A missed shift….a cracked note…a section that felt out of control. Argh!

Have you ever noticed how when you reflect on a recent performance, the issues that come to mind most readily are technical, rather than mental?

I mean sure, there will always be sections in need of more woodshedding and technical detective work before the next performance. But research has begun to paint an increasingly clear picture about the role that cognitive factors like working memory capacity play in high-pressure situations.

In that it’s not so much our cold hands, but a breakdown in attention control that often leads to choking under pressure.

Indeed, a surgeon once told me about a colleague who would tell young surgeons that if they made a mistake in surgery, they shouldn’t just reflect on what happened in the moment, but ask themselves what they did (or didn’t do) when they walked into the operating room and throughout the moments leading up to the surgery. The idea being, it’s as important to be mentally prepared, as it is to be physically prepared.

But what does being mentally prepared actually mean? And is it possible to increase our mental capacity to be intently focused when we need to be? Or is that one of those things we just have to be born with?

Working memory

Increasingly, research seems to suggest that working memory is an important factor that affects whether we perform well under pressure or choke (see this for an overview, or this for the tl;dr version).

What’s working memory exactly? Well, it’s that temporary mental scratchpad we use to keep a phone number in mind as we dial, or the exact details of our significant other’s Chipotle order as we stand in line.

And in much the same way that there’s a limit to the number of unique Starbucks drink orders I can I can keep in mind before getting everything all mixed up, being anxious tends to give rise to a slew of irrelevant thoughts and worries that use up our working memory, and make it difficult for us to focus and execute as effectively as we ordinarily could.

In other words, we have to be able to resist the temptation to think about the big scary shift coming up in 5 bars (i.e. “inhibition”), and keep our attention locked in on being awesome in the present moment, shaping the color, and sound, and character of the notes we are playing now (i.e. “shifting”).

But how do we strengthen the key underlying cognitive mechanisms that make this kind of singular focus possible?

A test of working memory and volleying accuracy

A team of British researchers recruited 30 club tennis players to participate in a two-week training program.

Everyone started with a 10-minute test of working memory.

Then, each participant was given some time to warm up and get used to a tennis task, in which they would be hitting 10 forehand and 10 backhand volleys towards a 120cmx120cm target 5m away (for consistency, they were fed by a ball machine).

After completing the tennis task, half of the participants (the training group) were instructed to train for the next two weeks on an online working memory exercise known as the “adaptive dual n-back” task, which is a working memory-intensive task that gets more difficult, the better you do (a bit like this one).

The other participants (the control group), spent two weeks practicing essentially the same task, only instead of getting more difficult, it stayed at the same easy level throughout the two weeks of training.

Two weeks later…

When the participants returned after a couple weeks, they again took the working memory test.

And as before, they hit 10 forehand volleys and 10 backhand volleys towards the same target on the wall. Except this time, there was a bit more pressure.

They were told that the data might be used for a sport science TV show, and that their performance would be evaluated by tennis experts and compared with the other participants. And furthermore, that their scores from the previous test put them in the bottom 30% of participants, and that if their scores stayed that low, the data could not be used for the PhD student’s dissertation.

What changed?

After two weeks of dual n-back training, the training group’s working memory scores did improve by a statistically significant margin – while the control group’s scores stayed the same.

Which is kind of cool. But what’s more interesting, is that their improved working memory seemed to transfer to their tennis performance under pressure.

Despite being more nervous during the second volley test, the training group performed significantly better than they did on the first test (improving from 2.67 to 3.44; where 0=missing the target; 10=bullseye). The control group’s performance, on the other hand, didn’t change at all (2.56 to 2.65).


In general, there hasn’t been much evidence to support the use of “brain training” games (see here and here).

So yes, you’d want to see more research before making adaptive dual n-back training a part of every musician’s practice day. But it is intriguing to see some sort of evidence for mental exercises which cultivate skills that transfer to the stage.

And if you have a daily train commute and some time to kill, it couldn’t hurt to spend some of that time on an exercise like this. After all, it’s pretty challenging, and I’m sure our brains could use a good workout every now and again. I struggled even at the easiest level, and my 12-year old started off enthusiastic, but once he began, just shook his head and ran off mid-way through the first round.

If you’d like to give this a try, I found a couple free (or ad-supported) versions online linked below. To proceed as the folks in the study did, start off at the 1-back setting on the dual task, and when you get a score above 95%, go to the next difficulty setting (2-back, etc.). If your score dips below 75%, take it down a level, and stay there until you get it back up to 95%.

Have fun!

Play on your phone: Dual N-Back for iOS | Dual N-Back for Android

Play on your computer: Dual n-back task