Another Look at Performance Preparation and Peak Performance

Finding solutions for performance anxiety is like finding the right diet to lose weight: there are many options. While some people might benefit from one particular plan, others might not lose a pound following the same eating strategies. That doesn’t make the diet in itself worthless, although it might not work for you.

The same applies to peak performance. Some people are naturally equipped with a “winner’s mind,” while others need to develop specific mental skills in order to succeed in a competitive career. With that in mind, I would like to offer some counter strategies to battle performance anxiety and negative self-talk put forth by Nicholas Pallesen in “Taking a Fresh, Hopeful Look at Performance Anxiety” and “How to Stop Wrestling with Your Negative Self-Talk,” (CS, October and November 2017).

Training the mind in order to decrease anxiety and increase the chances to succeed is not “adding noise,” as Pallesen writes. On the contrary, the science of positive psychology has proven that we actually can cultivate a winning mindset. Also, recent developments in neuroscience show that with neuroplasticity we can alter our brain by strengthening the neural connections to advance competence. That’s how humans learn to master all kinds of different skills. Accordingly, the mind can be trained to be tougher.

Belief #1: Performances, auditions, or the people behind the table can make you nervous.
Humans see the world as a series of events and interpret them with thoughts, which results in feelings. First, not all performances and auditions are alike, as Pallesen states. They are different depending on the role we’d like to be considered for, the status of the company, the compensation, etc. They also differ in location, the people behind the audition table, and whether or not there are reviewers in the hall. And, especially for singers, auditions differ in the way the performer feels physically at the time of the audition. Being tired can challenge a singer’s vocal abilities, certainly.

When your insecurity creeps in at a particular audition or performance and not at another, something is triggering that response. A trigger is a stimulus that contributes to an unwanted emotional or behavioral response. In other words, you might know that the people behind the table cannot make you nervous (it’s your interpretation of the situation), but you still feel anxious. Exploring your triggers and deciding which ones are avoidable—and for which ones you can develop a dealing strategy—will add to your success at your next performances. Cognitive restructuring techniques help you change your interpretation of situations, decrease your nervous thinking and, as a result, diminish your triggers on future occasions.

Belief #2: Mental techniques and strategies will help you get in the right mindset.
True! This is not a misconception. Mental preparation for your performance, audition, and career are hugely important in order to succeed. Your (positive) mindset is a big part of it. As Joseph Parent, author of Zen Golf says, “A million crunches can’t make up for a fragile mind.” In other words, you can be a fabulous singer, but if you don’t know how to control your anxious mind, your wonderful singing will not get you very far.

Some people might get “into the zone” or be “in the flow” naturally—but for those who don’t, the mind can be trained to do so. Affirmations, mantras, meditation, and cognitive exercises are valuable components. Positive thinking always makes you feel better. Science shows that positive thinking lowers the stress hormone cortisol in the body and improves well-being.

Why would we spend hours, days, weeks, months, and years to learn to master the art of singing and performing while ignoring the power of the mind—essential in building skills to create and sustain a successful performing life?

Belief #3: You need to have a pre-performance routine.
Yes! If you want to give a peak performance, you need to prepare for it. Do you think that major athletes don’t have a pre-performance routine? Of course they do. You need to direct your focus before a performance, otherwise you risk a scattered mind and not giving your best. Ways to prepare for peak performance are visualization, meditation, saying your mantras, and focusing on all your positive attributes as a singer/performer. Some singers, like Marilyn Horne, use calisthenics and aerobics as preparation to increase stamina on the stage.

In the past 30 years, there have been numerous scientific reports of techniques designed to improve happiness and success. Martin Seligman, the founder of the Positive Psychology Program, has developed the PERMA model, which focuses on positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments. Shawn Achor is the author of the book The Happiness Advantage, which describes a technique of becoming more positive to improve your life. Another well-known scientist and researcher, Barbara Fredrickson, published a book called Positivity, and Angela Duckworth, a MacArthur Foundation grant recipient, focused on similar issues in Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. And there’s an abundance of books out there that teach more about the science of positive psychology and how it can help you increase your happiness, fulfillment, and success in life.

