funnel down. Close your eyes and imagine that your body is inside of, and supported by, a large funnel. Imagine floating slowly down this funnel, relaxing more and more as you go. As you float down, you may notice that everything around you is very bright, pitch black, or studded with stars like a night sky in the country. As you float down, you may also notice that at some point, when you look up, you can see the wide mouth of the funnel slowly receding in the distance.

Concentrate on floating down and relaxing, moving slowly through the funnel so it takes you several minutes to reach the bottom. Once at the bottom, relax even more.

4. Just relax. You dont have to consciously come up with images of past experiences. Let your conscious mind go wherever it likes.

When your time is up, you may be surprised to find that you open your eyes very close to the time that you had programmed. In fact, with practice you will get quite good at coming out of a trance within 30 seconds of the actual programmed time.

5. Trust yourself. If youre conscientious about practicing self-hypnosis several times a week and continue to work on the same issue for a week or so, youll begin to notice positive changes in the behaviors that youre trying to shape.

Self-hypnosis works better if you believe it will work for you, so its important to suspend your skepticism. If you practice self-hypnosis with the attitude that it isnt working and is a waste of time, every time you go into that trance, nothing will happen.

6. Sleep on it. Supplement your self-hypnosis sessions with a pre-sleep technique:

Lie in bed with the lights out and slowly repeat to yourself 20 times a specific phrase that captures how you want to be or feel. For example, if youre working on being motivated to train more consistently, you might repeat the sentence, I look forward to the challenge of training more often.

Keep track of the phrase by pressing down on the mattress with a different finger each time.

As you fall asleep, your conscious mind becomes less active while your unconscious increases its activity. Since your unconscious mind can effect much of your behavior, this technique helps transfer activity from the conscious to the unconscious, and more directly influence the unconscious.

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