4 Pillars of Sports Psychology for Musicians
Updated: Jul 1
Alright! This is part two of my series about sports psychology and music. In the first post I explain my interest in sports psychology and why I believe it’s readily applicable for musicians. I also share thoughts on the key developmental and practical differences between music and sports psychology. If you're interested in reading that post, it's called Sports Psychology, Music, and a Brief Life Update and is under the blog tab on this website.
I’ll spare you the life update this time around.
This post will be about four common pillars of sports psychology. I'll give a description of the concept as well as a few thoughts on how the idea could be implemented into a musical setting. For reference, I determined the pillars from reading five well reviewed and popular sports psychology books. The books are: The Champion’s Mind by Jim Afermow, The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Galloway, Relentless Optimism by Darrien Donnelly, The Art of Mental Training by DC Gonzales, and The Mind Gym by Gary Mack.
One of the reasons I want to write this specific post is because of the relationship between younger musicians and sports psychology. I touched on this sentiment in my previous article, but the idea that a book like The Inner Game of Tennis, is a ‘silver bullet’ for your musical maladies is, unfortunately, false. I don’t think it is possible to read one of these books and find instant and permanent change. Speaking from experience it can actually be detrimental to project these personal responsibilities onto books.
After reading one of these books it is possible, however, to sustain a certain enlightened momentum. Any concrete and long lasting changes we wish for ourselves must be practiced and cultivated in the same way as our musicianship! This means we must pursue consistent, deliberate, and intelligent applications of the ideas into our lives and music. With that in mind, let’s dive into our four pillars. They are:
Obviously there are more than four ideas discussed in sports psychology texts. An awareness of these four, however, offer a solid foundation from which to build understanding. I also should confess I was drawn to these ideas because of my own musical experiences. As my personal understanding and practice of these ideas has increased, I’ve found music more fulfilling and peaceful. This understanding has also acted as a launch pad for further explorations.
As with all books, my insight from reading will be different than my neighbor’s. That is okay. The importance is not in the difference of interpretation, but more so about beginning the journey and following your guiding muse.
I put self talk first because personally, learning what self talk is and how it works has been the most revealing of our sports psychology pillars. Essentially, self talk is the way in which humans, in our minds, communicate with ourselves. To some extent, most of us have a dialogue constantly narrating our lives. This narrator has been described as our “inner voice” and what that voice says to you is your self talk.
Or do you say it to yourself…?
Our inner voices have had many names throughout history. Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies call it The Self, twentieth-century psychologist Sigmund Freud labeled it the ego, and Timothy Galloway, author of the Inner Game of Tennis, calls it Self 1. Awareness of this aspect of our minds is not new, nor is the understanding of its influence in our lives.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it is important to note that there is a possibility that our self talk was an evolutionary development. As animals evolved, they needed a mechanism for responding to dangerous situations in a way that would maximize their lifespan. Those with that ability survived and subsequently passed the mechanism on to future generations. Eventually the human ego was born. Following this line of thinking, it can be concluded that the main purpose of our inner voice is not happiness, but self-preservation.
Our self talk can also have profound influence on our physical processes. If we are “lost in thought” about something that makes us nervous or anxious, our bodies will respond with physical symptoms of nervousness and anxiety, such as shortness of breath, muscular tension, or sweaty palms. As playing music is a physical and mental activity, it's logical self talk can have a serious impact on musical performance.
Consider the following possibly true personal anecdote:
“Okay I got this. The first movement went really well and even though my chops aren’t feeling great, I think I can do this… This doesn’t feel too good right now. I sure hope I don’t miss that high note in a few bars... I don’t have it I’m not going to go for it—I don’t have it in me. This really isn’t going well, I’m in a bad spot. If I just breathe more, relax, and focus on my sound all of this will be o… DANGIT! Why did I miss that, I never miss there..."
Nothing feels more helpless than a live performance which delves deeper into the thinking mind and further away from the music.
The reason our self talk becomes exponentially louder during performance is because our minds see performance itself as a threat to our personal well being. On stage, we are putting ourselves and skills on display and subjecting ourselves to the opinions of others. The desire to do well, be thought of as good, and hundreds of other reasons, all create a breeding ground for our self talk to kick into an unfortunately high gear.
