A Mental Strategy to Shrink the Gap Between Your Best Playing and What Happens Under Pressure
By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
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For me, the days leading up to an audition or competition were often way more stressful and unpleasant than the actual event itself. And inevitably, I’d play some funky mind games in an effort to relieve some of the pressure of doing well.
Like trying to convince myself that I didn’t care if I won the prize or passed the audition. And brainstorming all of the reasons why winning may not be such a good thing.
With my Juilliard audition, for instance, I thought all of the possible downsides of going to school in the city. Like the constant traffic noise. How gross the subways get when it rains or snows. The lack of intramural sports. A dining hall that wasn’t all-you-can-eat. You know, all the important stuff.
Of course, that didn’t do much to relieve any pressure. And I don’t know that trying to lie to myself helped me perform any better either.
There is, however, a different kind of mental technique – known as “cognitive reappraisal” – that does seem to help us get to a better emotional place, and perform closer to our best.
What does that look like, exactly?
Loss aversion and choking
A team of Cal Tech and Johns Hopkins researchers have published a series of studies over the last few years that have continued to add to our understanding of why we sometimes choke under pressure.
In a 2014 study (Chib, Shimojo, & O’Doherty), they found that people who were high in loss aversion1 tended to choke when there was more money to gain by performing well (e.g. If you perform well, you’ll win $100). But curiously, when the situation was flipped, and they had to perform well in order to avoid having money taken away from them, they performed much better (e.g. If you perform poorly, you’ll lose $100).
Which sounds like the opposite of what you’d expect, but an MRI component of the study suggested that it was as if the participants’ brains kind of flipped during performance, seeing the prize as something they had to lose if they failed. A little like going into an audition, and feeling the pressure build as you think about how great an opportunity it is, and stressing about how perfectly you’ll have to play in order to avoid losing the Instagram-perfect future that your brain has gotten attached to.
Anyhow, this finding led the researchers to wonder if it would be possible to get into a more optimal headspace by simply imagining that they were performing to keep what was already theirs.
Gain vs. loss
They started with 42 participants (Dunne, Chib, Berleant, & O’Doherty, 2018), and gave them some time to learn a challenging new motor skill (a task akin to learning a new tricky move in a computer game).
The next day, participants returned for some testing. With real money at stake – as much as $100 if they could perform the skill accurately.
To test out the gain vs. loss mental strategy, they asked the participants to approach half of the performance attempts from a play-to-keep-your-money perspective. Like so:
When the word Loss appears on screen, you should regard the monetary incentives shown at the beginning of each round as “your” money. Imagine the amount, in cash, sitting in your pocket as you complete the round. Imagine that, if you are successful on the round, you will get to keep your money, but if you are unsuccessful, you will have to give this money to the experimenter. Imagine how it would feel to lose this money. You should continue to think about the incentives in this way throughout each round until you see the word Gain appear on screen.
On the other half of their performance attempts, they were asked to adopt a play-to-win-some-money perspective:
When the word Gain appears on screen, you should imagine that you begin each round with no money in your pocket. Regard the monetary incentive as an amount of money that you have the opportunity to win. Imagine that if you are successful on the round, the experimenter will give you this money, in cash, but if you are unsuccessful you will end the round as you began—with nothing. Imagine how it would feel to gain this money. You should continue to think about the incentives in this way throughout each round until you see the word Loss appear on screen.
In reality, of course, they didn’t already have any money in their “account,” and would only win money if they performed successfully. Which the participants were reminded of, before they began.
So did this imaginary framing of the situation do anything?
The short answer is yes.
It didn’t matter so much when there wasn’t much money at stake ($0-$75). But when they were playing for more money ($100), and adopted the play-to-win perspective (i.e. I have nothing and need to perform well to win $100), they tended to perform worse.
Meanwhile, on the performance attempts when they adopted the play-to-keep perspective (i.e. I already have $100, and I get to keep this if I perform well), they performed pretty close to their best.
While performance dropped by 6.7% in the play-to-win scenario for the individual with an average amount of loss aversion, performance dropped by only 1.5% in the play-to-keep scenario.
So what are we to do with this information?
Well, this reminded me of a story my mom once told me when I was nervous before a big performance.
When she came to the US, her first job was as an instructor in the Japanese department at Cornell University. Though she could obviously speak Japanese, her English wasn’t great, she didn’t have much teaching experience, and being not a whole lot older than her students, she was understandably nervous going into her first class.
To prepare herself mentally, she visualized what a successful class and semester would look like. She envisioned a classroom of smiling students, who were fully engaged. She saw them coming up and thanking her at the end of class. And imagined them expressing their gratitude for her help, and saying how much they enjoyed the course when the semester came to an end.
She visualized this scenario repeatedly, to the point that it no longer seemed like such a stretch.
And, wouldn’t you know it, this is exactly how things played out.
Her students were grateful, engaged, and she found that approaching each new class of students assuming they would love her teaching, worked much better than going into a new class expecting to have to prove herself. In fact, when she married my dad and they moved to Ohio, her boss asked if she would consider flying in to continue teaching.
As a kid, I kind of rolled my eyes and didn’t quite see how I could engage in this kind of make-believe – but the study suggests that there may be something to this.
How could this be applied to performing, exactly?
Engaging mindset vs. proving mindset
Well, imagine walking into a concert hall full of people who you believe are primed and ready to love whatever you’ve prepared for them. Where you have nothing to prove, and your job is simply to keep them engaged, sharing the little nuances and details that you think are cool in the music you’re playing.
Alternately, imagine walking into a concert hall filled with people who are sitting back and waiting for you to prove yourself to them. Whom you need to win over, by demonstrating that you’re worthy of their approval and attention.
Feel any different?
Whether it’s the audience in your next performance or recital, an audition committee, or competition jury, if a proving mindset makes us tighten up and spiral off to the bad place inside, maybe it’s worth giving ourselves permission to adopt an engaging mindset. And imagining that we already have their attention and positive regard.
After all, there’s no way for us to know – let alone change – what’s really going on in their heads. Heck, for all we know, the slight frown on their face has nothing to do with our Mozart, and simply means they’re pondering how best to rearrange their sock drawer and spark more joy.
Chib, V. S., Shimojo, S., & O’Doherty, J. P. (2014). The Effects of Incentive Framing on Performance Decrements for Large Monetary Outcomes: Behavioral and Neural Mechanisms. Journal of Neuroscience, 34(45), 14833–14844.
Dunne, S., Chib, V. S., Berleant, J., & O’Doherty, J. P. (2018). Reappraisal of incentives ameliorates choking under pressure and is correlated with changes in the neural representations of incentives. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 14(1), 13–22.
Loss aversion describes the degree to which you’re motivated to avoid losing what you already have, as opposed to being inclined to take a chance to potentially win more. And yeah, we all have loss-averse tendencies, but some folks are much more loss-averse than others.
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.