Actors  / Musicians  / Sports  / Business
Category: success

And that’s why you’re able to train yourself to perform more confidently…

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

Are you really only as good as your last performance?


“You are only as good as your last performance”. Yet another well-known performer came out with this this in an interview the other day.


This is the somewhat unhealthy belief that your most recent experience both limits and defines who you are.


It’s like saying you’re only as intelligent as the last thing you did or you’re only as healthy as the last meal you ate.


Using that logic, a Neuroscientist who just forgot their car keys is now stupid and an Olympic athlete who just ate a piece of cake is a couch potato.


That belief also goes a long way to explaining some of the challenges many performers experience at various stages of their careers.


To start with, there is the word ‘good’. What does ‘good’ actually mean in this context?


We tend to think that it means skilled.


“You are only as skilled as your last performance.”


However, it has at least one other meaning too.


When we describe how ‘good’ we think someone is, we are making a judgement about their worth as an individual.


If performers equate their current level of skill with their own self-worth this means…


“You are only as worthwhile as your last performance”


If someone’s most recent performance doesn’t quite match their previous successes, are they now worth less as a human being?


If how ‘good’ you are is fixed at the level of your last performance that also implies that you’re not able to progress any further, meaning…


“You are unable to progress beyond your last performance”


When you look back at how you’ve been progressing and developing your skills over the years, have you really not advanced at all since your first ‘performance’?


You weren’t only as ‘good’ as that performance. You’ve continued progressing since then which means you’re able to develop your increasing skills through experience, aren’t you?


In order to decide a performance wasn’t that good someone has to compare it to how they would ideally like to perform. This means they already have an idea in mind of how they can improve upon what they just did.


Using this information is the very way people continue to improve and develop their skills so that they’re progressing and building on all of their previous achievements.


There is one key difference.


It’s relatively easy look back at experiences you had years ago and see that you’ve continued progressing since then.


When you’ve just finished your most recent performance though, you have no idea what will happen next given that you can’t predict the future.


The belief that ‘You’re only good as your last performance’ is only even vaguely plausible then because you can’t either prove or disprove what you will go on to achieve in the future as it hasn’t happened yet.


So, if you just performed in a way that you thought wasn’t that good, you have two choices…


Either you can believe that you are now only as good as that last performance, which means your level of skill is fixed and unchangeable for the rest of time.


Alternatively, you can use the information you’ve just gained from this experience to continue progressing….


The question is, which choice are you going to make?





© Mike Cunningham 2015



What do you want to achieve over the next year?

It’s that time of year when people look back and reflect over the past year and begin looking forward to the year ahead.  People often ask you about your New Years resolutions and debate whether setting them is even a good idea.


Whatever your plans are for the next year – whatever is particularly important for you to achieve over the coming months, there is often one thing that people have in common.


Once people have made a plan, they want everything to unfold perfectly. They don’t want to experience setbacks, or make any mistakes or errors and if they do, they can spend a lot of time beating themselves up and blaming themselves about it. Sometimes they decide to just forget the whole thing altogether.


In the words of Homer Simpson, “You tried and failed. The lesson is never try”!


This stems from the mistaken belief that in order to progress successfully, you have to get exactly the results you want at every stage of the process and that any mistakes along the way are a sign of failure.


Is that really true? Are mistakes really a sign of failure?


When you look back at your most successful achievements to date, were you getting exactly the results you wanted at every stage of the process of achieving those successes?


If you think about it, when a child is learning to talk, although they make many mistakes as they pronounce certain words and form sentences they are already in the process of learning to talk successfully.


Making enough mistakes to learn and progress is the same process that everyone goes through when learning to walk, talk, read and write. In fact, this is the same process people go through to learn to do pretty much everything successfully.


One of the key differences between children and adults though, is that children look out for things that are fun and enjoyable and then all they care about is doing them again and again and again. This just happens to be an extremely successful way of approaching learning.


In contrast, adults have the tendency to only start something if they can guarantee that they will do everything perfectly from the word go, which just happens to be a much less successful way of approaching learning.


Apparently, the word mistake comes from a term used in archery, which provides a useful way of thinking about mistakes. The archer aims at the target and fires the arrow. If the arrow does not hit the point on the target the archer aimed for that is a ‘mis-take’. The archer then does a ‘re-take’.


The difference between the point on the target the archer hit and the point they aimed for tells them exactly how much they need to adjust in order to get closer to hitting their target.


So, mistakes can be a potentially useful source of information enabling you to adjust what you’re doing to get closer to hitting your target.


Is gaining the very information you need to continue progressing even more successfully really a sign of failure then?


The process of adjusting is not even necessarily occurring consciously. When you were learning to ride a bike, the first time you actually rode for a few seconds balancing on your own, you didn’t really know what you were doing differently but somehow you were able to do it now, after days of falling off.


Realising that mistakes are part of the process of progressing successfully also enables someone to focus on mistakes at the right time.


If you watch a great sporting genius like Roger Federer, even he doesn’t necessarily do absolutely everything perfectly in the Grand Slams he wins in spectacular style.


The nice people from the TV will even display a table with the stats during the match including the number of unforced errors he made. ‘Unforced errors’ translate as, “the number of mistakes Roger Federer made caused by no-one else other than himself”. Talk about a blame culture!


One of the many qualities that Federer displays whilst playing is his ability to continue progressing successfully throughout a match even if he makes mistakes or experiences setbacks early on. He doesn’t dwell on mistakes during the match and they never interrupt his flow.


This is near to impossible to achieve if someone sees every mistake as a failure.


If you hear him interviewed after the match he describes in detail the aspects of his playing he was happy with, as well as the aspects of his playing that didn’t match the high standards he demands of himself.


Someone like Federer will then use the information he has gained from this experience to continue developing and fine-tuning his skills during the weeks that follow.


Federer focuses on mistakes after the match, not during the match.


In contrast to this, someone who believes mistakes are a sign of failure focuses on the mistakes at the wrong time.


You can clearly see when a tennis player believes this. Every time they make a mistake they beat themselves up about it because they see it as a failure. This means they dwell on every mistake whilst they are playing, which is a major contributing factor in losing them the game.


If you hear them interviewed afterwards, they’ll often say, “I just want to forget about today”. After all, if mistakes are a sign of failure, why would someone even want to think about them?


That player focuses on mistakes during the match and they don’t focus on them afterwards.


Without using the information they’ve gained from this experience though, it’s unlikely they’ll progress as successfully as they otherwise could.


Ahead of winning her Olympic Gold medal at the London 2012 Games, Jessica Ennis-Hill was asked how she had handled setbacks along the way, to which she replied,


Setbacks strengthen your desire and show you where your slight weaknesses are. Any defeat is going to make you focus and work that little bit harder, but I don’t dwell on it. I focus on myself and work at making my strengths and weaknesses better.”


So, as you look forward to the kinds of things you want to achieve over the coming year, how will you use the information you gain from every experience to continue progressing even more successfully?


Think like Jessica & Roger, not like Homer.


Enjoy your year!







© Mike Cunningham 2015