8 Strategies for Breaking Out of a Performance Slump
By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
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Whether you’re watching basketball, baseball, or, say, cricket, broadcasters will often say that an underperforming athlete is in a “slump.”
I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of this phenomenon in a musical context, so my ears perked up a bit when I recently heard a few musicians use this term. Not like, “Oh, I’ve had a few subpar studio classes in a row; I think I’m in a slump.” But more in the context of orchestral auditions, where you might go through a few consecutive auditions where things don’t click, and you don’t advance.
Slumps can be really discouraging. They can make you start questioning your ability. And worry that perhaps you’ve hit your ceiling. Or lead you to start “pressing” and trying too hard. None of which is especially productive, and often just makes the slump last even longer.
So how do elite athletes get out of slumps? Are there any specific techniques or strategies they rely on to stay in a good headspace and bounce back to their normal level of performance?
In a recent British study, 10 professional cricket players were interviewed to learn more about their experience of slumps, and what strategies or techniques athletes at this level might use to manage these dips in performance (Brown, Butt, & Sarkar, 2019).
Different athletes emphasized different things, but there were a few key themes that emerged. And all in all, there were 8 specific slump-busting strategies that seemed pretty relevant to performance slumps in the music world too.
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Theme #1: How to interpret the slump
The first set of strategies relates to how you interpret the slump. Which I know sounds pretty abstract, but staying in a productive headspace is an important part of maintaining the motivation to work your way through a slump.
1) Explanatory style
Let’s say you advanced in your first few auditions while you were in school, but after graduation, experience a string of auditions where you don’t advance out of prelims. Your inner critic might try to explain this by telling you that you must have just been lucky before. And that you don’t have what it takes to do any better.
This is called a pessimistic “explanatory style.” And it’s the kind of story that could prolong the slump, because it provides an internal and stable (i.e. fixed and unchanging) explanation for why you’re not advancing. Because if failing to advance is a talent issue (internal), and talent can’t be changed (stable), how motivated will you be to work harder or try new things?
Conversely, an optimistic explanatory style is where you might say to yourself that performance is cyclical. That there are natural ups and downs from one audition or performance to the next (unstable), and that slumps will happen through no fault of your own (external). External and unstable explanations like this are less discouraging, and can help you stay confident and motivated in the face of disappointing results.
Of course, the danger here is that if you take this too far, you could find yourself making excuses and explaining away everything instead of taking ownership of the adjustments you could make to your preparation.
Which is where the growth mindset kicks in.
2) Growth mindset
Some of the athletes noted that slumps represent an opportunity to grow, learn, and become an even better player. Or at least, get better at handling inevitable future slumps. As one athlete noted:
“Rough patches are just as good as your better patches in a way, because it’s teaching you the game…because you’re not thinking about your game when you’re doing well.”
I love that last sentence. Indeed, when things are going well, we’re less inclined to pick apart our weaknesses and work as diligently at getting better. But the feedback we get when we run into problems can be invaluable, and make it much easier to pinpoint those sneaky hidden things that we most need to work on.
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Theme #2: Maintaining a positive mental state during competition
Looking at our slumps in the larger context of lifelong growth and development can help us maintain the motivation we need to keep putting in the work.
But a slump can affect our experience during performances as well. Because sometimes a string of subpar performances can lead to more doubts and negative internal chatter when we’re on stage. Or, we might feel additional pressure to prove ourselves, and end up trying too hard to avoid mistakes, which paradoxically, can lead to more mistakes.
So how did these athletes stay in a good headspace during their slumps?
3) “Best performance” imagery
Under pressure, our thoughts can easily veer towards memories of times when we cracked a note, or when our bow shook in a quiet exposed passage. Or, we might start worrying about having a memory slip, as we sit and stew backstage.
To combat this, some of the athletes engaged in “best performance” imagery. Meaning, they made an effort to visualize times in the past when they were playing at their best. Which sounds straightforward enough, but here’s a quick test – how many specific auditions or performances can you think of, right now, off the top of your head, when you were having one of those awesome days where everything works?
Maybe 1? 2? Perhaps none? It often takes a couple minutes (if not much longer!) to recall performances like this from your past. But if you can’t see them vividly in your head now, imagine how much tougher it’ll be under pressure!