Belief #4: To perform at your best, you must learn to eliminate insecurity and fear.
Correct! Roughly 95 percent of our brain activity takes place in our unconscious mind. Buddha compared it to a wild elephant, Plato to two horses, and Freud to the id that needed to be controlled. The other 5 percent was referred to as the trainer (Buddha), the charioteer (Plato), and the ego (Freud).

We actually can learn to gain more control over insecurity and fear by using our conscious mind. Our experience of fear at an audition is irrational in the sense that our existence is not threatened, but we still respond with the “fight or flight” response. Pallesen writes that “our capacity to perform is there no matter how confident or insecure we may feel in the moment.” Our capacity might still be there but, most likely, we won’t be able to access it because it is obstructed with fear. Affirmations, positive self-talk, visualization, and mindfulness are tools to rein in the irrational fear that comes from our subconscious.

Belief #5: Confidence can be cultivated.
Absolutely! If you weren’t born brimming with confidence, don’t let anguish overcome you. You can construct or improve a sense of self-reliance in several different ways. And, of course, every positive experience will boost those feelings. “Confidence is the effect of a clear mind, not the cause of it,” Pallesen says. True. But the question is how to get a clear mind.

To suggest that your mind will “naturally self-correct and let [the] thinking settle” unfortunately doesn’t work, because that’s not how the mind operates. Through the years, your mind has developed myriad neuro-connections based on your life experiences against your background, culture, and other influences such as gender, sexual orientation, and expectations of your environment. That’s how people form (thinking) habits. If the mind would “naturally self-correct,” you wouldn’t have a problem in the first place.

The good news, however, is that by using proven techniques, you can clear your mind and/or restructure your automatic (negative) thoughts to build confidence. “Negative thoughts always find a way to show up,” Pallesen admits. Most people are unaware of their debilitating inner dialogue. The more often you catch yourself in this negative habit and are able to shape new patterns, the sooner you can start building confidence. Along with building confidence, believe in your abilities needed to succeed and keep your eye on your goal.

Belief #6: You must learn to control your thoughts.
“Thought is a formless, fluid energy . . . ,” Pallesen explains and he suggests to not give it too much weight. The practice of meditation teaches that detachment of all thought is real power indeed. It offers the opportunity to step back and get a different perspective on situations. In other words, when the outcome of a certain situation doesn’t matter, there won’t be any disappointment. You can learn to dismiss your “formless, fluid energy” with the practice of “noting,” a technique to let go of all thoughts by repeatedly bringing the attention back to the body and breath.

But for those who find meditating difficult, the formless, fluid energy can be used to formulate goals and make plans. That way, thought is power and can be used as you wish. At first, you might not have control over the thoughts that come and go through your mind, but the mind can be trained to know which thoughts should stay. Again, use the restructuring techniques. The most important realization is that no matter what technique you’d like to use, it still requires a lot of practice, like anything else you want to learn.

Belief #7: Your well-being is dependent on the outcome of an audition or performance.
“Well-being” means health, happiness, and safety, just to start. Self-worth influences the experience of well-being. If you don’t get the part you wanted so badly or, even worse, your best friend gets it, how can you still experience well-being? Is your self-worth strong enough to take this blow? Here you need the “tough mind” or the “winner’s mind”—whichever you want to call it—to conquer the biggest blow. Carol Dweck, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation, shows in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success the power of “not yet” versus the catastrophe of the “now.” She suggests to develop a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset.

You have chosen a competitive business, but you can succeed if you build the necessary mental skills along with working on excellence of your performing expertise. Practice your determination, perspective, flexibility, courage, focus, poise, and resilience together with other activities during the day. These core elements will help you surmount challenges, setbacks, disappointments, and unavoidable stress.

There are tons of ways to lose weight and, similarly, there are many tactics to defeat crippling fear and conquer negative self-talk and performance anxiety. Every available method is worth trying. Good luck!

Wilma Wever

Wilma H. Wever, recognized by The New York Times for being “attractive and engaging” in her world premiere of Jocasta, works as a professional singer, teaches voice at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York and gives Performance Wellness workshops. She graduated from Mannes College of Music in New York.