Once upon a time, there was a little boy who lived on a farm and was watching his father struggle to get a cow into their barn. The father pushed and pleaded and swore at the cow, but to no avail. The harder he tried, the more stubborn the cow became. Eventually, the boy went over to help. But not in the way you might think. Rather than pushing the cow with his father, the boy did the opposite. He went over to the cow’s tail, gave it a good pull in the opposite direction, at which point the cow decided to walk into the barn on her own.1
It’s funny how sometimes the harder we try, the more we get of exactly what we’re trying to avoid.
Like rip currents, for example. The tendency is to panic and try to swim back to shore, fighting the current which is sweeping you out towards the sea. However, this just leads to exhaustion and drowning. The solution is actually to swim perpendicular to the current, or even, to just go with the current until it fizzles out.
The nerves, anxiety, and fear we experience before performances can sometimes feel as powerful and scary as that current. And historically, the focus of psychological skills training has been to beat these thoughts into oblivion, and keep them from disrupting our performance.
But like the giant waves on Oahu’s North Shore, sometimes it feels like they are just too powerful and there’s nothing we can do.
So what does this mean? Should we learn how to fight harder? Or is there a better approach?
Meet the thinker
Close your eyes for a moment, and think about nothing for about 30 seconds.
No, really. Give it a try!
Ok. How’d that go? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that instead of blissful nothingness, you probably experienced a stream of thoughts passing through your mind. Like wondering why I was asking you to do this. Or thinking about the box of chocolate chip cookies on the kitchen counter. And a nice tall glass of ice-cold skim milk (and if you didn’t before, you probably are now – gotcha!).
All that to say that there’s a part of our mind that thinks thoughts. All day long. Sometimes the thoughts are positive (like how cute the puppy next door is). Sometimes the thoughts are negative (like worrying about having a catastrophic memory slip). Sometimes neither (like counting down the seconds until the traffic signal turns green).
But either way, the thinker just generates thoughts. Which give rise to emotions. Which in turn impact our actions.
Even positive thoughts can be disruptive
For instance, you’ve probably had the experience of getting on stage, playing, and realizing that you’re having a really good intonation day, nailing everything left and right. But as you get closer to the end, the thinker thinks “Gee, I sound really awesome today. This might be the best I’ve ever played this. I might advance to the next round of the competition!”, and then of course, you mess something up. Grr…
The thing is, none of the thoughts that pop into our head are necessarily “real.” They are just thoughts. And whether we do or don’t sound awesome, that’s sort of beside the point, because our mind’s #1 job on stage isn’t to determine how good we sound. Its job is to focus on shaping the present moment. Conceiving of the sound we want. Feeling a pulse, and using that to place everything just where it belongs.
But once we start engaging with our thinker, we’re no longer in the driver’s seat, and give up control over our performance to AutoPilot. Which, like in those video clips, is pretty darn cool, but you may not want to hand over the reigns and take a nap quite yet.
Meet the observer
Meanwhile, quietly, in the background, there’s another part of your mind which has been listening to the thinker. This is the you that wordlessly notices yourself thinking thoughts about cookies and milk. This is the “observer.”
Kind of weird, no?
All of this is nothing new to folks who have explored meditation, Eastern philosophy, or various spiritual traditions, but more researchers have begun to study this phenomenon and it is becoming part of a whole new approach to treating depression and anxiety, as well as enhancing performance.
The new approach is known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and suggests that a lot of the issues we run into stem from the fact that our thinker and observer become “fused”.
We take these thoughts too seriously. Get too attached to the things the thinker is spitting out, and can’t separate ourselves from the thoughts in our heads. So we get caught up in an unhelpful mental and emotional tangle.
For instance, there’s a big difference between saying “I’m anxious” and “I’m feeling anxious”. Between thinking “I’m a loser” and “I’m having the thought that I’m a loser”. Or “I’m never going to win an audition” and “My thinker is generating the thought that I’m never going to win an audition.”
