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Using the Mind to Release Your Body's Potential

by Trevor Silvester(more info)

listed in nlp, originally published in issue 160 - July 2009

Our bodies can do the most amazing things, yet very few of us ever realize the full potential of the machine that we have at our disposal. The elite sportsmen and women who dedicate themselves to being the very best within their chosen discipline – from football, to archery, to running a marathon, all have certain qualities in common: talent, determination, focus and the right mental attitude. In fact, whether you are an elite Olympian, a Sunday afternoon golfer or a fun runner, the role that the mind plays in any physical achievement is paramount.


For those participating at the highest level such as at the Olympics, the London Marathon or Wimbledon, it is the power and strength of their mental focus that makes the difference between winning and losing (otherwise known as coming second). However, even for the rest of us also- rans, our mental attitude can play a surprisingly significant part in our performance.

An Individual Response

As a cognitive hypnotherapist, I deal in the realities our brains create in response to a range of situations. In simple terms, I work out why one person acts a particular way in a specific situation, whilst another responds in a completely different way. In sporting terms, what enables Usain Bolt (2008 Olympic 100 metre sprint champion) to storm away from the blocks – and the luxury of a self congratulatory chest slap – whilst others are slow off the mark? If we are able to uncover the pattern behind the behaviour, it is only then that we are able to effect real change – and improvement.

Missing the Penalty

Sport is full of examples of highly skilled people who are let down by their mental processes – think of any number of England football players who step up to the dreaded penalty spot. It seems inconceivable that someone earning what a professional football player does for being able to kick a ball should miss something that most 12 years olds could score from. So, what goes wrong? What turns a superb athlete into a choker? And what can be done about it?

In these instances, I suggest that it is the mind, not the eyes, feet or lack of skill that causes the problem. In any situation, your brain (in simplistic terms your unconscious thought) is working out the likely consequences of the actions you are about to take. It then selects the one most likely to bring you the result it believes is most beneficial to you. If the calculation your brain makes is negative, it releases chemicals into your body that were originally intended to protect you from predators of old. These chemicals increase your heart rate, your respiration, stop digestion and, if strong enough, they also shut down those parts of your brain responsible for logical, considered thinking.

This puts you into a state best described as a trance. Not one that will make you bark like a dog, but which may cause you to sky the ball over the cross bar, or forget your name in an interview –  truly, strong emotions make us stupid. It's this fight or flight response that causes someone to shake in front of an interview panel, or fluff a shot at match point, all because our brain looks at the present situation and calculates the likely consequence. As you stand ready to make your serve, do you foresee an ace, or the laughter of your friends as you hit yourself on the head?

Putting it all in Context

The context is highly significant: you may be cool as a cucumber serving for the championship at Wimbledon, but a nervous wreck at the prospect of speaking at the press conference afterwards. This is because the meaning of the present situation you're in (whether it's good or bad), and its anticipated outcome is determined by calculations the brain makes based on your past.
So if your brain creates a version of reality that makes you underperform, what you can do about it? Most people try to take control back from the brain by repeatedly practising that skill – consciously performing an action that is so practised it's almost completely unconscious. Unfortunately, all we are often achieving is repeating, and thereby reinforcing, the same mistakes when we should actually allow our unconscious to perform the actions we've practised and give reign to the power of imagination.

There are three techniques that I use when working with clients to improve sporting technique – and having used them myself I can also vouch for their success from personal experience!

1. Use Your Imagination

Imagination is one of the most powerful tools for change, and there is plenty of evidence around to support this theory. In one example, researchers found that when a group of elderly people imagined doing bench presses every day, they actually got stronger – and even put on muscle. The idea that you can change your body shape just by thinking is further supported by an experiment in which basketball players of equal ability were separated into three groups. One group practised shooting hoops, one imagined shooting hoops and one sat around reading magazines. When their ability was reassessed, those who only imagined shooting had improved most. This is because they sat and rehearsed shooting perfect baskets and their mirror neurons – neurons which imitate the actions of others (and in our imagination we trick the brain into treating ourselves as an 'other') stored this 'map' of shooting a hoop and used it when it was next performed physically. Those who'd physically practised failed on some of their efforts, so the map was more flawed. Practice doesn't make perfect, it makes permanent, so make sure that what is being made permanent in your muscle memory is the best possible representation of your skill. Set aside 10 minutes a day to mentally rehearse key aspects of your game. As before, see yourself doing it – you have to represent yourself to your brain as an 'other' – and really focus for no more than 10 minutes – any longer and you won't be able to sustain the necessary concentration.

2. Anchoring

Music is a powerful emotive stimulus: just hearing a record on the radio can take you back to a past event and stir strong emotions. These are called anchors and work on the stimulus-response mechanism first identified by Pavlov. Basically, the principle works by pairing a stimulus with a strong emotion as you are experiencing it. This way, the two become wired together in your neurology, and one will trigger the other off in you. By pairing a powerful stimulus or trigger such as smell with a positive emotion relevant to your performance, you can actually enhance it.

Many athletes use this technique. During training, whenever they get into a good performance state they focus on that feeling and inhale a smell that's impregnated on a wrist band. The smell itself is usually just something they like, although some natural products have been shown to have particular effects. They continue to 'stack' these states over a period of time, so the smell becomes strongly evocative of the emotional state that accompanies a good performance. On the big day, before serving, settling into the blocks or approaching the high jump, they take a deep breath and re-access the positive state. Songs are a good trigger as well as a physical pressure like squeezing a finger and thumb – try it and see!

3. Think Positive

If I tell you not to think of a red door what happens? If I tell you not to think of missing that serve...the problem is that the brain has to process a negative; it has to think of the red door to not think of a red door. A key maxim in any situation where you want to perform well is to think it how you want it. Before a match, rehearse how you want it to go, see yourself performing well – make it a picture where you see yourself in it, rather than through your own eyes – research shows this technique makes it more compelling. Fall asleep thinking of a positive aspect of your performance, because it will prime you to notice your qualities and not your faults. If you play a sport where you have a moment to prepare, like tennis, golf or set pieces in football or rugby, then 'play forward' the next thing you're going to do in your mind – while firing your performance anchor – precisely the way you want it. So, as Roger Federer is about to take his serve, he pauses, takes a deep breath of his wrist band, and sees himself placing the ball in a precise part of the court. Whatever your chosen sport, try repeating the relevant rehearsal until the effect of the anchor feels strong and then take the shot, make the swing, or sprint off the blocks.

Very few of us will ever step onto the pitch at Wembley or run the New York Marathon – but we can all use our minds to improve on the skills that we do have.

There are many things that modern psychology can teach us about how our mental attitude can impact on our body and its performance. So, open your mind to what the brain can do for you and aim that little bit higher – you may surprise everybody – even yourself.


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About Trevor Silvester

Trevor Silvester Cert Ed HPD FNCH NLPT  runs the Quest Institute, one of the UK's leading organisations for training people in the disciplines of  Cognitive Hypnotherapy and NLP.  Trevor is a member of the committee of the National Council for Hypnotherapy and also has a private practice in Harley Street in London. He specializes in using Hypnotherapy in therapeutic work with clients, including sports coaching and dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).

A published author, Trevor has lectured in cognitive hypnotherapy across the UK and Europe and is a regular contributor to many mainstream magazines. Trevor may be contacted via

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