There is a sports cliche that goes something like this: Don't think, just play.
A tennis player, for example, has to make such quick decisions on a court that if he actually stops to think about them, he's done. Not enough time.
Enter Dr. William Bays, a hypnotherapist who helps teach athletes to, uh, not think.
When Bays isn't talking to patients about losing weight or quitting smoking, he is often talking about sports.
He has worked with athletes ranging from the high schools to the professionals ranks, helping them overcome the mental blocks that affect their performance.
"It's all about maximizing potential," Bays said.
What Bays can't do is take someone, for example, who has never played golf, plop him in a chair, wave a pocket watch in his eyes and turn him into a great golfer.
"We can't teach them anything they didn't already know," he said.
The typical athlete who comes to Bays' Westlake Village office for help is one who has the basic skills to compete at a higher level but is in a slump for some reason. Once the slump starts, the mind starts second-guessing the muscles, which is how athletes really get into trouble.
Bays induces patients into a hypnotic state with nothing but his voice. No swinging pocket watch or spinning wheels. "That's Mickey Mouse stuff," he said.
Once hypnotized, a patient's subconscious mind is open, and very receptive to suggestion. Bays will tell the hypnotized patient, in essence, "You know how to hit a curveball. Remember how many times you've done it before. So just do it."
Bays, 47, first became interested in hypnosis when he was 11 and was put under by a stage hypnotist.
"It amazed me," he said.
He earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from the former Claremont College and a master's from Fresno State. He received his doctorate from the American Institute of Hypnotherapy.
His sports background includes wrestling and football in high school. At Claremont, he won the NAIA western regional wrestling championship in his weight class.
Bays spent the early part of his career as a counselor for the state, working with the disabled.
But in 1989, he decided to turn to an area of treatment in which the results were more tangible.
"With counseling you can see someone a number of times and wonder if you really have helped them," he said. "I wanted something that was real focused, where you can see and measure the success.
"That's why hypnotherapy is so good. You can go home at the end of the day or the end of the week and say, 'I helped this person quit smoking and that one reduce their stress and that one get over their athletic block.' "
Athletic problems are not the primary base of Bays' practice--smokers trying to quit are the largest group of his patients--but they are a significant part.
He said he has worked with athletes from most of the major pro teams in Southern California, as well as some from around the country.
Bays can't reveal any of his patients' names because of an agreement of confidentiality.
There are a number of ways Bays tries to bring out the best in his patients through hypnosis. One is suggestion, in which Bays puts the subject under and suggests improvements to the subconscious mind.
Another is imaging, a process in which Bays will have his patients step onto an hypnotic playing field, of sorts, visualizing a perfect performance in such detail that they can smell the grass.
"They see themselves driving the ball straight down the middle of the course," Bays said. "I have them repeat it over and over. We have them imagine it to the fullest of their capabilities."
Bays said most athletic problems require four 90-minute sessions. He charges $90 per session.
Bays recalled his work with a professional baseball player, calling it typical.
"He was in a batting slump," Bays said. "He was not hitting the ball.
"The problem was getting worse and he was beginning to focus inward instead of focusing outward and seeing the ball.
"We got his focus back where it should be and we got his confidence back where it should be. And we also did success imagery, seeing himself hitting the ball, feeling that good solid crack that you feel in your hands and all the other sensations that go along with that."
After Bays has completed the hypnotherapy, he will give patients information on how to continue the process alone--sort of hypnotizing themselves before a contest.
Bays' goal is to feed as much information into the subconscious mind, and hope that information clicks in automatically during competition.
So the athlete can just play, and not think.