Someone calls out your name and you turn around instantly.
Even the sight of the restaurant makes you feel hungry.
Hearing that song makes you smile.
It’s amazing how occurrences in the outside world can make us respond in such a variety of different ways.
When it comes to performance, this can have particularly significant consequences.
An actor enjoys being on stage, totally immersed in the character they’re playing, in contrast to experiencing anxiety in an audition.
An athlete enjoys running naturally and freely in each race throughout the season, but feels immense pressure in the Olympic final.
Given that the external situation seems to directly affect someone’s ability to perform, how is it even possible to train yourself to perform more confidently?
In the 1890s the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov developed a theory that dogs were hard-wired to feel hungry when they saw food, and therefore salivate, and he set out to test this.
After Pavlov had been feeding the dogs for a while, the dogs started salivating the moment they saw him. Because they now associated food with him, the sight of him was enough to trigger the same response they had to the food.
As it turns out this doesn’t just happen with dogs.
Little Johnny is sitting at home watching the advert for the fast food restaurant his parents don’t want him to visit. The advertisers know that Little Johnny doesn’t actually have any strong feelings towards the restaurant either way at present.
As the advert shows him a picture of a burger together with the logo of the restaurant, it’s very likely that Little Johnny will begin to associate the logo with feelings of hunger.
It’s not only physiological responses, such as hunger, that can become associated with a specific trigger though. Emotions can be triggered too.
The advertisers are going to over- engineer this one, just in case.
They know that one of the things children care most about is having fun. So they throw in a free toy from the latest children’s film with the burger. They show the toy next to the burger and the logo during the advert.
As the advert is played repeatedly over a number of weeks, both the burger and the logo become associated with the toy and therefore associated with a sense of fun and excitement.
When Little Johnny’s parents take him shopping on a Saturday morning the moment he sees the restaurant featured in the advert he gets very excited and says he’s hungry.
Obviously, advertising isn’t the only way people become conditioned to respond automatically to a particular trigger.
Since you were a few days old, people have referred to you using your name. Through many repetitions, you now associate your name with you. The moment someone calls out your name, you turn around instantly.
When you hear the song that was playing all the time when you were on holiday, the song triggers back the memories of the holiday and makes you smile.
This process doesn’t only happen by chance though.
We are all experts at training ourselves to respond automatically to certain triggers, even though we rarely realise that this is what we’re doing.
This is especially true when it comes to preparing for important performances.
The more important the upcoming performance is, the more time you spend thinking about it.
In thinking about it, you’re imagining two elements simultaneously – how you’re going to be performing and the external situation in which you’re going to be performing.
And what you imagine is driven by how you define success in that situation.
It’s as intuitive for an actor to see success in an audition as getting the job as it is for an athlete to see success in the Olympic final as running faster than everyone else.
The problem with this approach is that the actor isn’t it in control of the panel’s decision, just as the athlete isn’t in control of how fast the others will run.
It doesn’t matter how many times the actor tries to work out whether the panel will give them the job or the athlete tries to predict how fast the others will run they can’t possibly know this ahead of time.
In an attempt to work it out they keep going over and over the situation in their mind.
In doing so, the actor is associating a feeling of not being in control – a feeling of anxiety – with seeing the panel just as the athlete is associating the same feeling with seeing the other athletes.
When the actor walks into the audition and sees the panel, the sight of them triggers the feeling of anxiety, as does the sight of the other runners for the athlete.
In that state, neither the actor nor the athlete perform to the best of their ability.
For both performers, it seems like the external situation made them anxious and that they accurately predicted this beforehand.
This in turn strengthens their belief that they know how similar situations will be in the future.
In reality though, they trained themselves very effectively to respond in a particular way to the trigger of seeing the panel and the other athletes.
Both of them already have a much more effective way of preparing for performance though.
As the actor is looking forward to going on stage enjoying immersing themselves in the character they are associating this enjoyment with seeing the stage around them.
In the same way, the athlete who is looking forward to enjoying running naturally and freely in their next race is already training themselves to associate this enjoyment with seeing the race track.
Both of them are now focusing on their own performance which is within their control.
When the actor walks on stage and the athlete walks onto the race track the scene around them appears to trigger a feeling of enjoyment and excitement in them.
Now they’re in a state that actually enables them to perform to the best of their ability.
Because people believe that the external situation makes them respond the way they do, very often they avoid thinking about things they wouldn’t want to happen around them and only imagine the external situation being ideal in every way.
Someone who’s focusing on performing the way they want to and going through a variety of situations that could occur is preparing much more effectively though.
Swimmer Michael Phelps described the process he goes through in preparing for the Olympics.
He said, “I do go through everything from a best-case scenario to the worst-case scenario just so I’m ready for anything that comes my way.”
During the Beijing Olympics, Phelps’ goggles broke and filled with water during the race. He swam his way to his 9th of 18 Olympic Gold medals without being able to see a thing.
As you’re going through a future performance in your mind, you’re already training yourself to perform in a particular way.
A performer who is focusing on trying to control things that are outside of their control is very effectively training themselves to experience anxiety in that performance.
But as you’re looking forward to enjoying performing the way you want to in an even wider variety of situations, you’re already in the process of preparing yourself in a much more useful way, aren’t you?
And that’s why you’re able to train yourself to perform more confidently.
© Mike Cunningham 2015