Not to worry though, because if you practice remembering these moments and visualizing them a tiny bit every day, these will be much more “top of mind” when you need something to shield you from those little doubts and fears that start creeping in on audition day.
4) Attention control
Another strategy the athletes relied on was attention control. And the ability to focus only on what was in front of them in the moment. As one athlete said:
“You break it down to each ball, and each ball you say I’m going to deliver my skills here, just concentrate on every ball and just compete, just compete and think what does this team need right now, that’s the most important thing.”
For a musician, this might involve focusing on maintaining an internal pulse, shaping each phrase, or hearing the sound you want in your head as you play, instead of looking ahead, critiquing what just happened, or worrying about what people will think.
5) Regulating arousal
Most of the athletes also noted the importance of learning how to stay calm and slow things down, instead of getting overexcited and magnifying the importance of every play.
This is easier said than done, but learning how to regulate your physical state is a skill that we can get better at with practice. How? Well, techniques like diaphragmatic breathing can give us more control over the physical part of our stress response (even though yes, telling people to breathe when they’re stressed is a total cliche).
The only problem, of course, is that this is a skill, and requires practice, just like anything else (you can learn more about how this kind of breathing affects us, and how do it correctly here).
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Theme #3: Protective factors
Lastly, the researchers described several “protective factors” that seemed to help athletes deal with the stress of poor performances and bounce back more effectively.
Remembering that they enjoyed playing cricket, despite it also being their livelihood, was one protective factor.
“I just enjoy playing cricket, it’s something I’ve been brought up on and it’s something I would like to be involved in for as long as possible. If that means dragging myself down the nets or improving my fitness to get me through a bad run, then so be it.”
When was the last time you took a piece out of your music drawer, just to play through for fun? I’m not sure why that seems like such an unusual thing to do, but sometimes putting your audition repertoire aside for a moment, and taking a few minutes to play something you enjoy (a.k.a. “deliberate play”), might be an absolutely worthwhile use of your time. Especially if it helps you reconnect to the reason why you’re practicing and working so hard in the first place.
7) Linking confidence to effort, not performance
One of the more intriguing observations was how many of the athletes deliberately worked to separate confidence from performance.
“I try to link my confidence to my effort, not my performance. So I’m doing everything I can to give myself the best chance of performing, and effort being the measure of your confidence level would give you more stability, because with the best will in the world, if you just base your confidence on your performance, it’s just the nature of the game, you could be in the best “nick” [form] of your life and still get nought if you get a good ball.”
Indeed, you can play a great audition and get cut. Conversely, you can play a mediocre round and still advance. Getting too caught up in results can therefore not only be pretty confusing, but is a rather unstable way to build confidence.
Meanwhile, the one thing you do have complete control over, is your preparation. And so if you feel really good about the quality of your daily practice, and know you’ve thoughtfully incorporated run-throughs, recordings, and mocks into your process, etc., etc., it’s easier to trust and take confidence from the work you’ve put in, and stay in a good headspace on audition day.
Nearly all of the athletes also noted the importance of having a supportive, trusting relationship in their lives, that helped them maintain perspective during the difficult times. Sometimes it was a coach or more experienced teammate, but often, it was someone outside of cricket, who helped to remind them that they weren’t just a cricket player, but a son, a friend, and a human being with value and worth regardless of what happened in their last match.
“If I’m not performing well then I speak to my father, family time. It doesn’t have to be cricket related … I will just go and speak to my dad just about life or other things. … It’s important to have someone you can go to when you are going through bad form, whether that’s a family member, a friend, someone that you are very close to that you trust. … My dad will just talk to me and give me a lot of confidence he just says to me you know “keep going,” “you’re good enough,” it give me that inner confidence because he knows me, he’s known me all my life.”
Every slump is probably a little different, of course. And sometimes one strategy might be more relevant and useful than another.
But many of these strategies and mindset tweaks sound like pretty healthy habits to adopt anyway, whether you’re experiencing a slump or not. And I’d like to think that in the same way that eating your veggies, sleeping well, and washing your hands after you’ve been in the subway can help protect you from the flu, maybe cultivating these habits could help you become more slump-resistant too!
Brown, C. J., Butt, J., & Sarkar, M. (2019). Overcoming Performance Slumps: Psychological Resilience in Expert Cricket Batsmen. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 1-20.
Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.
After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?
It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.
Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.
Click below to discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. Learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.