Work & performance

June 6 2016

Performance psychology 101

By Australian Psychological Society

The same strategies that help elite performers overcome anxiety and stage fright can help you perform at your peak every day.

From football grounds and rugby fields to our grandest theatres and and venues, performers – sports, operatic, dance, musical and otherwise – are held in high esteem.

While there’s no doubt most are blessed with talent and opportunity, in many cases what separates elite performers from the average Jane or Joe is the psychological skills necessary to facilitate peak performance.

Just like you, performers often struggle with stage fright and performance anxiety, but the difference is they know how to prime the mind to overcome these psychological hurdles. Here’s how the principles of performance psychology can help you.

What is performance psychology?

“Performance psychology is really about supporting individuals to be the best that they can be and perform at their optimal level in whatever context,” says psychologist and former professional dancer Associate Professor Gene Moyle MAPS*.

She says that while the principles are especially apparent among elite athletes and performing artists, performance psychology is applicable to everybody from office workers who give presentations or want to maximise productivity, to CEOs and business leaders managing staff, and even people who want to give a killer speech at a wedding.

“We all have brains and regardless of the context it’s about trying to utilise our brains to the best of their ability,” says Prof Moyle.

“What I’ve found working in sport, performing arts and the corporate world is that the strategies and approach that you take doesn’t change too much but the context or the application does.”

How does it work?

If you’re feeling nervous, Prof Moyle says calming the mind and body is key to overcoming anxieties and achieving optimal performance.

“First, it’s about getting an understanding of what you’re fearful of and what’s causing the anxiety,” she says. “What it is about doing a presentation to your peers or in public that causes you to be worried or concerned?

“It’s really about digging down to the underlying thought processes. Often the way we perform comes down to our thought processes and the way that we frame events. The interpretations and meanings we give to things can significantly impact what we actually do.”

Next, it’s important to deal with the physiological effects of performance anxiety. “When we feel anxious about something our body experiences a ‘fight or flight’ response and we start to get stressed,” says Prof Moyle.

“Having a response like stress is helpful from an evolutionary perspective because if we see something that makes us anxious we get that hit of adrenaline that prepares us to fight or run away.”

Prof Moyle says a helpful first step in channelling nerves or anxiety so that it helps rather than hinders your performance is to consciously control your breathing.

“Start by counting your breaths in and out,” she says. “Breathe in for five counts, hold for five counts, breathe out for five counts, hold for five counts and repeat five times or as many times as you need to slow down your breathing and heart rate.”

Elite athletes find that establishing a clear pre-performance routine that combines both physical and mental preparation is the key to success – and this approach can be tailored to suit any type of ‘performance’.

“Invest time in planning what activities you know assist in putting you in the best frame of mind as well as those that ensure you feel physically well prepared,” says Prof Moyle. “This routine can cover a timeframe anywhere from 24 hours to one week to one month before the event.”

And in much the same way as elite performers manage their nutrition and training, looking after your physical health will have a direct effect on your performance.

“The irony is, while we may be sitting at computers for most of the day, the people who look after their health – eat well, be active, sleep well and do all the things we might put in place for an athlete or elite performer – are actually going to perform their jobs better than someone who doesn’t do that,” says Prof Moyle.

*Member of the Australian Psychological Society