What is mental toughness? In theory, it is simple. Your attention is on the right target. Your attention stays on the right target and your actions are aligned with the target. In reality, it is a challenge! What happened the last time you were distracted on stage?
Every singer needs to understand the following four principles of attention focus.
Principle 1—Where your attention goes, you go.
Your attention focus is like the rudder on a ship. Whatever you focus on, you move towards. Countless things vie for our attention at any given moment. You are on stage, putting your heart into your performance, and you hear a cell phone ring. If your attention moves toward the cell phone ring, followed by thoughts about the disrespectful patron who didn’t care to show proper concert etiquette and wondering why the patron didn’t turn the thing off, disaster is on its way.
The power of attention focus works for the positive aspects of performing as well as the negative. The more you focus on being stressed and anxious the more stressed and anxious you become. The more you focus on being confident, the more freedom you find on stage.
Principle 2—You can focus specifically on only one thing at a time.
At first this principle seems like a contradiction. Typically, many things are going on simultaneously during a performance—watching a conductor, for example, or interacting with other ensemble members, or just holding a microphone. When it comes to performing, the sum of the parts makes up the whole.
To create a whole performance each part must support the whole. Think of learning a new song. At first you have to pay specific attention to all of the details, such as dynamics, key changes, and when to breathe. As you practice the piece, however, your focus widens and you begin to see how the parts fit together. The eventual goal is to bring all the parts seamlessly into a whole.
I talked with a high school student who was participating in a solo competition. In the middle of his song, he forgot the words. His immediate reaction was to bring the palm of his hand forcefully to his forehead and declare to the judges that he was a “stupid idiot!” At times we lose perspective of the whole and our attention is drawn to a single element, such as remembering the words. When a breakdown in attention focus occurs, you need to be able to recognize the shift, bring your focus back to the appropriate target as quickly as possible, and move forward. “Yes, and” is a good rule to follow when things breakdown rather than react.
Principle 3—Your attention focus needs to adjust for each performance.
Think of looking through a telephoto lens. You adjust the lens to include only the elements of the picture that you want. By making small adjustments you can dramatically change the content of the picture. If you were standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, soaking in the grandeur, and somebody said, “Don’t step on that rattlesnake!” your attention would instantly shift from broad to narrow—from the panoramic view before you in the distance to the rattlesnake immediately in front of you.
Similarly, if you are on stage and really “into” your performance and some type of mistake occurs, the mistake is very likely to grab your attention. But what next? Your focus now must be on getting back into the performance.
Sometimes our attention shifts to things in our environment. At other times our attention can shift to thoughts and unusual physical sensations. Any thoughts of victory or of defeat usually lead to some type of breakdown. Any shift to anything irrelevant to the performance can lead to a breakdown. Whatever you include in your attention focus must support a great performance.
Principle 4—Great performers understand, develop, and strengthen attention control.
Attention control and focus is seen as a skill to develop and master. Every day advertisers want to capture your attention in the hopes that you will move closer to their products. Being mentally tough is about taking charge of your attention focus and putting it where you want it and keeping it there. You don’t want things that are irrelevant, or even counter to a great performance, to capture your attention. You are captain of the ship, and you and only you hold the steering wheel and chart the course.
Here are some exercises to help strengthen and develop mental toughness.
Trying singing a song you are preparing to performing while you can hear a familiar song on your right and an unfamiliar song on your left. This is difficult! You will get a sense of how quickly your attention can shift and what happens when it does. Practice keeping your focus on your song. Bring your attention back to your song when your attention focus shifts.
Find a comfortable place to sit. Focus your attention on your breathing. See if you can notice a coolness as you breathe in and a warmth as you breathe out. As you breathe in, focus on the cool and as you breathe out, focus on the warmth. Can you stay present to the breath? For 10 breaths? For 100 breaths? Try this. Each time you get distracted think to yourself, “Let it go, refocus on the breath.” The more you practice this the easier it becomes and you will be developing some great skills to managing anxiety.
When you become aware of a negative or irrelevant distraction try this centering exercise. Focus on your breath. Breathe in. As you exhale say or think “let it go,” and then think of a positive word or phrase such as “confidence,” “focus,” “back into the music,” or “go on.” I coached a cello player who had great success with the word “cope.” When he played well, he played well, but when the slightest thing went wrong, it was disasterous. When he would take a breath and think the word “cope” it helped move his focus forward and get him back into his performance and out of fear of disaster.
This exercise requires an accomplice. You are the singer and you know your song. The accomplice’s goal is to distract you, without touching you, while you sing. The goal of the singer is to be present, but not react in any way, to what the accomplice is doing.
Once you start your song, any response on your part to what the accomplice says or does is a “gotcha.” Once you have been “gotten,” take a breath and begin to sing the song again, and the accomplice does the same thing. Repeat until you can keep your focus on singing regardless of what the accomplice does.
Mental toughness and understanding how attention works is a key skill of top performers use every time they step out on stage. Mental toughness allows you to stay focused and when there has been a shift, cope and get back on track. Mental toughness is about you deciding what is most important and performing with freedom. confidence and ease!