We all have a voice in our head.
Sometimes it just offers a running commentary on the events around us (“Gee, that’s a cute dog.”). Other times it tosses some random weird thoughts into our stream of consciousness for no apparent reason (“Hmmm…how would I escape an angry bear in the woods?”). And then there are moments when we engage in dialogue with it (“C’mon, you can do this… But what if I screw it up? Don’t be silly, you’ve played it dozens of times before… Yeah, but….”).
This voice is harmless enough most of the time – until it comes to something that is really important to us. Both in the practice room and on-stage, the voice can quickly turn to the dark side and become a real negative influence.
Where the voice is not just critical, but discouraging, blaming, and plain old mean. To the point where it can impact our emotional state and sabotage performances.
Of course it’s not like this for everyone. Some folks have voices that are more compassionate, supportive, and encouraging, which can help to facilitate motivation and performance.
So where does this voice come from anyway? Is it something we are born with? Or is it something that’s learned, and can be influenced by others around us?
Great teachers do more than teach?
When you think about it, great teachers aren’t just these walking, talking, wikipedias of knowledge, but effective change agents as well.
We know from experience that the right teacher can help create all sorts of behavioral changes, from the technical aspects of how we play our instruments to how we approach score study or structure our practice time.
But does their influence go deeper than this? Is it possible that teachers can have an impact on our cognitive processes as well?
Positive and negative coaching styles
Studies of coaches and athletes have indeed found that coaches’ actions can influence athletes’ self-esteem, confidence, and cognitive anxiety (i.e. worries, doubts, and fear of mistakes).
In a 2010 study of 112 regional, national, and international-level wrestlers (Zourbanos et al.), participants were asked to rate their coaches’ behaviors and their own self-talk during their latest competition.
Using a pair of questionnaires, the researchers measured the positivity/supportiveness and negativity of both the coaches’ behavior and the athletes’ inner dialogue.
And was there any relationship between the two?
Well, as you might expect, coaches’ supportiveness was associated with greater positive self-talk and less negative self-talk in the athletes. Especially in the areas of confidence (e.g. “I can do this”) and anxiety control (e.g. “It’s ok…keep calm”).
Similarly, coaches’ negative coaching behaviors – where they said or did things that demonstrated a lack of confidence in the athletes’ abilities – were related to more negative self-talk and less positive self-talk in the athletes. Particularly in the areas of disengagement (e.g. “I want to quit”) and fatigue (e.g. “I’m tired”).
The researchers then did a follow-up study of beginning tennis players to see if exposing them to either positive or negative coaching behaviors could change the positivity or negativity of an individuals’ inner dialogue.
And the results suggest that yes, what we say to our students can indeed change what they say to themselves.
When exposed to positive coaching behaviors (e.g. “Good shot, keep it up”) participants worried less about messing up.
When exposed to negative coaching behaviors (e.g. “That’s a bad shot” or “You don’t follow my instructions”), the participants’ self-talk began moving in the direction of this feedback and their use of positive confidence-building self-talk decreased.
Self-talk is not the only variable that influences performance, of course. And coaching/teaching behavior is not the only factor that affects the voice in our head. But how cool is it that the things we say to our students can impact the thoughts that go through their heads?
It’s often difficult to know just how much of an impact we’ve had on a student until many years later. But for me, this study was a nice reminder that beyond all of the knowledge and wisdom we share with our students, the way in which we offer feedback and advice, and the behaviors we exhibit in lessons, rehearsals, and performances can contribute more significantly to whom they grow to become as musicians, professionals, and people than we might realize.
How to help students with audition nerves, practice frustrations, and more?
For as long as I can remember, practicing was something I avoided and resisted. Likewise, I would use every excuse in the book to avoid recording and listening back. And nerves and inconsistent, hit-or-miss performances and auditions was just the norm.
My poor teachers! As frustrating as this was for me, I’m sure working with me caused a hair or two (or dozen) to turn gray over the years.
I sometimes wonder what my experience might have been if I’d been able to use the many tools that have emerged in performance science research over the last couple decades. From deliberate practice, self-regulated learning strategies, interleaved, and variable practice, to strategies for managing nerves based on a more nuanced, multidimensional understanding of performance anxiety, to attention control strategies for getting and staying in the zone in performance.
If adding a few new tools to your teaching toolbox, while connecting with a community of thoughtful, curious, like-minded educators to chat about how exactly to make these tools work for students at all ages and levels of ability sounds like it’d be a really helpful thing right about now, you may be interested in the upcoming series of workshops I’m running in Feb/March – specifically, Feb. 3, 10, 17, and March 3, 10.
I’ll show you how I present effective practice skills and strategies for managing nerves and getting into the zone to students in my own classes, and there will be worksheets and activities you can “steal” for your own studio, small and large group mastermind sessions, Q&A’s, and perhaps a few random cat videos – all spread out in a manageable sort of way, so it doesn’t get too overwhelming.
Teachers who’ve participated in this workshop series have reported seeing some really gratifying (and sometimes really moving) changes in students. So if you’re a tiny bit intrigued, you can see what they’re saying, and get all the details here: Performance Psychology Essentials for Educators
Just FYI, registration begins today (Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022) and runs through Sunday, Jan. 30!
Zourbanos, N., Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Tsiakaras, N., Chroni, S., & Theodorakis, Y. (2010). A Multimethod Examination of the Relationship Between Coaching Behavior and Athletes’ Inherent Self-Talk. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 32(6), 764–785. https://doi.org/10.1123/jsep.32.6.764