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After having problems with her volleyball serve, Kara Zakrzewski turned to hypnosis to work out the kinks and help her focus, all without the use of a dangling pocket watch.

By Kaitlyn Coholan

A crowd watches as the player looks down and stares at the rough, hard volleyball. She pauses, eyes closed, and envisions her muscles flexing as she springs from the soft sand, her hand connecting with the ball at the precise moment to send it sailing over the net.

Visualization helped Kara Zakrzewski, a player for the Canadian national beach volleyball team, when a mental block got in the way of her jump serve.

“I was more than capable of doing it,” the six-foot brunette says. “There’s not that much difference between a jump serve and just hitting the ball.”

Zakrzewski’s coach suggested breaking it down into a “robot-like” sequence. “It didn’t work for me,” she says.

She then spoke to the team’s doctor, also a trained hypnotherapist, who asked her to fix her attention on the ball to improve her concentration. “It was a little bit of hypnotherapy on the court,” she says.

This is an example of a type of hypnosis that athletes use all the time called visualization or mind training, says Georgina Cannon, director of the Ontario Hypnosis Centre.

Though the word is often associated with swinging pocket watches, it is a legitimate treatment. The Ontario Health Insurance Plan has covered hypnosis administered with a physician’s referral since 1972.

Hypnotists treat a range of physical and mental issues by accessing the subconscious mind, which is useful for athletes who do many things by rote. To improve athletic abilitiy, hypnotized patients are asked to imagine themselves performing perfectly.

Cannon says visualization works well because the human mind has a tough time completely disassociating reality from the imaginary. “For instance, if you’re afraid of spiders, and I say there’s a spider down by your foot, your body will react in fear.

“Anytime you allow your emotions to come through without thinking, that’s the subconscious,” she adds.

Zakrzewski, who got her start playing volleyball for the University of Ottawa GeeGees, says in her first session her doctor made a suggestion that caused her arm to rise without her control. He wanted to demonstrate the strength of hypnosis.

That was four years ago and she still sees him for hypnotherapy treatments – as often as every two weeks.

Patients under hypnosis bypass conscious thought. “You’re semi-unconscious and it’s extremely relaxing, similar to meditation,” she says. “Some thoughts float through but kind of disappear.”

Sessions leave Zakrzewski with a sense of accomplishment, especially when it comes to reliving events that did not go well. “It puts me in a place where I am doing it right.”

Ray Chateau, coach of Humber College’s golf team, says while he doesn’t know much about hypnosis, he’d support anything a player believes will help. His team has set the bar high, winning national championships five times over the past six years.

“There’s such a strong winning culture within this team,” Chateau says. “There’s a lot of pressure to perform because we always win.”

The night before a championship game, Chateau will lead his team on a hypothetical walk-through of the course. “They don’t just get to the tee and decide what they’re going to do,” he says.

Dr. Crawford Dobson, an orthopaedic surgeon with Trent University’s sports medicine clinic, says he sees value in hypnotherapy.

“A lot of athletes will do mental imagery ahead of time,” he says, adding that the ability to imagine achieving a goal is crucial. “You don’t necessarily have to be hypnotized but if you can’t visualize it, it’s very difficult to do.”

Despite its many proponents, misconceptions about hypnotherapy still abound. “People sometimes think of hypnosis as the guy up on stage saying ‘bark like a dog,’” Dobson says. “That’s completely unrealistic.”

Cannon agrees. “It was an uphill battle when I got started to make people understand the difference.”

People thought she was crazy to give up a corporate job to start practicing hypnosis, but she says she was excited to help people find their own “magnificence.”

“Most people have no idea how powerful they are,” she says. “Once you understand the power of your own mind, you can do anything.”