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For today’s amateur or professional athlete, performer or public speaker, being your best at what you do is one of life’s most satisfying endeavors. But to be your best, you have to prepare the best way and today that means incorporating the latest advances in performance psychology.

Fundamentals of Sports Psychology

The roots of performance psychology are grounded in the fundamentals of sports psychology developed over the last forty years. This traditional approach to peak performance is what I refer to as the First Generation of Performance Psychology. Programs to enhance peak performance have traditionally focused on three key areas:

  • 1. The foundation personality issues of the athlete
  • 2. The practice issues promoting the learning, development and deployment of behavioral and mental skills
  • 3. The execution of superior performance skills on demand that meets or exceeds the challenges of the competition

The five key skills that have typically been taught to athletes wanting to optimize their performance are : relaxation, goalsetting, self-talk, visualization and concentration. While these skills have helped athletes and performers in the past, they have their limitations and new research has shown they are effective with only half the population that seek help.

The Latest Research

We are now entering the Second Generation of Performance Psychology. The seismic shift taking place today is caused by new brain research that has revealed how the brain learns new skills–all along the lifespan–simply by rehearsing the activity in a particular way that will enable you to perform the way you desire. Scientists have learned that when people either imagine or rehearse how they want to perform, the neurons in the brain fire together and thereby becoming hardwired together. The new learning that comes from doing a behavior, performing a skill –or simply visualizing a behavior or skill–is encoded in this neural pathway that can be retrieved on demand. As such, the brain circuits actually “grow” in whatever direction you wish based on how you use your brain during daily life.This concept is called neuroplasticity and is the reason why psychologists are so excited about how it may be applied to a variety of performance situations.

Performance Anxiety Plays A Major Role

We also know that performance anxiety is a major inhibitor of optimal performance. Upwards of 80% of singers and orchestral musicians suffer from performance anxiety or “stage fright”. Public speaking is the number one fear of Americans today. Job interviewers, test takers, patients preparing or recovering from surgery, participants in legal disputes and IRS audits all suffer from performance anxiety. But there is good news to report: We now know what causes performance anxiety and have new techniques to treat it more effectively than ever before.

For many performers, the stress of performing triggers past performance trauma failures during childhood or later on that interferes with performing now. Negative internalized beliefs about you as a performer can become established in your thinking that undercuts your capacity to perform. Anxiety can interfere with concentration and focus which in turn can erode personal confidence. We can now effectively neutralize those past negative experiences while installing new ways of looking at your past as a performer that can recast failures for what they really are–opportunities for new learning and mastery of higher skills. The key is to separate performance outcome from your intrinsic sense of self. Performers perform best when they strive to do their best as a reflection of excitement and opportunity–for the sake of the pleasure of the experience –and not to prove anything to themselves. Performers who are perfectionistic tend to be fearful of falling short which can trigger anxiety which undercuts performance.

Formulating Plans For Optimal Performance

Drawing from this scientific knowledge, we can now create performance plans that allow athletes and other performers to “install” the new mental scripts that will enhance optimal performance. At the same time, we can apply what we know about the “flow” state to help mentally position the performer in right frame of mind to perform their best.

Three new techniques have been developed to helped install new mental scripts and increase the capacity to achieve flow on demand:

Mindfulness Meditation

This easy to learn technique has been around for a while but only recently has it been applied to peak performance situations. Research has shown that after only three months of meditating, people were able to reduce intruding, unwanted thoughts that could distract one’s ability to concentrate on completing a task. Another study has shown that meditating before taking a test can improve students scores on a high-pressure math test. We know that holding on to thoughts and worries under stress leads to difficulty in performing your best. By learning how to control one’s mental focus, you are able to hone your attention on the critical factors underlying performance success. Focus and concentration are key components of confidence. Think of mindfulness meditation as a foundational skill that increases your ability to relax on demand and enhance concentration by reducing distractibility.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

This technique was seen primarily as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder but recently has been found to be helpful in the performance field as well. We have long known that saccadic eye movements of the type displayed during Stage Three of our sleep cycles is important to our on-going mental health. What we didn’t know was that the REM state can be used like a power tool to clear past traumatic experiences and install new mental scripts for optimal functioning. The technique is simple and can be administered by a specially trained psychologist in an office setting. By turning on the brain’s REM (Rapid Eye Movement) state while imagining a target thought, behavior, emotion or sensation, we activate an information processing capacity in the brain that can neutralize past traumas and performance failures. Clearing out past traumatic experiences is crucial because we now know that the stress of performing often triggers past anxieties and fears simply through the association of between fear and stress. Once the past trauma and performance failures have been cleared, we can install the new mental scripts simply by visualizing the behavior that you want to perform. Brain science has shown that visualizing a motor skill and actually performing that skill activates the same parts of the brain and encodes the same neural channels!

Cardio Imagery & Rehearsal

This newly developed technique pairs two key behaviors–imagery and exercise–into a powerful mental device that can install high level mental scripts that can be more readily activated on demand through repeated rehearsal. We now know that exercise–at a heart rate of approximately 140 beats per minute–releases a protein in the brain called BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factors) which is a key ingredient for growing new neural circuits. By exercising WHILE you are imaging playing a sport or singing in front of an audience or delivering a powerful speech, new neural circuits are installed that can bypass old neural circuits that stored past performance failures. Rather than trying to suppress or distract yourself from your worst performance fears, now you can simply visualize the way you want to perform and rehearse that visualization with aerobic exercise. The more you rehearse during exercise, the more you will establish an alternate capacity to perform at a higher level.

Activating the Flow State

The Flow state has been described as “being in the zone” or “going unconscious”. The best examples are Joe Montana performing his best as quarterback for the San Francisco49ers during their many Super Bowl victories or Tiger Woods breaking records at the Masters golf tournament or Michael Jordan hitting a three point shot at the buzzer during Game 7 of the NBA Championships. Psychologists believe that most people are capable of achieving the flow state but no one–as of yet–has claimed to be able to harness this special state for specific applications.

Activating the flow state on demand has been the holy grail of peak performance. There has been much debate whether this is possible. Most performers have experienced the flow state occasionally and can describe how focused and relaxed they were during a performance. Unfortunately, the flow state seems to come and go. Performance anxiety seems to be the antithesis of the flow state. Described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow in 1990, flow is defined by nine key characteristics of mental functioning:

  1. 1. There are clear goals defining optimal functioning.
  2. 2. There is immediate feedback to one’s actions.
  3. 3. There is a balance between challenges and skills.
  4. 4. Action and awareness are merged.
  5. 5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
  6. 6. There is no worry of failure.
  7. 7. Self-consciousness disappears.
  8. 8. The sense of time becomes distorted.
  9. 9. The activity becomes autotelic–the experience of the activity is an end in itself.

Based on a small sample of participants, there is now anecdotal evidence that we can bring performers closer to the flow state by specifically installing as many of the components of flow as possible. Using visualization techniques and stitching past flow state experiences together into a composite sense of flow, we can then use EMDR to lay down new neural tracks in the brain that hold the mental representation of the flow state. If we then use the Cardio Imagery & Rehearsal technique to exercise to mental rehearsals of the flow state, we increase the performer’s capacity to function at that high level during performance.

Peak Performance Systems is dedicated to applying these new brain-based techniques to optimizing peak performance for athletes, performers, public speakers, sales and management professionals, job seekers and emergency medical personnel. Please contact Dr. Patrick Gannon at the above email address to inquire about these services.