Are Great Performers as Cool and Collected on Stage as They Appear?

Rewind to 1996.

A promising young 20-year old baseball player is starting at shortstop for an American League team, after two seasons of splitting time between the major and the minor leagues. Here is what he later revealed about his preparation, for what would be his breakout season and what some consider to be the best season ever by a shortstop:

“…early in the 1996 season I visualized winning the American League Most Valuable Player award and holding it above my head. I visioned winning the batting title and holding up that tropy, too. I visioned a .380 batting avesrage. In my mind I could see the number, flashing and blinking on exit signs… .380… .380… .380.

That year I missed winning the MVP by three votes and won the batting title. Playing the game was the easy part. The real work was in the preparation.

Some nights when I go to bed I will tell myself, maybe 150 times, “I hit the ball solid. I hit the ball solid. What do I do for a living? I hit the ball solid.” I see the results from my mind’s eye out. I see myself from the fans’ perspective. From the manager’s view in the dugout. I picture myself on the field from different angles. I believe a champion wins in his mind first, then he plays the game, not the other way around.”

(from Mind Gym, by Gary Mack & David Casstevens)

Who is this player?

The preparation of great performers

This young shortstop is none other than 14-time All Star and 3-time American League MVP Alex Rodriguez.

We look at top athletes and great performers like Rodriguez or Tiger Woods who consistently rise to the occasion when the stakes are the highest, and tend to attribute this to their physical gifts. To assume that they are “natural” performers.

Sure, we know they must also work their tails off and train incredibly hard to get to that level. We see this kind of physical effort glorified in Nike and Gatorade commercials all the time.

But for some reason, we don’t think as much about how hard they must work on their mental game. I have yet to see an Under Armour commercial depicting an athlete engaged in visualization or more effective self-talk.

Yet, as you can see from Alex Rodriguez’s story above, top athletes absolutely emphasize mental training in their preparation. After all, as Yogi Berra once said, “90% of the game is half mental.”

Mental training as a differentiating factor

In 1988, psychologists Steven Ungerleider and Jacqueline Golding surveyed 1200 track and field athletes who had qualified for the US Olympic trials. The athletes completed comprehensive 240-question questionnaires, to help the researchers identify the key factors separating those who made the Olympic team, from those who did not.

As it turns out, there was very little separating the Olympians from the non-Olympians. It wasn’t strategy, sleep, nutrition, or how hard they trained. The differentiating factor was mental preparation.

The eventual Olympians were doing more mental practice and training in the final stages of their preparation than their colleagues who did not make the team.

The limits of physical practice

It is easy to underemphasize the mental game. I think there are two reasons for this.

For one, the benefits of our mental training is most apparent only in performance settings.

Meanwhile, on a day to day basis we get more instant gratification from physical practice and training. We work on a tricky passage, it gets cleaner, and we feel good about our use of time. We spend 10 minutes visualizing or engaged in practice to improve our focus, and while we may feel a difference, the payoff only really comes weeks or months down the road on the day of the big audition or performance.

So, we end up spending more and more time on ever tinier physical details, forgetting (that is, until a few days before our performance when we start freaking out) about the mental performance skills that may end up being the difference between a peak performance and a subpar performance when the big day arrives.

Secondly, you don’t typically hear top performers talk as much about what they do to hone their mental skills. They are often asked for tips and insights into how they practice, about their instruments and equipment, and how they have developed their exceptional technique. But rarely will you hear questions about how they have strengthened their mind. How they have developed the ability to quiet the inner dialogue, to stay focused on task-relevant details, to manage their energy and direct it appropriately, to bounce back from setbacks and criticism, and so on. All of which takes just as much work as getting in the right number of wiggles as you transition smoothly out of a little trill in a Mozart concerto.

I think we tend to assume that top performers don’t get nervous like we do. That they just get on stage and are naturally cool as a cucumber. Of course, the truth is that the cucumbers are either lying to you, or are oddball exceptions to the rule.

Insights from a great performer

Thankfully, some top performers are very open about what they do to prepare mentally and don’t keep this part of their training secret, as if it were the Colonel’s fried chicken recipe.

Watch this 32-minute video of singer Joyce DiDonato answering questions following a master class at The Juilliard School (thanks for the tip, Janis and Corey!).

It’s full of helpful and inspiring insights into the work she has done to become the performer she is today – from managing the voice in her head, to dealing with mistakes, to enjoying her performances, to balancing her career with having a life.

