When you read the words “peak performance,” what images pop into your head? You may picture a world-class athlete, ballet dancer or top-ranked musician. Type the words into a Google image search, and you’ll find a collection of men in business suits, posing victoriously atop mountains they apparently just climbed, briefcases in hand, and not a hair out of place.
Yes, athletes, artists and top executives are performers, but the truth is we all perform. You are asked to bring your ‘A’ game on a near-daily basis. Both our professional and personal roles present regular performance demands, whether it be achieving a specific sales quota for the quarter, nailing that job interview, or hosting your child’s science-themed birthday party, featuring a wall-sized Pin the Element on the Periodic Chart game, and green punch floating in dry ice. Our world demands that we perform on a daily basis, and our physical, mental and emotional response to these demands can strongly impact the outcomes we ultimately achieve.
Of course, most of the time, we’re able to perform successfully, even if it means that we undergo temporary stress or anxiety. Occasionally, however, life requires us to step far outside our comfort zone, or to push our physical or mental limits, such as having to give a toast at your sister’s wedding, running in your first 5K, or asking for a raise. The field of performance psychology grew specifically from the world of sports, but its fundamentals can be applied to a variety of situations:
1. Arousal regulation
Your heart is racing, your breathing is shallow, you’re sweating, and you can’t concentrate. Your nervous system has gone into fight-or-flight mode, and you’re convinced you’re about to faint, vomit, or both. During these stressful moments, using deep, diaphragmatic breathing can help regulate your brain and body. Inhale slowly to a count of 4, hold it for 3 counts, then exhale for 7. Repeat several times. You can also practice progressive muscle relaxation: Isolate one set of muscles at a time, squeeze tightly for 3 seconds, then relax while exhaling, and move up to the next muscle set and repeat. The key with arousal regulation is to practice deep, slow breathing and muscle relaxation when you don’t need it, so your body knows what to do when you do need it.
2. Cognitive Restructuring
We all have those voices in our heads, and during times of stress, those messages are often mired in what-ifs and don’ts: What if I go totally blank? or Don’tfumbletheballdon’tfumbletheball! If your brain is centered on thoughts and images of what you don’t want to happen, those events are far more likely to take place. Instead, when an unhelpful thought enters your head, imagine a huge, red stop sign, and immediately stop that thought. Next, flip that unhelpful thought around, and turn it into something more useful: What is a positive alternative that you’d like to happen instead? Again, practice restructuring your thoughts during less stressful times, and you’ll find it easier to do when you really need to.
Using mental rehearsal is one of the simplest but most effective ways to improve performance. Basically, this step involves mentally going through your performance with as much detail as you can include. This technique is commonly used by athletes, and years of research point to its effectiveness. Come up with a word or phrase that represents you performing at your absolute best, and hold those words in your mind along with your visualizations.
4. Goal Setting
What do you want to achieve wiith this particular event? Dream big! Don’t let those voices convince you to set the bar low. Instead of, “I just want to get through it with some modicum of dignity,” how about, “I want to wow them!” Break down your major goals into smaller goals, and assign tasks for each. Assign dates to complete each goal, and consider utilizing a system of accountability. Perhaps meet with another person to help each other stay on track.
5. Centering/Pre-Performance Ritual
This is where you put it all together. A few minutes before your event or performance, find some space to yourself. Stand in such a way that you feel grounded and stable, and focus on a fixed spot across the room. Breathe deeply and slowly, release any body tension through muscle relaxation, and focus on your word or phrase from step 3. Trust that you’ve worked hard, that you have everything you need to succeed, and now is the time to put the details aside, be in the present and commit to the experience!
Generally speaking, the practices of peak performance aim to shift you from your left brain, with its inner critics, black-and-white thinking, and fast (beta) brain waves, and more into the right brain, which is more kinesthetic, imaginative, and is where slower (alpha) brain waves originate. Being willing to get out of our own way is often the first step toward bringing our ‘A” game, ultimately helping us to reach and exceed our daily performance goals.