Have you ever been in front of a large group of people (without your instrument), and suddenly couldn’t figure out what to do with your hands?

In your pockets? Behind your back? On your hips? At your sides? Nothing feels particularly natural, once you start thinking about something you’ve never thought about.

The same thing can happen on stage too – and also with our thinking.

What do I think about while waiting off-stage? What about right before I play the first note, which is a tricky 10th in 5th position? The position of my thumb? What the orchestra is up to? Strawberry cheesecake and fluffy bunny rabbits?

As a kid, I remember experimenting with various thoughts and types of thinking. I remember one concert where I thought about He-Man episodes while playing. I also tried thinking about what I’d do after the performance. Or look around at the audience and see what they were up to (which in hindsight was probably a little weird for the audience).

I’m not sure if it led to the most compelling performances ever, but it was certainly better than fretting about the difficult section coming up, or dwelling on the notes I just played out of tune.

So was this the key to performing optimally under pressure?

To do all the prep work in advance, and then zone out in performance, so our body can do what we’ve trained it to do without interference from our mind?

Psychological strategies of elite marathon runners

In the 1970’s William Morgan and Michael Pollock studied marathoners to see if there were any key psychological differences separating the elite runners from the non-elite. They found that the sub-elite runners engaged in more “dissociative” thoughts – like the scenery, singing a song in their head, writing letters to friends, or events from their childhood – in an attempt to distance themselves from the pain, fatigue, and/or boredom.

The elite runners on the other hand, did the opposite, engaging in more “associative” thoughts. Specifically, they paid close attention to how they felt – scanning for tension or pain, actively working to reduce tense areas, remaining physically relaxed, monitoring energy expenditure, and thinking about their pace or race strategy.

Psychological strategies of Ironman triathletes

psychological characteristics of expert triathletes

More recently, a team of Canadian researchers conducted a study of ultra-endurance triathletes to see what differences there might be in the thought processes of expert, middle-of-the-pack, and back-of-the-pack triathletes during competition.

In particular, they were curious to learn more about their thinking during 14 key points during an Ironman triathlon.1

Key points such as (1) the pre-race setup, (2) right before the start of the swim, (3) the start of the swim, (4) approaching the end of the swim, (5) the transition from swim to bike, (6) the start of the bike portion of the race, (7) being passed during the bike part, (8) passing an opponent during the bike part, etc.

You’ll notice that the key points tend to be (a) the phase before the start of a new segment or a transition from one segment to the next, (b) the start of a new segment of the race, and (c) the specific moment when something good or bad happens during a segment, and (d) the moments approaching the ends of each segment.

Fascinating, no?

Because the most critical moments in a musical performance or audition tend to be the same sorts of moments:  (a) waiting offstage or “in the wings” before it’s time to perform, (b) the start of the piece and any transitions between movements, other pieces, or excerpts in an audition, (c) when we make a mistake or totally nail something, and (d) when we see the end of the piece or excerpt in sight – especially important when things are going well and we don’t want to jinx things.

Three types of thoughts

21 ultra-endurance triathletes participated in the study, and were separated into three groups based on previous race times.

  1. Expert group (finishing times below 9.5 hours).
  2. Mid-pack group (average finishing time of 12.5 hours).
  3. Back-pack group (finishing times over 14 hours).

Through a structured interview protocol, the researchers gathered data on what the triathletes remember thinking during these key moments in previous races.

293 specific thoughts were identified through this process, and fell into three main groups:

1. Passive thoughts

Defined as “cognition dealing with emotions or feelings associated with the segment.” These are thoughts that just pop into our heads, and aren’t particularly relevant or helpful to performing better.

For instance, a mid-pack athlete reported “A feeling of sort of nervousness, excitement, anticipation, that kind of thing.” before the race. 

2. Active thoughts

Defined as “specific, purposeful action that focused on responses to situations currently being experienced.” These are the helpful, task-relevant, performance-enhancing thoughts.

One expert said “I’ve got a list of things, kind of a routine that I go through…like warming up, stretching, making sure my gear is all done. I just go through it the same way for every race.”

3. Proactive thoughts

Defined as “thoughts that were focused on how to perform in upcoming [segments].” Not so relevant to musical performances, but absolutely relevant, and performance-enhancing for a triathlete.

Another expert said “During the last 5 km of the bike I like to quickly go through the transition in my head, so that I remember where I’m going and when I get there I’m not panicked and it’s nothing new.”

The key difference

As predicted, there were indeed significant differences in the thoughts that expert, mid-pack, and back-pack athletes engaged in during each segment.

Overall, 98% of experts’ thoughts were active or proactive and performance-relevant. Compare that to mid-pack and back-pack athletes, whose thoughts were active/proactive and performance-relevant only 65% and 57% of the time.

About 30% of thoughts reported by mid and back-pack athletes were passive. One mid-pack athlete described their thoughts prior to the race as “It’s almost as if I’m not there, it’s the physical body going through the motions…kind of floating above, observing but not really partaking in anything at that stage.”

And about 15% of the back-pack group’s thoughts were not even related to performing better in the race. One back-pack athlete said that during the swim to bike transition, “Everyone’s high fiving you, and it’s pretty good. I focus on high fiving people. I really do.”

Takeaways

So it seems the optimal mindset for peak performance is not some mindless, spaced-out, zombie-like mental state populated by thoughts and images of a cartoon character riding on a giant green cat with confidence issues2, but conversely, an active and intensely focused one – specific to the demands of the task at hand.

In sight-reading for instance, that would mean reading slightly ahead. If performing in a small ensemble, leading, listening, or blending/matching styles with your partners. If playing tennis, counting the number of times you see the Penn logo as the ball spins towards you.

The intensity, duration, and specificity of this kind of focus is not normal – and not likely to happen by accident on the day of a big performance. We spend tons of time making sure our piece is memorized, and the trickiest spots polished, so it makes sense that for best results, we should ensure that our mental gameplan is planned, practiced, and rehearsed in advance as well!

Many musicians go about this sort of practice in different ways. How do you go about practicing or strengthening this kind of focus in advance of performances? And have you found any exercises (or games?) that seem to help your students develop and hone this kind of focus in advance of their performances too?

Footnotes

  1. Just FYI, here are the differences in distances between a regular triathlon and an Ironman triathlon: Swim (1.5k vs. 3.8k), Bike (40k vs. 180.2k), Run (10k vs. 42.2k). Or in miles: Swim (.93mile vs. 2.4mile), Bike (25mile vs. 112mile), Run (6.2mile vs. 26.2mile – yup, that’s a full marathon).
  2. Yeah, this 80’s pop-culture reference won’t make any sense unless you watch this.