Let’s see how negative self talk might manifest after a performance that didn’t go as planned:
“I can’t believe I played the way I played tonight. I’m a senior. I should be setting the example for how things should be, not how not to be! Hell, even so-and-so could’ve played that piece better than me—I really do suck at this music thing. Maybe I made the wrong choice for school in the first place... Why do I even do this?”
Self talk is very much a manifestation of how we feel about ourselves. Everyone’s inner monologue will be different, but themes of lacking confidence, self belief, and defeatism are common among musicians of all ages. It should be noted that it is virtually impossible to “shut off” our self talk. We can instead learn to not be influenced by our inner voices and realize it for what it is: a distraction from reality.
So how do we identify our self talk and how can we begin to change?
In anything one wishes to change, especially with something as deep-seated as the way we communicate with ourselves, awareness of the situation and a clear idea of the behavior you wish to implant are of paramount importance. You cannot change if you don’t know the extent of your current behavior. I have found an exercise taught to me in college can be very beneficial in these first steps.
Practice idea: Before you practice, sit or stand in silence with your instrument. Observe how your body and mind react to the presence of your instrument. Generally, the feelings and programmed reactions associated with literally holding your instrument will multiply exponentially when you go to play. Observe what your mind is doing or saying while you are holding your instrument—are there any connections between these preliminary reactions, your thoughts while playing, and thoughts on life?
Practice idea: Take a piece of music you have struggled or are struggling with and go directly to a difficult passage. Play through it once to get familiar. On the 2nd time, expand your awareness to include not only the physical sensation of playing the instrument, but the inner dialogue of your mind as well. What are you saying to yourself before, during, and after, that difficult passage? Write down your dialogue. If it is negative or pessimistic, give your dialogue a 180 and rewrite it to be positive or optimistic. Play through again with your optimistic dialogue in mind. Has anything changed?
These two exercises, while obviously not an end all be all, could be a good starting place to unearth the relationship between your thinking mind and music. Again, any change you wish to make in your self communication must first be preceded by the knowledge and awareness of what you wish to modify. Be patient with yourself and discoveries!
The pillars of focus and self talk are intimately related but worthy of separate discussion. As humans we have a loose idea of what focus means and how it feels as individuals. However, a singular definition is still hard to pin down. Throughout this section, I’ll give a few possible definitions to help us look at the pillar from a few different angles. Our first definition of focus will be presence to the task at hand. We’ll add more later, but keep this first definition in mind moving forward.
There are different sources and types of focus. We can become focused through anger or agitation—such as in a life threatening situation or by demands from our thinking minds. Focus can also arise through complete absorption in an activity or in a scenario where your thinking mind doesn’t have time to butt in, like perfectly sight-reading difficult music.
Focus can also be broad or singular, such as holding an awareness of different parts of our bodies or an artist midway through painting the perfect line. In my sports psychology readings, I’ve concluded the focus most applicable to musicians is what Timothy Galloway calls relaxed concentration. While this mental state has a different name in each book, the characteristics are largely consistent. From what I have gathered, relaxed concentration and its derivations are:
Action with minimal interference from the thinking mind (source of self talk)
Being in the present, aka absence of thoughts regarding the past or future
Not trying too hard or too much
Equanimous—there are no “good” or “bad” value judgements
Trust of one's abilities
Cultivated through awareness of the breath, senses, and the thinking mind
A skill. It can be learned!
Take this quote from The Inner Game of Tennis:
“As one achieves focus, the mind quiets. As the mind is kept in the present, it becomes calm. Focus means keeping the mind now and here. Relaxed concentration is the supreme art because no art can be achieved without it, while with it, much can be achieved. One cannot reach the limit of one’s potential in tennis or any endeavor without learning it; what is even more compelling is that tennis can be a marvelous medium through which skill in focus of mind can be developed. By learning to focus while playing tennis, one develops a skill that can heighten performance in every other aspect of life.”
