What Does Science Say About the Notion That We Don't Utilize Our Full Potential?
By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
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There’s a really sweet moment in Pooh’s Most Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin, where Christopher Robin and Pooh are chatting in a tree, and Christopher Robin is gently preparing Pooh for the day when he might not be the constant presence that Pooh has become accustomed to.
As Pooh drifts off to sleep, Christopher Robin says “Always remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” (watch the clip here )
The idea that we underestimate our true abilities is a nice sentiment – but is it true? Like, is there any concrete evidence suggesting that we truly do hold back, or underestimate what we are capable of?
Feats of strength!
Well, there are a number of studies that get at this question, many of them relatively recent, but one of my favorites dates back to 1979, where a pair of researchers (Ness & Patton) recruited 48 college students in various physical education classes (jogging, swimming, tennis, and springboard diving) to participate in a 6-week series of strength evaluations.
Once a week, each participant was asked to perform three feats of strength different tests of strength – an incline bench press, leg press, and leg extension.
Participants were given as many attempts as they needed, but the idea was to find out their 1-rep max – or the greatest amount of weight they could lift for one repetition. So each week, they’d go to the gym, try to set a new personal best, record their best attempt on a card, and give it to the experimenter.
A bit of deception
But unbeknownst to the participants, the experimenters occasionally manipulated the weights on the incline bench.
A third of the participants (control group) lifted with a normal set of weights from beginning to end, but for the other two-thirds of participants, the experimenters changed the labels on the weights in weeks 4 and 5, to find out how much of an impact participants’ expectations would have on the amount of weight they could lift.
Like, if the labels on the weights suggest that you’re lifting 105lbs, which was your max last week, but you actually have 125lbs on the bar, what will happen?
Lifting lighter or heavier
So after 3 weeks of normal lifting, in Week 4, Group A was provided with weights that were heaver than the labels suggested, while Group B lifted with weights that were lighter than the labels made them seem.
And then in Week 5, the manipulation was flip-flopped. So Group A lifted weights that were lighter than they were led to believe, while Group B lifted weights that were heavier than they were led to believe.
And then in Week 6, everyone lifted “blind.” As in, the experimenter set the weight, based on their previous test performances, so nobody knew exactly how much weight they were actually lifting.
So…did any of these mind games lead to any meaningful difference in performance?
Well, indeed they did!
When participants didn’t know how much weight they were lifting (blind), all three groups maxed out at about the same amount of weight.
And when they were lifting with weights that were labeled to appear heavier than they actually were (light), they all maxed out at about the same weight too.
But when they were given weights that were labeled to appear lighter than they actually were (e.g. the weight said 25lbs, but it was actually 45lbs), on average, participants’ max improved by about 20lbs!
Umm…so how does this apply to practicing and performing?
Well, I think this speaks to the fact that on a day to day basis, particularly in the practice room, we probably do hold back and neglect to explore the edges of our potential. Which isn’t to say that we should burn ourselves out, by trying to go 110% 24/7, but it brings to mind a saying that’s often repeated in sports – that “you play like you practice.”
For instance, I remembered reading this story about a self-defense class, where when practicing disarming an armed assailant, the instructor told students to NEVER hand the gun back to their partner, but to always do a full reset and start the drill with the gun on the ground.
Because under pressure, we tend to default to whatever’s familiar, or whatever we’ve put into “muscle memory,” as it were. So as unbelievable as it sounds, practicing handing a gun back to your partner after disarming them increases the possibility that you might do that automatically, without thinking, in a real-life situation too.
Likewise, if we want to bring our “A game” in performances or auditions, and play near or at the upper edges of our ability, it seems we should make it a point to practice testing out our “A game” in the practice room too.
Meaning, if you want to use 100% of the variety and intensity of your vibrato in performance, you can’t just use 60-80% in the practice room and expect to find the rest on stage. Or if you get accustomed to playing with only 70% of your dynamic range in practice because using more than that sounds excessive in your living room, it’s going to be tough to flip a switch and bring the last 30% in a big hall when you really need it, without adding a lot of excess tension or inadvertently forcing the sound.
Because at the end of the day, it’s too risky, too scary, and too easy to mess up under pressure when you try to play at a higher level than you’ve gotten accustomed to playing at on a daily basis.
So how would one approach this, exactly? Well, there are a bunch of ways we could make this a pretty organic part of our daily practice.
For instance, at a recent workshop, violinist Pamela Frank noted that if we want to take risks on stage, we have to practice taking risks in the practice room too. Which means practicing with “1000% expressiveness” in the practice room – perhaps even with scales! Where instead of just going through the motion of playing scales, you can play scales with nuance and inflection and phrasing as well (she says more about this about halfway through this video ).
Which of course makes perfect sense – and would probably make scales a little more fun as well!
All of this also reminded me of how basketball players like Stephen Curry regularly add elements to their practice that are more challenging than what they’ll encounter in a game. For instance, here’s Curry shooting from near mid-court (aka “logo” shots) and from the tunnel (aka “tunnel shots”) as part of his normal pre-game warmups.
And why from the tunnel? No idea…I’m guessing that’s partly for kicks, but here’s more on that from an ESPN sport science video: Steph Curry’s Tunnel Shots
Ok…so have you ever wondered how old Winnie the Pooh actually is? Like, is he a toddler bear cub, or an old senior bear?
It turns out there’s a real, concrete, definitive answer. And if you’re inclined to go down this rabbit hole, and have ~25 minutes, I highly recommend this podcast episode, which consults with a few experts, eventually nails down the answer, and might lead you to shed a tear or two (in a good way, of course): How Old Is Winnie the Pooh?
Ness, R. G., & Patton, R. W. (1979). The effect of beliefs on maximum weight-lifting performance. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 3(2), 205–211. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf01172606
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.
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