Do you see how the latter statements help to decouple or “defuse” the thinker and observer? And help you connect with the observer, changing how you feel inside?
Unlike other approaches which have historically been aimed at trying to fight our negative thoughts and emotions, or trying to get rid of anxiety, ACT suggests that it’s not the anxiety and negative thoughts themselves that lead to bad performances, but our counterproductive reactions to these internal events that actually cause a drop in performance.
Dangit, what’s wrong with me?
I remember a competition my senior year in college, where I felt out of sorts before walking on stage. I had just finished my grad school auditions, so I was in good shape, but I was strangely nervous, and felt like things weren’t going to go well. I felt tight, and started worrying about what other people might think – some of whom hadn’t heard me for several years, and whom I wanted to impress. As my thoughts kept swirling about, I started feeling even more uneasy, more unprepared, and a bit panicky. I knew I needed to compose myself, but the person ahead of me was finishing up, and I didn’t know what to do. I told myself to keep calm, to stop thinking about these things, but the thinker didn’t listen.
I never did get my act together. And while I didn’t completely implode on stage, I have no idea what happened. I was just relieved to get off stage, book a flight back home, and get out of there as soon as possible.
I was so focused on what the thinker was producing, that I failed to step back, refocus on what I actually needed to do at the moment (like taking a few deep breaths, releasing tension, visualizing the opening, or any number of other things that would have been more helpful), and get my head in the game.
We have a choice
I didn’t know it at the time, but we don’t have to respond to or act on anything our thinker produces. We always have a choice – do we want to focus on what the thinker is producing? Or instead on the things we want to say through our music?
Paradoxically, the more accepting we are of the crap the thinker pulls on us, and the less concerned we are with eliminating these distressing thoughts, emotions, images, and feelings, the less of an impact they have on our performance.
Research on elite performers
In one study of 10 international-level chess players, for instance, all five who were trained in the ACT protocol improved their chess performance (based on ELO points, a measure of chess performance) in the 7 months following training, while the five who did not receive training demonstrated no improvement in chess performance2.
There is also a study with 7 young elite golfers, who were trained in an ACT protocol which emphasized learning how to play effective golf while experiencing negative or distracting thoughts and emotions (instead of fighting them). All 7 improved their national ranking in the months following training, while only 2 of the 6 golfers in a comparison group who received training in a more conventional psychological skills program3 improved their rankings.
Next time you have a distressing or distracting thought in the practice room or in the green room before a performance, experiment with a couple classic cognitive defusion strategies to weaken the thinker’s effect and play more like your awesome self, regardless of the nerves, jitters, and other mental shenanigans.
1. Call a spade a spade
Instead of engaging with the thinker, step back, and reword the thought or feeling. So if the thought “I’m hopeless” pops into your head, change it to “I’m having the thought that I’m hopeless” or “I’m feeling hopeless, but that doesn’t mean that I’m actually hopeless.”
2. Lighten things up
Instead of thinking “I’m feeling afraid I’m going to screw up in front of everyone”, take that thought, and use your imagination to try to make the thought look and sound silly in your head. For instance, imagine Pavarotti singing this in an operatic style to a song that makes you smile, on a TV screen, with the little bouncy ball going from one syllable to the next, and with his voice sounding like Alvin the Chipmunk, looking super confused, but having to go on and make the best of it anyway.
This may all sound a little odd at first, but the research is pretty compelling. Plus, it’s not a new idea, but one that’s been around for hundreds (or thousands?) of years. And it does actually feel different.
Give it a try, and see what you think!
- The little boy was Milton Erickson, the influential psychiatrist and psychologist, known for his uncommon methods of facilitating change.
- ELO performance scores of 2461.6 (baseline) to 2451.4 (7 month-follow-up) for the control group vs. 2431 to 2501.4 for the ACT-trained group
- It’s important to note that the two programs were taught by the same person