It should be noted that in many instances, authors might use a phrase like, “focus on what you want to happen” or “don’t let a bad play get in the way of your focus.” From these uses, another definition of focus could be where we choose to put our mental energies. In this definition, focus is not necessarily good or bad, but a neutral term that merely describes what is currently holding our attention. It would make sense for musicians that we would want our music of the moment to hold as much of our mental energy as possible. Jim Afermow in The Champion’s Mind puts it well with the following analogy:
“Let’s say for each moment an athlete has $100 worth of focus, and he or she can spend it in any manner. A dollar spent on an internal/or external distraction during performance is a dollar wasted because you are not getting the full value from your abilities. Where is your focus when you compete? Are you caught up with distractions or do you stay on target?"
So how can musicians cultivate this desirable focus? This is where a working knowledge of self talk comes back into the picture! In the characteristics of relaxed concentration mentioned above, the occurrences in the bullet points actually take place independently of our thinking minds and self talk.
It is the thinking mind which interferes with our concentration. It is the thinking mind, through the vehicle of self talk, which takes our mental energies away from the task at hand and towards fears and anxieties about the past or future. The skill of focus is then our skeleton key to the present moment. As we get closer and closer to the present moment, our minds begin to calm in equal proportion. From this, a different definition of focus might be learning to act with a quiet mind.
Again, we can never get rid of our self talk. It is biologically hardwired into our minds and therefore always with us! Instead, we learn to become less influenced by what our inner voices have to say. As we begin to recognize the fallacies of the ego it begins to carry less gravity in our everyday lives. You are only your thoughts if you allow yourself to be.
If our goal is to perform with more attention to the music and commitment to the present moment, we cannot begin with a performance. That would be similar to practicing your part while on the gig! No thank you! Instead, relaxed concentration/focus in our performance comes from cultivation of the concept in the practice room.
Practice Idea: Take a simple exercise and focus your attention on one quality of the exercise. For example, my most recent practice with this concept has been with long tones. I’ve been practicing long tones to explore how well I can play one note. I do not try to place value judgements upon my sound, such as good sound or bad sound, but simply explore and experience the single action of playing that one note. Listening exclusively to this one note, rather than my inner voice, prepares me mentally and physically for that day’s musical challenges.
Practice Idea: Take your metronome and set it so the beat hits on beat one only. With this running, close your eyes and attempt to correctly place beats one through four by vocalizing, “One, two, three, four”, while the metronome only clicks on one. This is similar to an exercise Timothy Galloway calls Bounce-Hit, where tennis students vocalize whenever the ball hits either the surface or the racket. The combination of vocalization with a physical cue, or in our case an auditory cue, focuses the energies of the thinking mind on the exact moment of the metronome hit or the bounce of the ball. It’s difficult to think about when you’re going to eat dinner while effectively counting with the metronome. If this exercise becomes too easy it's easy to ramp up the difficulty. Try to vocalize the off-beats, set the metronome so it hits every two bars, or subdivide your vocalizations into less common groupings, such as quintuplets.
With practice of these exercises you can easily enter a state of focus. Perhaps more importantly, you will come to realize the sharp contrast between your focused and unfocused mental states. Of course, there are endless exercises to cultivate focus, but hopefully these can get you going in a musical direction. Get creative and go for it!
So far we have discussed pillars that can be practiced in conjunction with our musical skills. These final two sports psychology pillars, visualization and goal setting, do not necessarily involve our instruments or any musical skills, but more so a clear idea of what we want for ourselves in the future.
For our purposes, visualization can be defined as using our creative abilities to create images, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, etc. in our mind’s eye. Jim Afermow describes visualization as “the process of using all your senses to help with learning and developing new sports skills and strategies as well as visualizing success.” Of the common themes in sports psychology texts, visualization is one of the most—if not the most—thoroughly discussed techniques.
So sports psychologists believe visualization is a powerful practice technique, but why does it work? If you have ever awoken from a dream sweating, panting, and with your heart racing, you understand the influence of the imaginative mind over our physical processes. Deliberate visualization practice works the same way as we visualize events we wish to happen. As we consistently feed our subconscious these ideal scenarios, we optimize our confidence, technique, mental fortitude, and many other performance aspects. It sounds “hippy dippy,” but the proof is in the product.
The books I’ve read quote scientific studies, blurbs from Olympians, and even figures like Walt Disney, all of whom are in support of the technique. In The Champion’s Mind, there are multiple “success stories” from olympic gold medalists who’ve utilized the practice. In more than one story, an athlete injured themselves in the lead up to their gold medal games and was physically unable to practice. In these difficult situations, these winning athletes transferred their energy into mental practice and amazingly, even without the ability to physically practice their sport, still won gold medals. There are musical examples as well, my personal favorite being the teachings of the legendary tubist, Arnold Jacobs.
