MIND
July 20, 2011

Doing Your Best: Performance Boosters

Doing your best is a balancing act involving practice, calmness and drive. What research has found.

We all try to pack as much into our days as we can. Between work, family, and personal commitments, our schedules fill up quickly. Many people have become so skilled at the art of multitasking that exhaustion sets in an unwanted side effect of the busyness of our lives. Whether it's the 24/7 work cycle, omnipresent technology, or the work-family balancing act, from time to time we can feel like we’re just not functioning in top form. So when important events and commitments pop up – like a job interview, business presentation, or coordinating your child’s birthday party – rising to the occasion can feel overwhelming.

Readying your brain, and steadying your nerves are all important parts of 'show time' itself.

While it’s tempting to reach for second (or sixth?) cup of coffee or a sugary snack to get a quick boost before an important event, there are much healthier and more effective ways to restore energy and ready oneself for the responsibilities that lie ahead. Researchers have made a lot of progress in recent years, unraveling how the body and brain perform their best, and what we can do to keep them in top form.

If you’re preparing for an important event, whether mental or physical, major or minor, there are steps you can take to boost your performance. It may be helpful to think about improving performance in two parts. The first is how you prepare for the occasion over the preceding days, weeks, or months: this includes practicing your moves, honing your skills, and developing your inner drive and motivation. The second part of performance is how you gear up – or settle down – for the event itself: focusing on your task, readying your brain, and steadying your nerves are all important parts of "show time" itself.

Based on the newest research in science and psychology, here are some of the best-proven – and sometimes quirkiest – methods for boosting your performance as you prepare to tackle your important event.

Phase One: Laying the Groundwork for Peak Performance

How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice
We all know that rehearsing activities, whether a speech or a sport, improves performance. But if you can’t physically rehearse an activity, just imagining you’re doing it can actually help your performance. For example, studies have found that people who mentally practice a new skill have a significant improvement in performance during the real thing, compared to people who do not spend time visualizing their performance.

One French study found that the participants’ autonomic nervous systems were activated in similar ways during mental volleyball practice and in actual practice. This suggests that mental practice helps train the nervous system and lay down the brain networks that will be used during the real thing. So if you’re not able to engage in an actual practice right now, try a little "warm up" in your head – you might be surprised to find just how much it hones your skills.

Challenge Yourself
Practice makes perfect, but it is often the case that to really master material and perform our best, we have to ask more of ourselves when we practice. One University of Southern California study showed that different centers of the brain are activated in simple vs. "mixed up" practice. People in the simple practice group merely executed the same motion repeatedly when trying to learn a specific arm movement, while people in the "mixed up" group alternated movements from time to time, forcing their brains to solve the problem in different ways through out practice. Through a series of tests, the researchers showed that the "mixed up" group was processing the motion in higher centers of the brain.

Whether you’re working on your backhand, your short game in golf, or a monologue, changing the way you practice will help prepare the brain for what comes at it during game time.

When we practice things in the same way over and over again, we aren’t processing the skill very deeply. It turns out that memory – mental and motor – is enhanced when we engage in practice that is more challenging and requires us to reconstruct the activity from different angles. Whether you’re working on your backhand, your short game in golf, or a monologue, changing the way you practice will help prepare the brain for what comes at it during game time.

Tap into Your Inner Motivation
Discovering your own inner drive can have a surprisingly strong effect on your success. It's what helps you keep practicing and setting new challenges for yourself. When you are connected to things that matter to you, you do your best work. What really drives you? Engaging in an activity because you love it (called internal or intrinsic motivation) generally produces better long-term achievement or mastery.

Keep your performance up by keeping your heart in it: find ways to reconnect with your goals and challenge yourself when doing what you have to do and what you choose to do.

Outside rewards or praise (external or extrinsic motivation) can improve performance in the short-term. It is why they pay for picking berries by the bucket and give gold stars for memorizing spelling words. But when a car salesperson's motivation flags because their commission-based salary has suffered from lack of sales, or a marathon runner starts thinking that getting up at dawn five days a week is nuts, they had better find an inner reason to power them through for the long-term. Most studies of motivation find that people do their best, not when offered incentives, but when they feel personally challenged to do a good job.

The same goes for personal endeavors. If you run every day for exercise as an adult simply because you ran track in high school, but you’re just not connected to it in the same way, try taking up another sport. You may discover that hang gliding or tango lessons give you much more pleasure than running and provide ways to stay in shape that are just as good. Keep your performance up by keeping your heart in it: find ways to reconnect with your goals and challenge yourself when doing what you have to do and what you choose to do.

Need to Make a Big Decision? Don’t Skimp on Sleep
Most people in the U.S. do not get the hours of sleep they need every night, and there’s little else that affects our performance that is so crucial and so simple to fix. Studies keep rolling into show how important ample sleep is in everyday mental functioning (not to mention its many other health benefits over the long term).

Sleep is critical for restoring brain function, and when the brain is sleep-deprived, it shows the next day. One University of Austin study found that sleep-deprived people have trouble making the quick, gut-level decisions that rely on rapid processing of external information. This is important not only for people who regularly make life-and-death decisions (like policemen and EMTs), but also for regular folk who rely on making speedy judgment calls. Sleep also influences our physical responses more than you might think.

