St. John abuzz over teammates' hypnosis

Originally published on Feb. 4, 2009

After the St. John High School boys team had won the state basketball championship two years ago and was runner-up last year, the team went just 7-6 through last week.

So the coach tried something different: hypnotism.

Most team members underwent two 45-minute sessions last week to increase their concentration and focus. It's not clear what happened during the sessions; the therapist who led them wouldn't say, and the coach did not return phone calls.

Monday night, the school board voted to stop the sessions.

"It won't be going on any more at school," said superintendent James Kenworthy. "If parents want their child to do that, they can contact the licensed therapist on their own."

Hypnotizing students perhaps sends the wrong message to students and surrounding schools, said Kenworthy, who has requested a transcript of the sessions.

"At the high school level, it's not appropriate. We are trying to get kids to understand who they are and what they are. It may give kids a mixed message if you can't do it on your own."

Winning basketball teams are a tradition in St. John, a town of 1,200 about 90 miles northwest of Wichita.

Kenworthy said the hypnotism of the Class 1A team has been the talk of the town.

Coach Clint Kinnamon had sought the help of Carl Feril, a Church of Christ minister who is also a clinical family and marriage therapist.

Feril would not discuss what happened during the team's sessions, saying his was a privileged therapist/client relationship.

"Any client I work with, particularly a minor, would always have a written parental consent," Feril said. "I cannot confirm or deny I work with those people."

He did say he has worked for 20 years with people suffering from anxiety disorders and depression.

Players' parents received letters last week asking them to sign permission slips for their sons to participate in the hypnosis.

School board member and parent Mitch Minnis gave his permission.

"My son says, 'Dad, it's pretty cool. It's hypnotism!' We saw it as more of helping the kids with focus and concentration," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of the boys bought into it."

Minnis said the letter said that the hypnosis wasn't mandatory, so he wasn't concerned.

"If they were blindfolding kids and making them walk off the south pier of town, I might be concerned," Minnis said. "But I think this is a novel approach and it might even help them do good in school work if they know what buttons to push to concentrate."

At least one parent had concerns.

"We just asked our son not to participate and we didn't sign the paper," said Merlin Spare, a school board member and St. John's track and cross country coach.

"I am a coach myself and I try to teach kids to be visionary and believe in what they are doing," Spare said. "I think a person who is solid on their feet doesn't have to do this. I think it is something a person could rely on and become hooked to."

The Kansas State High School Activities Association has strict rules about what players can and cannot do. But hypnosis isn't mentioned in the rules.

"We have rules . . . about performance-enhancing substances - the clause of anabolic steroids . . . issues with drugs, alcohol and tobacco. I guess we have not encountered the question. It's just never come up," said Gary Musselman, executive director of the Kansas State High School Activities Association Musselman.

Scott Ward, a sports psychologist with the University of Kansas, said hypnosis is not believed to be that effective in sports.

"When I think of hypnotism I think of someone going into a comedy club and being hypnotized to cluck like a chicken," Ward said. "It's not used in sports with the leading athletes."

On the other hand, visualization and imagery techniques frequently are used.

"The premise of sports psychology is to give power to the athlete and have them getting more confident and motivated using the tools they have within themselves," Ward said. "But really, when was the last time you saw Kobe Bryant or Peyton Manning stick their finger to the palm of their hand to get ready for the next play? I do not believe or encourage anybody to use hypnotis m."

Tuesday night, the St. John Tigers played the Western Plains Bobcats in Ransom. They won 53-43.

Before the game, Bobcats assistant coach Jerod Horchem was a bit incredul ous when he heard about the hypnosis.

"Personally, I'm not concerned," Horchem said. "If we did something like that - we'd probably hypnotize our guys, they'd fall asleep and never wake up. But if that would make them shoot better and I could do that in the next 10 minutes, then get me a watch on a string.

"What it all comes down to is playing hard. You look for things that will bond the team. It doesn't matter what it is, if it helps, that's good."

Contributing: Joanna Chadwick of The Eagle