Sports Applications of NLP

This may be a strange way to begin a blog article about how NLP can help improve your sporting performance, but I used to hate sport. My family aren’t huge sport fans so I didn’t really grow up watching any, and I was gangly and uncoordinated as a child and teenager, so was rubbish at playing sports myself. Add to that, most of the people I knew at school, who were good at or interested in sport, were your typical “jock” types who would bully and pick on me for being rubbish. It is no wonder that I quickly developed a very powerful limiting belief that sport was rubbish and for dullards.

This limiting belief lasted until my early 20’s when I discovered NLP. I became fascinated with what makes one person exceptional and another mediocre, what makes someone who can act at the peak of their ability most of the time and someone who can’t. I quickly discovered that nowhere is this more powerful and important than in sports. I started working with friends and friends of friends to help them improve their sporting performance, whether that be golf, long jump, cycling, football or martial arts.

Although psychological tools have been used in sports performance for decades, sport psychology has exploded in recent years with everyone suddenly realising the importance of your mental ability in your sporting performance. At the highest level of sport, it is rarely physical ability that decides who will win, it is who wins the mind game.

NLP may have begun in the early 70’s by studying therapists, but very quickly its methodology was applied to a broad number of fields from business, to eduction, to even the military! NLP can help you overcome the self doubt, nervousness, anxiety and lapses of concentration that keep you from performing at your best. It can help you accelerate your learning ability to master skills quickly and easily and allow you to act at the peak of your potential when it really counts.

Here are just SIX of the many ways that NLP can help you improve your sporting ability:

1. Tap Into The Power of Your Imagination

This is the cornerstone of working at your peak – using your imagination to work for you, not against you. Studies have suggested that “imagining an action and doing it require the same motor and sensory programs in the brain.” In fact, by just imagining doing strength-training exercises participants increased their muscle strength by 22%, compared to 30% among those who physically did the exercises. So the difference between thinking about ‘doing’ and actually ‘doing’ it is only 8%!’

When translated to real-life scenarios, research shows that many of the same benefits exist for imagined or physical actions. By just mentally practising a skill you achieve similar levels of accuracy as those who physically do it.

In Practice:

Many people I have spoken to have said they have tried visualisation and found that it did nothing. The problem with using the word “visualisation”  to describe this process is that it     forgets the other four senses. So people just focus on getting the picture in their mind right     and don’t pay attention to anything else.

Take some time to really imagine carrying out a specific element of your chosen sport (kicking a penalty, starting the sprint, etc), really take the time to SEE what you see, HEAR     what you hear and FEEL what you feel. If it helps, at this stage, take up the posture, don’t actually physically mimic the process but getting into the starting posture can help. You will probably notice the muscles you use for this technique subtly tensing.

As you do it, intensify the process, make the pictures bigger and brighter, the sounds louder     and the feelings more intense.

2. Learn From Sporting Greats By BECOMING Sporting Greats

NLP originally began by “modelling” the behaviours of excellent therapists, to find the “difference that made the difference”. We can use this same method to understand what makes top sports people stand out and learn how to do it ourselves.

In Practice:

Think of a sports person you admire for a particular technique. Imagine them doing it, perfectly. If you can, watch them do it over an over again until you have a really good visual     image of all the details. Now close your eyes and, in your minds eye, see them in front of     you doing this technique, run it through in as much detail as you can, slow it down, pause it     at important points and really pick up ALL the detail. Then, when you are ready, step into     them and BECOME them. Take up the exact posture that they have, notice every little detail, think how they think and mime the technique as they do it. Continue to to do this until you are doing it exactly the same way as they do.


3. Stop Choking, Getting The Yips and Break Through Your Personal Best

Do you find your skills are top notch in practice, but when it really counts you choke?

Most people are aware of the levels of Four Stages of Competence developed by Noel Burch:

  1. Unconscious incompetence
  2. Conscious incompetence
  3. Conscious competence
  4. Unconscious competence

In a related idea, Timothy Gallwey, the Godfather of modern coaching, lays out in in his seminal work ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’ his idea of “Self 1” and “Self 2”. “Self 1” is the ego-mind or “teller”, while “Self 2” is the body. “Self 1” instructs, “Self 2” acts.

