Every kid has probably had that moment on the playground, where they imagine hitting a home run to win the World Series, making a shot at the buzzer to win the NBA Finals, or throwing the game-winning touchdown in overtime to win the Super Bowl.
These types of fantasies seem to be a pretty natural part of being a kid, but you’ve probably heard many athletes, coaches, and sport psychologists swear by this sort of thing too.
Of course, the typical advice is to spend time imagining our best selves in the future. But sometimes, it can be surprisingly difficult to imagine ourselves being successful in a particular audition or performance.
On occasion, I’ve also heard coaches and psychologists recommend that we spend time visualizing our previous best selves in the past. Like a great lesson you once had. Or a flawless audition round. Or the moment in your senior recital when you were totally in the zone.
That certainly sounds like a reasonable thing to do. But is there any evidence that mental time travel into the past has a positive effect on future performances as well?
A pair of researchers (Pezdek & Salim, 2011) at Claremont Graduate University were curious about the role that our autobiographical memories might have on our beliefs about ourselves, and how this might in turn affect our behavior.
For instance, if you believed that you were pretty athletic as a kid, you might be more likely to have specific memories of playing sports during your childhood. And if that’s the case, would these memories make a positive difference, whether in terms of confidence or performance, in your ability to take on a new athletic challenge today?
Childhood fears and phobias
73 high school students were recruited from speech and debate teams, and International Baccalaureate courses, and randomly assigned to one of two groups.
About a week before they were to show up for the study, everyone was given a 30-item questionnaire to complete, that the researchers called the Affective Experiences Scale. The survey asked about various childhood fears and phobias that they may have experienced before the age of 10 – like being scared of snakes or going to the dentist or having to give a speech in front of the school – which set the stage for what would happen next.
Here, drool for me…
When participants arrived for the study, the researchers first collected a saliva sample to measure their baseline cortisol levels (a stress hormone). They also took a 20-item anxiety assessment to measure their baseline level of anxiety.
Recalling positive experiences
Then, those in the experimental group were told that their survey responses had been analyzed by a computer, and that their answers suggested they had “experienced some positive public speaking experiences” before the age of 10. After receiving this feedback, they were given 5 minutes to recall one of these experiences (whether it was simply speaking effectively to family or a group of friends), and write down everything they could remember about it.
The control group, on the other hand, were told that the computer analysis suggested that they had “experienced some positive experiences resisting animal or medical phobias” before the age of 10. And were likewise given 5 minutes to recall such an experience, and write down everything they could about it.
A stressful speaking task
After providing another saliva sample, it was time for a stressful public speaking task. A researcher posing as an “evaluative college acceptance board member” entered the room, and students were asked to present a 5-min speech to the evaluator as if it were an interview for their first-choice college. They were allowed 5 minutes to prepare, and then it was time to give their talk.
And some more saliva…
After finishing their speech, they took the anxiety assessment again, and provided one last saliva sample, so researchers could get a sense of how anxious or stressed they got as a result of having to give this stressful impromptu speech.
So did recalling a positive speaking experience from their past make any difference in their anxiety and stress levels?
The effect on anxiety and stress
The short answer, is yes, indeed it did!
Students in both groups started out with pretty much the same anxiety and cortisol levels when they arrived at the lab.
But the control group’s anxiety and stress levels were significantly higher when measured right after completing the stressful speaking task. Which suggests that the speech stressed them out.
Whereas the experimental group’s anxiety and cortisol levels didn’t change much at all, from before the stressful task to after. Suggesting that the speech didn’t feel nearly as stressful for them as it did for the control group.
So that’s kind of cool. But what about actual speaking performance? Did recalling and visualizing a relevant positive memory from the past help them speak more effectively?
The effect on speaking performance
Three coders independently rated each student’s speech using an assessment1 that’s used to gauge a speaker’s level of anxiety from the observer’s perspective. Basically, each video was evaluated in five different areas – gaze, vocal quality, speech length, discomfort, and conversation flow – on a scale of 1-5 (1=very poor/highly anxious; 5=very good; less anxious).
And how’d the students do?
Well, as as it turns out, the participants who reflected on a positive speaking memory got higher ratings for their speaking, and were rated as appearing less anxious, than their counterparts in the control group.
But why would recalling a single positive instance from the past make such a difference in someone’s anxiety, as well as their performance?
Well, the authors suspect that it might be related to a phenomenon known as the “availability heuristic.” Which essentially says that we tend to use the ease with which we can recall an experience of something, to predict how likely we are to experience a similar outcome in the future.
In other words, the more easily you can recall memories of successful performances in the past, the more likely you are to believe that your upcoming performance could be a positive experience as well. And thus, the more likely you are to be a little more at ease, and perform more confidently.
All of which seems to speak to the importance of curating a list or highlight reel of positive performance experiences from your past. And also, to practice remembering these times on a regular basis. So that it’s easier to fill your mind with positive thoughts as your performance approaches, and steer clear of the doom and gloom that might otherwise pop in.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we should spend all of our time reliving the past, like some sort of college reunion Groundhog Day . But a number of other studies do suggest that there are quite a few benefits to reminiscing on positive experiences from our past – whether it’s a family vacation (though not of the Griswold variety), awesome workout, or epic Mario Kart victory.
Benefits like a reduction in stress and enhanced mood (Speer & Delgado, 2017). Or a boost in self-esteem (Wildschut, Sedikides, Arndt, & Routledge, 2006). Or even an increase in motivation and follow-through (Biondolillo & Pillemer, 2014).
So, I thought I’d try something new this week.
A 1-week practice challenge?
I started exploring yoga a couple years ago, thanks to a handy app that includes a series of 5-day programs, each addressing a specific region of the body. Like hip week, neck week, shoulder week, and so on.
And I know there are a ton of free yoga videos online, but I find it a lot easier to wake up in the morning, pull up the video for that day of the week, and follow the program, instead of trying to figure out what specific stretches I should be selecting from the bazillions of YouTube videos that I’ve saved for later but haven’t had a chance to watch.
It could just be me that’s weird that way, but lately, I’ve been wondering if something like this might be helpful for musicians too. Like, 1-week practice challenges on building confidence, or enhancing focus, or using visualization, for instance. With daily step-by-step action prompts and worksheets. Kind of like a sample exercise program that you might take to the gym with you.
So, I put together a practice challenge to help you experiment during the week with this week’s topic. It includes three different autobiographical memory prompts taken from some of the research in this area, with instructions for each day of the week on how to integrate this strategy into your daily practice – in less than 10 minutes a day.
I’m putting it up at pay-what-you-want pricing. Meaning, if you think it’s worth $5, then it’s yours for $5. If $7.92 feels right to you, that’s great too.
Anyhow, I hope you like it. Happy experimenting!
Try the 7-Day Practice Challenge!
A 14-page PDF, with daily step-by-step worksheets and prompts to help you integrate this week’s “mental time travel” strategy into your practice (in less than 10 minutes per day).
Pricing is “pay-what-you-want.”
Biondolillo, M. J., & Pillemer, D. B. (2014). Using memories to motivate future behaviour: An experimental exercise intervention. Memory, 23(3), 390–402. https://doi.org/10.1080/09658211.2014.889709
Pezdek, K., & Salim, R. (2011). Physiological, psychological and behavioral consequences of activating autobiographical memories. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(6), 1214–1218. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2011.05.004
Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C., Arndt, J., & Routledge, C. (2006). Nostalgia: Content, triggers, functions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(5), 975–993. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1245