DIY Performance Psychology

research Dec 05, 2019

By Shannon Thompson

“What can I do for you that would make the difference?” I ask myself this question every summer when I reflect on my work from the prior year. Professionally, I am a mental performance specialist. My job is to help you be who you want to be, consistently, whether you are an Olympian or a High School student.  Most of my clientele are high-level athletes, but really, my methods are applicable to anyone trying to achieve anything. 

 What if you’re hungry to realize your best, but you don’t have access to an expert to help you? Given that the majority of people fall into this category, I’m often asked what tips I would give to those who are unable to come speak with me personally. So here they are!  A summer of my recommendations for anyone wishing to experiment with performance psychology strategies on their own. Here is my most basic working framework, presented in a way that enables you to support yourself in performing at your best —consistently.

Start Here

Let’s begin with two critical guidelines:

  1. Choose mental performance strategies that you enjoy. Regardless of the supposed effectiveness of any method, if you don’t like doing it, or it doesn’t work for you, modify it so that you do like it and it does work, or stop using it. Most mental practices require some discipline toward developing consistency at the beginning. However, after a couple of weeks of focused practice you should have a good sense of whether or not the exercise is right for you (or you will have a good sense if you are ready to commit to any regular strategy at this point in your life – this is also a valid consideration.). Explore the strategies available until you find one that you enjoy, and that you feel is helping you. 
  2.  Do what works for you, consistently. Consistently. DO IT CONSISTENTLY! By consistently, I mean at least three days a week and work up to five, if possible. Consistent practice is critical for any mental skill to be fully effective.

Mental mastery takes regular effort and time to develop just like any physical skill. This can be a hard fact to accept. I think the reason we doubt this fact is because sometimes we perform well mentally without any preparation at all. The stars align, our mood was right, who knows why we found ourselves in such a good place. These sublime days that occasionally come upon us create the illusion that there is some quick switch we can flip to magically become our best selves. No other skill creates this illusion. For example, you can’t run a four- minute mile off the couch, or play Mozart the first time you pick up an instrument. But, sometimes you can find yourself in a mentally excellent place without any plan or effort to be there. Don’t let memories of those random great days prevent you from putting in the work that would enable them to become consistent.

What does the work consist of? 

I recommend the following three stages:

Stage 1: Develop a regular mindfulness practice. 

Stage 2: Reflect on your past and notice your patterns. 

Stage 3: Create a mental performance plan.

Mindfulness Meditation

Any time we learn a new skill, it's important to start with the basics. Mindfulness meditation trains the most basic skill necessary for mental excellence: focus. When you practice mindfulness meditation it’s like going to the gym to develop your focus. Mindfulness requires you place your attention on something (usually your breath, body, or images in your mind), and sustain it for a duration of time. When your attention wanders, which it will, kindly guide it back to your chosen focus. 

I know this sounds suspiciously simple, and possibly boring. However, if you practice mindfulness for just six minutes a day, five days a week, over time you will strengthen your powers of attention. In fact, studies in neuroscience have found that a regular mindfulness practice causes the parts of your brain responsible for paying attention to increase in size – just like your muscles when they become stronger.

Guided meditations are a good way to begin. These can be found all over the internet (YouTube), as well as through apps for your phone. However, if you are willing to sit quietly and simply focus on your breath for six minutes a day, you are doing an excellent form of meditation. Sustained focus, and improved ability to refocus, are the skills you’re trying to develop.

When you have a strong ability to focus you’re able to keep your attention in the right place in order to do your best work. All attentional resources are thus invested toward this purpose. You’re also able to re-focus quickly and choose a different perspective on the moment when you slide off track.

Where Should My Focus Be When I Am Performing?

The answer to this question is a hefty one: your focus while performing should be on anything that helps you be who you want to be in that moment. Who do you want to be? How does that person behave? Once you clarify who you want to be, you will have more direction for the rest of your life.  Most decisions can be guided by asking yourself that one question. And, if I am that person what would I do now? This question is highly relevant to performing at one’s best because it governs a person’s preparation, style, and execution. How would the person you want to be practice? Prepare? Face adversity? Recover from setbacks? Treat his teammates and co-workers? How would he focus during the meet, race, test, or performance itself? What would that person focus on? The answer to the question of who you want to be is a personal conversation. Only you can provide this information to yourself. 

Here are some questions to help narrow it down:

  • How do you want people to describe you?
  • How do you want to be remembered?
  • What influence do you want to have on your loved ones?
  • Who do you admire and why? Does it feel authentic for you to embody these qualities?

Write down your answers and then look carefully for some words or a phrase that encompasses your responses. 

Notice Your Patterns

Reflect back on a few of your best performances and describe them in detail. Where were you? Who were you with? What were you thinking about and feeling? What strengths within yourself did you draw upon or develop in order to help that performance go well? 

The purpose of this exercise is to highlight patterns that are helpful to you. For example, a dancer might notice that she seems to perform well when she spends time chatting with her friends beforehand. Or, perhaps a big crowd inspires her best work. Or, maybe she feels especially confident when she takes time to reflect on the hours of practice she has put in. Take some time and notice the patterns that appear to contribute to your best performances to date and utilize that information. 

Create A Mental Performance Plan

Once you get some clarity on what kind of person you want to be, and have also noted some helpful patterns, you’re ready to create a mental performance plan. The mental performance plan highlights times in the lead up to, and during the performance itself, when a person will think something, or do a particular action, that helps them to be who they want in that moment. In the world of athletics, mental performance plans typically include intended thoughts and actions the day before the race, the day of the race, and the aftermath. Each person will differ in their performance plans.

How do you know when you need an action plan? In order to decide this, I ask my clients “Where do you need a focus check?” By this I mean, when do your thinking and emotions start to slide away from positive patterns toward negative ones? For each of these moments we will plan an action to prevent the slide from happening. 

For example, a client of mine finds himself nervous and over-thinking the morning of a race. His meets typically take place late at night, so he has all day to quietly obsess about the outcome. In order to give him a new focus for his attention, which is also aligned with who he wants to be (“family first”), he has decided to phone three family members on race days and have a quality conversation with each. 

An example of a mental performance plan for a public speaker:

The Person I Want To Be: Focused, feisty, fun

Night before: Eat a healthy dinner, lay out clothes and equipment for tomorrow.

Morning of: Visualize my speech going smoothly. Call a family member or close friend. 

Upon arriving at the venue: Look around and think of 5 reasons I’m grateful to be here.

Immediately Before The Start: 3 deep breaths.

First Third: Keep breathing – look for a friendly face.

Second Third: Add enthusiasm

Final Third: Look people in the eye

Post Performance: Recall 3 things I did well for every one action that needs improvement.

The mental performance plan above was created by drawing on helpful actions from the past as well as clarifying “who” the person wants to be. I strongly recommend designing a mental performance plan well in advance of any performance, and practicing it numerous times before the event. This enables a person to tweak the plan as necessary, and also train oneself to follow the plan automatically – an enormous advantage if nerves kick in during the event itself.

It is my hope that these strategies will help you perform the way that you want to perform when it matters most to you. Utilized consistently (I MEAN CONSISTENTLY! –at least three days a week – five is better!), I feel confident they will make the difference for you—of getting to perform and reach success the way you envision and know possible.

About the Author 

Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

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