Even if it means practicing a half hour less today, sit down with a pen and pad of paper and scribble down some notes and next actions. It’ll be worth it!

You may also enjoy DiDonato’s video blog, where she shares many more insights on different aspects of her performance preparation and career.

Next actions

We all know that insight is great, but action is what causes change to happen. What was your favorite takeaway from the video, and what one action are you going to incorporate into your practice/performing today based on what you learned? Share below in the comments.

Ack! 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 perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. 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 learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And 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.


17 Responses

  1. I’ll never look at my career as a performer and educator the same way again, Joyce is brilliant. My biggest mistake is my berating myself after a performance instead supporting myself with positive, constructive criticism. I’m going to focus on treating myself better. As much as I am my own worst critic, I can and should be my biggest supporter.

  2. Joyce’s video was spectacular. I related to so many parts of it. My takeaway? So many…1. Control the inner critic. 2. She re-affirmed what I’ve always known as a “rock” singer: Rock is Opera. Opera is rock. What you love is Opera/Rock/Call It What You Will. What you love is defined by what you love, and our journeys as artists are so similar.

  3. Joyce was so wonderful to listen to! I have a performance this Friday night that I’m getting nervous about, and my inner voice has been very critical. How much nicer now to have Joyce’s voice in my head, reminding me to be a friend to myself, and to have fun with what I’m doing. Thank you!

  4. Fantastic! I had an a-ha at her observation that once she stopped *needing* the stage, she ironically felt freer than ever. “Being a musician is what I do, not who I am.” ~ Herbie Hancock

  5. Bravo! Bravo! Bravo! What a brilliant, articulate and expressive person! Thanks so much for passing this along. I took notes.

  6. Thanks. 🙂

    The added benefit of the importance of mental practice is that it doesn’t matter quite as much as we think that we only have an hour a day to practice (or whatever the amount of free time is). If we use our alone time well — in the car, lying in bed at night waiting to fall asleep, waiting in line or at a doctor’s office — we can get a ton of music done. Even improv can be aided greatly by mental practice if you noodle and hum silently to yourself all day when you can. Then, you pick up or sit down at your instrument and the machine is oiled and revved and ready to go.

    There is so much that can get done when away from one’s instrument. I know of a violinist, a Delay student named Bill Fitzpatrick, who “got” vibrato during mental practice while lying in bed.

  7. Thank you very much for linking this video into your blog! It relates very well with me.
    Takeaways? Hummm…

    1. I would never ever talk to a stranger the way my inner critic talks to me! And it doesn’t help me further. So why continue blaming myself when I am not singing at the moment? Practice: Be more friendly with myself. Not only in practice sessions, but generally.

    2. I’m not the most awful person walking on face of the earth? (Are you serious???)
    Practice: See myself as a normal human being whose job it is to make music.

    Thanks a lot!

  8. Dear Dr. Kageyama! Thank you so much for the kind words. I have long believed that the arts world can learn a tremendous amount from the sports world in terms of mental preparation. It’s wonderful seeing you lead the way in that field. I think it is a largely untapped field, and could have tremendous impact on so many artists. Many thanks! ~ Joyce

    1. Thank you, Joyce. What I loved about the video, and what I believe resonates with so many folks, is your candor and openness about the doubts and fears we all experience. I think it’s a tremendous example and shows us that working on the mental game, as athletes do, is an important part of being the best we can be. Thanks again for giving us some insight from your insider’s view of the performance world!

  9. Thank you so much, Joyce, for the fabulous Q&A session. I can’t tell you how much I wish you both (Joyce and Noa) were around when I was a violin student at Juilliard. While struggling there with a very late start, I was my own worst enemy. My only coping strategy was to practice more and with more intensity. But enjoyment was out of the picture as I dealt with my disadvantages in the only ways I could… harshly. If only I had thought about being my own best friend while not rushing the learning process, which, incidentally, is what I have always stressed in my teaching. It would have made a world of difference to me to know that anyone else besides me had any of those destructive feelings and inner conversations going on. I always thought I was alone. Sharing this wonderful article with my students. Thanks again for your invaluable and much appreciated words as well as your warm and candid approaches. Juilliard is so very fortunate to have you both!!

  10. This is brilliant!! And it’s true – I am not a terrible person with no talent if I miss the odd note! I am a cabaret singer doing very demanding one-woman shows. My newest is on the subject of actress/Broadway star Angela Lansbury, and I am onstage with only a pianist for nearly 2 hours.
    My take-away – remember that what I am doing is Herculean, like Joyce says – and simply enjoy it!

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