I participated in the Hershey’s Track and Field Games as a little kid (yes, that Hershey’s). It started out as a fun thing to do because my other friends were doing it. But then I qualified for the state level, and I started to get excited about the possibility of qualifying for nationals.

My parents got me some running shoes, I trained for my events in preparation for the state meet, and when the big day arrived, I arrived at the track only to be struck by the realization that I had no idea how to fill the time until my events started.

As I looked around, everyone else was stretching, going through warm-up exercises, and engaged in activities that looked purposeful.

What did I do?

Game plan? What game plan?

I froze.

I walked around the track trying to look busy, went through the motions of stretching, and did a few laps and practice jumps into the long jump pit, but the whole time I was looking around to see what everyone else was doing and feeling self-conscious. I felt intimidated, embarrassed, and that I had no business being there.

Needless to say, I performed poorly and failed to advance to the national level.

No surprise, of course, as I had lost even before I started.

Is compulsive last-minute practice helpful?

In his book, Finding Your Zone, sport psychiatrist Dr. Michael Lardon shares a story about his experience at the 2006 Masters, when he saw golfer Phil Mickelson napping shortly before his tee time on the final day of competition.

It would be typical to see lesser golfers nervously cramming in some last-minute practice or worrying about the day ahead.

Not so different from practicing furiously in the warm-up room before a performance or reviewing flash cards in the hallway before the SAT’s or an AP exam, right? This often seems like the productive thing to do, but is it really?

Great performers know that they’ve already put in the work, and that in the last hours before a big performance what’s most important is to get into the right physical, mental, and emotional state to perform their best.

Whether it’s a nap, meditation, prayer, a few slow scales or long tones to connect to your instrument, or eating a banana/egg/peanut butter sandwich and milk while hopping on one leg, the great ones know what they need, and they simply do it, regardless of the circumstances. With no regard for what others around them might think about their rituals or game plan.

After all, you’re not there to impress the other competitors. Nor can they help you. You’re there to do what you know it takes for you to perform up to your abilities.

Mickelson had a game plan. Not just for the 18 holes of golf he would play, but for what he would do even before he teed off. In my ever-so-brief track and field career, I had no game plan for what I would do in the time before the starter pistol fired. So when I encountered a pressure situation, the situation dictated my actions, rather than being the other way around.

Oh, and how did Mickelson do? He won the tournament.

Take action

What do you need most before an audition? When you are surrounded by a room full of people who are also auditioning, and the tension is palpable?

Do you have a specific gameplan? And are you able to ignore everyone and everything else and do what you need to do?

Or do you become self-conscious and neglect to set yourself up for maximal success before you walk on stage?

Don’t forget to plan out, choreograph, test, refine, and practice your pre-performance/pre-audition warmup. Take some time to:

1. Develop a game plan

Look back on your most successful performances. What did you do in the minutes and hours beforehand? Which of these ingredients prepared you to play your best? Write these down and make sure these are part of your game plan for every performace or audition.

Conversely, what did you do in the minutes and hours before your worst performances and auditions? What do you know not to do based on these experiences?

2. Rehearse your game plan

Set up mock auditions or performances and rehearse your game plan so that it begins to come naturally to you. After all, it’s one thing to have a game plan. It’s another entirely to act on it.

You don’t want your game plan to feel awkward or weird. And it probably will unless you’ve rehearsed it and tweaked it until it feels right to you in advance of the big day.

As the saying goes, “Nothing new on race day“.

photo credit: Helgi Halldórsson/Freddi via photopin cc

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

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.

NOTE: Version 3.0 is coming soon! A whole new format, completely redone from the ground up, with new research-based strategies on practice and performance preparation, 25 step-by-step practice challenges, unlockable bonus content, and more. There will be a price increase when version 3.0 arrives, but if you enroll in the “Lifetime” edition before then, you’ll get all the latest updates for free.