It’s the night before an important audition, and Andrew is already feeling the nerves. He tries to tell himself that he’s ready, but all he can think of is the last audition he took, and how he crashed and burned after making a mistake on the easiest piece on his list. As he tries to get to sleep, all he can think of is a picture of himself being so nervous that instead of a strong assertive attack on his first note, he produces a horrifying squeak.

Most of us have had the experience of seeing these worst-case scenarios play out in our minds at one time or another. They are unpleasant, but outside of making us feel a little anxious (and keeping us up at night), they’re not all that big of a deal, right?

Well, let’s take a closer look…

How do you think Andrew is going to do at his audition? Well, he’s probably going to wake up nervous after a fitful night of sleep and have a bad feeling about the day from the get-go. He’ll go to his audition, walk into the hall, and the only thing that’s going to be in his head is the thought: “Don’t screw up the first note”. This is going to put him on edge, make him tighten up, and probably result in a sub-par first note, which could very well lead to a mediocre performance at best.

Sound familiar?

What You See is What You Get

Remember how vivid, systematic, and positive mental practice can lead to a measurable increase in the quality of your playing? Turns out that the opposite is true too – that vivid, recurring, negative images can lead to a measurable increase in the crappiness of your playing. That’s right — just imagining yourself making mistakes can cause you to play worse!

If you think about it, why should this be a surprise? If practicing the correct motor patterns in our head help us reproduce these more consistently, doesn’t it make just as much sense that practicing the wrong patterns in our head will make us more likely to reproduce those more consistently as well? Of course it does!

And no, I’m not just making this stuff up. This phenomenon is particularly well illustrated by several studies on golf putting performance, where the participants who imagined putting poorly in their minds saw their actual golf putting accuracy decline.

But Wait! It Gets Worse

Not only do we have to avoid these negative images in our head, but we can’t do this by trying to suppress them. Why? This will only increase the chances of them popping into your head.

Here, try this little demonstration.

For the next 30 seconds, no matter what happens, do NOT think of a green polar bear. Ready? Go!

Ok. How long before the green polar bear popped into your head?

See what I mean?

Therefore, make sure to tell yourself (or your students) what you want — not what you don’t want. For instance, avoid saying things like “Don’t miss the high note” or “Be careful not to rush”. All this does is make you think of the very thing you want to avoid, and make it that much likelier to occur.

The Bottom Line

You’re going to see images in your head no matter what, so you might as well make them images of what you want. Just ask yourself – “Is this mental image going to help me be more successful?”  If the answer is no, redirect your focus immediately to something that will help you be more successful.

Because the negative images are more natural (due perhaps to our survival instinct and natural attunement to environmental threats to our physical and emotional well-being), you must work to cultivate the ability to direct your focus to what you want on command. Think of this type of focus as a flashlight. You can shine the flashlight behind you, off to the side, or way out in front of you, but sooner or later you’re going to trip on something if you don’t point it at the path in front of you.

The more well-conditioned your ability to focus on the positive images of what you want, the less disruptive these inevitable images will be, and the more control you will have over your mind during critical moments in a performance or audition.

The One-Sentence Summary

Learn how to keep your mental flashlight shining on what you want, and funny enough, you’ll find yourself getting it more often than not.