STILLWATER — “Breathe in through your nose, and breathe out, ‘Let go.'”
Brandon Weeden sat in an easy chair in a dimly lit room and heard those words nearly every week for two seasons.
He'd be told to visualize his troubles as clouds floating out of a window and positive thoughts coming in as sunlight draping the entire body. He might have become so relaxed that opening his eyes became impossible.
While quarterbacking Oklahoma State football to a 23-3 record, its first Big 12 championship and a BCS bowl win, Weeden was seeing a hypnotherapist.
Weeden believes his frequent visits to Paige Wacker, or HypnoPaige, helped him navigate life as a Big 12 starting quarterback. And many other Oklahoma State athletes and coaches agree, which is why Wacker has become a key figure in several teams' training regimens.
Training of the mind, that is.
“Playing quarterback, in particular, is a lot of pressure, a lot of stress,” Weeden said. “For me, it was more she relaxed me. She got the mental state of my game (right) as far visioning good things happening all the time, taking the bad thoughts out, whether it was throwing an interception or whatever it may be.
“I think it's just taking all the good thoughts and building on those.”
One could look at hypnotherapy as another example of an out-of-the-box tactic in Mike Gundy's program. But it's not an entirely uncommon practice. Tiger Woods' use of hypnosis since childhood has been well-documented. Legendary NBA coach Phil Jackson did not get the name the “Zen Master” purely because it was catchy.
At OSU, the football, women's soccer, baseball and softball teams have turned to Wacker for guidance.
“Visualization is something coaches have used forever,” Wacker said. “I just give them visualization on steroids, because I teach an athlete how to quiet his mind. A quiet mind is a focused mind, and a focused mind is a focused athlete.”
Associate athletic director for speed, strength and conditioning Rob Glass was the first to consider having football players work with HypnoPaige two years ago. Florida used a hypnotherapist with positive results during Glass' time there, and he hoped it would help reinforce the “Believe” theme the program had adopted that season.
Glass especially thought it would help Weeden, who was stepping into the starting quarterback job after Zac Robinson.
“If bad things happen, I need Brandon to carry himself with confidence and be able to let things go,” Glass remembers thinking then. “I just didn't know, because he had never been under center. Nobody knew.”
Weeden admits he was a bit reluctant to try it at first. He had the stereotypes in his head of a swinging pocket watch and being forced to cluck like a chicken.
That's precisely why Wacker no longer introduces herself as a hypnotherapist. She calls herself a mental performance coach — one who “builds champions,” whether it's in athletics, the business world or any part of someone's personal life.
(Though, she can make you bark like a dog or sing like Barry Manilow, if you wanted.)
The idea is to tap into the subconscious, where emotions, beliefs and memories are created and stored. Hypnosis is a state of mind we drift into multiple times per day — right before we go to sleep and right before we wake up, and, to a lesser extent, when we're zoned in on a television show or book.
Once there, Wacker guides athletes, or anyone, to push the negative thoughts out and bring the positive ones to the forefront. To visualize the desired end result and backtracking through what will get them there.
That creates a “benevolent inner voice,” one that quickly gets over a mistake and is confident they have already won before entering the arena. That's when the game, as athletes and coaches like to say, “slows down.”
“Any athlete, any person, who has a goal in mind, I help them become so comfortable and so familiar with that goal that the achievement is inevitable,” Wacker said.
And Wacker says that once someone learns how to get into that state — by using the “Let go” trigger words — they can get there in an instant at any time.
Weeden said he immediately felt more relaxed after his first session and started channeling those techniques before — and during — practice and games. And he kept seeing Wacker even after he was no longer required to, partly because he's superstitious and partly because he felt it was working.
“I just envisioned good things happening before the snap,” he said. “That's half the battle in big-time college sports.”
Wacker has met with a handful of other football players 1-on-1, though she cannot disclose who because of HIPAA laws. But she has also done large group sessions and given out exercises on mp3s, which Glass said several players listen to on the bus or in the locker room.
And with several new playmakers, most notably true freshman quarterback Wes Lunt, expected to play a significant role for the Cowboys this season, Glass said Wacker's role will be important yet again.
Wacker said she is honored to be an unofficial, yet important, part of the OSU athletic department. And she has a simple hope for any of the athletes who have worked with her.
“That they achieve their goals,” she said. “That is my ultimate desire for everyone and that I be obsolete in the process. Because they know what they're doing. I teach you how to use your mind.”