Research Suggests That You Can Learn to Perform Well Even When You’re Nervous. Here’s How.
By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
Let’s say you stumbled across a genie in a bottle, who granted you the wish of an ideal practice studio. If there were no limits, what would you request?
Soundproofing? Adjustable acoustics? Precise temperature and humidity control? A huge window with a view? A Fanta (grape flavored, of course) drinking fountain?
Like the importance of having a quiet, uncluttered, dedicated study area in which to do homework, creating a practice environment that allows us to maximize our focus on learning is a good thing.
But humor me for a moment, and let’s consider a slightly different question.
Let’s say the genie wanted to help you build not a practice studio, but a training room specifically designed to improve your ability to perform optimally in high-pressure performances and auditions.
What would be different about that space?
I’m betting that the two spaces would look different and include different elements. Because when it comes to performing, a practice room isn’t very realistic, in the sense that it’s wildly different from the conditions in which a performance takes place. All of which puts our mind, our emotions, and our body in a very different state.
And as anyone who has ever taken piano lessons has discovered, the context in which we play matters. Ever notice how foreign your teacher’s piano feels, and how things tend to be a little less reliable when you have to play on a different instrument than the one you’ve practiced on? That’s a context effect.
So while quiet, comfortable practice rooms are great for practicing, they don’t help us simulate the demands of a performance, and we end up struggling to transfer our skills from the practice context to the performance context.
Can we become more immune to pressure?
This is as true for athletes (or surgeons or police officers) as it is for musicians, so researchers have been curious to see if there might be a way to “inoculate” us to pressure. To prepare in a way that enables us to maintain our effectiveness even when the anxiety kicks in.
Dutch researcher Raôul Oudejans has conducted several studies in this area – and they suggest that yes, we can indeed train ourselves to perform well even when we’re nervous.
One study involved two comparable Dutch national-level basketball teams.
Both teams started off with a baseline test of their free throw shooting abilities, with 20 free throw attempts under regular practice conditions (i.e. no pressure).
Then, they repeated the test – but with some pressure thrown in. To induce some anxiety, each team was split into two sub-teams, which competed against each other for a prize of €25. Their shooting performance was also videotaped, and they were told that experts would be reviewing the footage to evaluate their shooting technique. They were asked to imagine that each pair of free throws were the decisive points in a close game. And the coach and other players watched each shooter throughout the test.
During the next five weeks, over nine practice sessions, both teams took an additional 96 practice shots (which worked out to basically a few extra free throws after warmups, and again at the end of practice).
The only difference between the two teams, is that one of them (the anxiety-practice group), practiced their free throws under the same anxiety-producing conditions as their baseline test. While the other team (the regular-practice group), practiced their free throws in normal practice-like settings.
Then, the athletes retook the shooting test – 20 shots without any pressure. And then another 20 shots with the competition, videotaping, and other anxiety-producing elements added back in.
Does practicing with anxiety help?
During their baseline test, both teams performed worse when anxious. The regular practice team regressed from 75.4 points to 70.2 points1, and the anxiety practice team went from 77.1 points to 72.7 points.
After five weeks of training, however, things changed. The regular practice team again performed more poorly under pressure (73.1 with no anxiety; 67.9 with anxiety). But the team which practiced free throws under anxiety-provoking conditions not only didn’t regress under pressure; they performed even better. Specifically, 71.3 points with no anxiety, compared to 78.0 points with anxiety.
Fear of heights, anyone?
The researchers then did a second study, this time with expert dart players, which I have to mention because my reaction upon learning how they created anxiety in their subjects was “Wait, no…seriously?”
The players started with 24 throws at a target.
Then, they made another 24 throws while standing on a climbing wall, their feet on footholds about a foot off the ground.
Next, one group of players (the no-anxiety group) took an additional 48 practice throws at that same position on the climbing wall. The other group of players (the anxiety group) took their 48 practice throws much higher up the rock wall – with their feet on footholds 12 feet up, and one hand clinging to a handhold 17.5 feet up.
Then, everyone took a final test: one set of 24 throws at the low position, and another set of 24 throws at the higher anxiety-provoking position.
How’d they do?
Both groups of players performed comparably when tested at the low position on the wall. However, once anxiety kicked in, the players in the no-anxiety group struggled to maintain their level of performance, and saw their performance at the high position on the wall suffer.
On the other hand, the players who trained with anxiety did equally well at both positions, even when anxiety kicked as they clung to the wall at the higher position.
I would be curious to see how this training translates in real competition settings – not just in experimental settings. However, there is certainly a good bit of anecdotal evidence about this practice, and the theoretical premise makes good sense, so this remains a promising strategy for “pressure-proofing” our skills.
The dart study made me really curious about what creative strategies musicians might be using to create pressure in the practice room. I’d love to compile a list of these in the comments below.
Whether it’s practicing in a moving car2, to busking in the subway3, to a run-through on China’s scariest new walkway4, what are some of the best ways you’ve tried (or heard others use) to create anxiety in the practice room?
Each shot was scored from 0=5, ranging from an airball (0) to misses off the backboard (1), rim (2), and makes off the backboard (3), rim (4), to a clean swish (5). Based on this scoring system, a perfect score would be 100.
Yes, this has really been done – but depends on the instrument, of course.
This has been done too.
Yeah, no, this has not been done as far as I know – and for obvious reasons, is probably a pretty terrible idea.
Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.
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 a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. 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 discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. 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.