When we perform at our best, we are Unconscious Competent, we don’t have to think about what we are doing. We don’t need or use “Self 1”. However, when we find ourselves in an important situation (the penalty kick, the serve at match point, the winning putt), we feel we need to really concentrate, we really need to think about it. But that means “Self” 1 tries to tell “Self 2” how to do something the latter already knows how to do. We become consciously competent, we become LESS COMPETENT!

In practice:

The key here is to distract what Timothy Galway called Self 1 (your conscious competent self) to allow Self 2 (your unconscious competent self) to do what it already knows what to do really well. The best sports people don’t choke, as they trust Self 2 enough to not let Self 1 get in the way.

Self 1 tends to manifest itself in “self talk”, we start running a commentary in our heads of what we should be doing. Although this can be useful in some context (“commentary driving” is a well known advanced driving technique), it isn’t in this situation, so we need to do something to shut down that self talk. To do this, you simply need to say something nonsensical instead (in the same way that mantras are used in meditation to quieten the mind).

4. Enter Flow States At Will

‘Flow’ (as all the cool kids call it nowadays. I remember when it used to be called “The Zone”!), is defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as “…the holistic experience that people feel when they act with total involvement.” It is that mental state you go into when you are performing (and helps you be at your best). You feel like you are just a passenger (in a good way) in the situation.

The difference between the winner and loser in a sport is dependant on who can enter a ‘flow’ state at the RIGHT time.

In Practice:

Your brain is highly efficient, it looks for the simplest way of understanding or do things. One of the ways it does this is to bundle experiences together. If two things occur at     the same time, it tends to treat them as related. Say you are in a particular mental state (happy, sad, anxious, excited, etc) at the same time as some form of discrete sensory stimulus takes place (a certain sound, smell, etc), our brains will treat them as related. This means we can “capture” a state by intentionally carrying out a sensory based action (a gesture, posture, phrase for example) whilst in that mental state.

So, the next time you find yourself in a ‘Flow’ state, consciously take the time to carry out a specific action, for example, squeeze your finger and thumb together, pump your fist, etc., in order to relate this action with the wanted state. Then next time you need to enter a Flow state you just need to repeat this gesture.


5. Turn Negative Experiences into Powerful Learnings

We have all had bad days, when everything seems to go wrong. No matter what we do. What tends to happen is we dwell on everything that went wrong and get hung up on all the errors we made, but sometimes those terrible performances can be some of the best learning experiences.

With NLP we can discover what the difference was when you were having the worst performance of your life and when you were unbeatable. This knowledge will allow you to play at the peak of your ability when it really matters.

In Practice:

NLP can be described as the study of the “difference that makes the difference”. You need to compare that terrible experience with your best. Your skills don’t suddenly evaporate overnight, the difference is what you were thinking and feeling at that time.

When Anthony Robbins worked with Andre Agassi, he got Andre to give him two tapes – one of the best tennis match he ever played and one of the worst. He then watched them both with Andre and asked him specific questions about what the difference was  – what he was feeling and thinking in each match.

Have a go yourself with an experience where you felt you did not do your best and find the differences.

6. Learn Faster and Tweak Your Skills

NLP allows you to break down, in a very easy step by step way, the mental and physical aspects of your skills. It can help you recognise the elements that are missing, what you need to do more of and what you need to change, to rapidly improve your skill level. Once you can map out the sensory steps of the skill or technique you can use that to inform and improve your own performance or teach that skill to someone else.

In Practice:

Ask yourself how you know what you are doing is working. What is the test you are using to let you know that you are doing it right. Once you have effectively defined your “test” you can see what resources your need to succeed.


To learn more about how NLP can help you break through your limitations and be at the peak of you ability please see my “Sports Applications of NLP” workshop, or contact me to discuss one to one or in house coaching and training.