Basketball players significantly improved in speed and accuracy after increasing the amount of time they slept. So, whether you want to improve mental or physical dexterity, getting a good night’s sleep is key. For tips on how to increase your sleep, click here.

Phase Two: How to Give Your All at Show Time

Breathe. Relax. Repeat.
It may sound strange or perhaps counterintuitive, but calming down before you’re "on" is one of the most important things you can do to improve performance. While some people may fear that relaxation may make them less sharp for a big event, there’s good evidence that the opposite is true. When we get too revved up before a performance, whether it’s a speech or a sport, the stress response kicks on and can lead to everything from shaky hands to "blanking out" to miscalculating the trajectory to the end goal.

While this "fight or flight" response is beneficial when we’re running from a bear, it’s not too helpful when we’re giving a PowerPoint presentation to the department. That’s where breathing techniques can come in handy. They, and other relaxation techniques, calm the nervous system and reduce the stress response, which allows the body (and brain) to function more effectively. Being calm can help you focus and attend better to the task at hand, rather than feeling distracted by your stress. Taking slow, deep breaths, meditating, or engaging in another type of relaxation for just a few minutes before a big performance (or just at random times throughout the day) can help you marshal your abilities and be on cue in a manner that is calm and collected, rather than dazed and frazzled.

Do You Feel Lucky?
As funny as it may seem, there’s actually a very good reason why so many athletes carry or wear good luck charms or have superstitious rituals they follow before or during a competition. Research has shown that there’s actually something quite powerful to the idea of "luck." People who had their personal good luck charms with them in the lab performed better on a memory test than people who did not. Even those who were simply told "good luck" by the researchers before taking the test performed better than people without "luck" on their side. The same results were true when the participants were put to a physical test (putting at golf), rather than a mental one.

While the "fight or flight" response is beneficial when we’re running from a bear, it’s not too helpful when we’re giving a PowerPoint presentation to the department.

The lucky charm phenomenon is not, of course, due to any magical powers in the objects themselves. It occurs because our behavior changes simply because we believe in the phenomenon — and thus in ourselves. We become more confident in our own abilities to complete the task at hand. And just believing is half the battle.

Rid Yourself of Anxiety: Write It Out
Because nerves often prevent us from giving our best performance, finding a way to relax the brain and ease butterflies in the stomach is crucial to doing as well as one can. Another good way to dispel fears right before an important event is to write them down. Researchers at the University of Chicago study found that writing down anxieties helps people with post-traumatic stress disorder. So to test the idea that writing could also help people before a stressful event, they had groups of college students write down their feelings about an upcoming test (or, just sit quietly before it). The students who penned their fears performed significantly better on the test than those who didn’t. Other studies, in the lab and in real life, have found the same thing.

Putting your anxieties down on paper seems to literally get them out of your head, so you can use that brain power for the event itself, rather than worrying about it. Give it a try before your next test, business presentation, or first date — it may just do the trick.

See Red
While anxiety can be degrade performance, for many types of competition it also helps to be energized to do your best. Researchers at the University of Rochester recently discovered that people’s physical prowess is actually enhanced after viewing the color red. In the study, people’s muscle strength and the speed of their reactions in a physical task were better when they saw the instructions to "go" printed in red as opposed to gray.

This phenomenon occurs is because humans (and other animals) have a visceral, heart-pumping reaction to the color red. Think stop signs, stoplights and fire engines. Red gets our attention and puts us on alert, so perhaps it is not surprising that the participants in the study performed better after seeing the color, however briefly and incidentally. It’s not completely clear how we can use this phenomenon to our advantage in our daily activities, but it may be worth wearing red in your next tennis match – or to your child’s birthday party – to give yourself a little extra charge.

Putting It All Together

Performance, whether mental or physical, has everything to do with mindset. It is also a blend of preparedness, relaxation and energized, focused attention.

To do your best you need to prepare through practice, gaining experience, increasing your knowledge, and increasingly demanding challenges. Staying motivated to rehearse through inevitable setbacks and disappointments means keeping why you care about what you do in mind.

Then, when it comes time to demonstrate your talent, having some strategies for keeping yourself calm can make a big difference because nerves may derail your focus and leave you feeling uncertain just when you need to be on top of your game. (Just think, even seasoned pros like Barbra Streisand can experience crippling stage fright.) Luckily, there are some very effective breathing and relaxation techniques to calm the nervous system before performance, as well as meditation or a simple walk around the block, and writing down your worries to dispel them. Carrying a lucky charm can also help calm the nerves and give a little extra confidence in one’s own abilities.

As researchers understand more and more about how the brain stores information and later retrieves it during performance, we will have even more tools at our disposal to enhance our success. In the meantime, learn how you work your best: explore which practice routines help the most and what "pre-game" relaxation (or superstition) techniques seem to do the trick for you. It may take some experimentation, but with the right combination of practice, luck, breath, – and maybe a red scarf? – you’ll be well on your way to a stellar performance.

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