Arnold Jacobs, former tubist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and namesake of the famous Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, was active for a large part of the twentieth century. In a time period when brass pedagogy was primarily thought of as a series of physical processes, Jacobs took a different route. His teaching was based on the principle of Song and Wind (also the name of his book) which touted the imaginative mind as the driving force behind our highest musical capabilities. Jacobs insisted his students focus on the product of playing an instrument—the sound—rather than a series of technical processes.
The results spoke for themselves and Jacobs is now considered one of the greatest brass pedagogues of all time. More information on Mr. Jacobs and his techniques can be found at https://www.windsongpress.com/arnold-jacobs/.
So we know visualization has verified success in both sports and music, but what are qualities of successful visualizations? In Relentless Optimism, the narrator Bobby has a goal of hitting 50 home runs in a season. For reference, he is trying to make it to the major leagues after many seasons in the minors. Here’s how he describes his visualization practice:
“I spent nights looking at my goals and visualizing them coming true. I saw myself hitting home runs in a Northwest Arkansas jersey and Kansas City Royals jersey. I felt the effortless swing of hitting a fastball right on the sweet spot of the bat. I heard that sound that instantly told everyone in the stadium this ball wasn’t landing on this side of the wall. I visualized the ball soaring over the fence. I smelled the fresh-cut, summer-evening grass and the hot dogs roasting in the ballpark as I rounded the bases. I heard the crowd roar in various major league stadiums.”
What sticks out to me the most in this passage is the amount of detail. In fact, each book touts that the more detail we conjure in our minds, the more effective our mental practice. The narrator is also imagining himself completing his goals, not a random event. In visualization, we are trying to imagine every aspect of what we want to happen, right down to something as seemingly trivial as the smell of fresh-cut grass. The more comprehensive our visualizations, the more data our subconscious has to work with. We are trying to condition our minds, and therefore bodies, for success.
How might this look for musicians? Imagining our best sound is a good place to start, but to make the activity consistent with the examples from our sports psychology books, we can visualize as many aspects as possible of a goal you want to reach. It just takes a simple rewording. Let’s make our own Relentless Optimism style visualization:
“I spent nights hearing my goals and visualizing them coming true. I heard myself playing a solo in the Dakota Jazz Club. I felt the thrill of playing a solo that pushes my limits and thrills the audience. I heard the quintet lock in, that synergy that tells everyone in the club that this band is the real deal. I visualized ending my solo in perfect step with the rest of the ensemble. I basked in that musical moment, tasted that well-deserved drink of water, and became absorbed in my bandmates’ improvisation."
With consistent practice, it would be logical that we could mentally rehearse an entire performance in fine detail!
Practice Idea: While laying in bed before or after sleeping, take five minutes to visualize the absolute best sound on your instrument. What are the qualities of that sound? What is the setting in which that best sound would be played? What would your mind and body be doing while playing with that best sound? Start with something simple—for wind players this might take the form of a long tone and for guitar or piano it might be a thoughtful scale. Visualize your best process of playing that note or exercise. Can you set your mind down the path of excellence with a simple exercise?
Practice Idea: Imagine the setting of your next gig or performance. Visualize pulling up to the venue, walking in, greeting your audience and bandmates, and warming up. How would those actions look and feel if you knew you were going to give an excellent performance? Visualize playing on stage and creating that moment and series of moments you know you are capable of! How does it feel after the gig, knowing you gave it your best and left it all up there? Create these scenarios with great detail in your mind so that when the time comes the only result is excellence.
One more quote from Relentless Optimism:
“The more I visualized positive outcomes—my goals coming to fruition—the more confidence I had that they were sure to come true; it was only a matter of time.”
Our final pillar of sports psychology is goal setting. As musicians, especially those in the academy, we have external goals established for us in the form of juries, school performances, ensemble auditions, etc. We also have internal goals, which might not have external value in the form of a trophy or chair placement, but mean something to us personally in our musical development. These could take the form of a jazz musician transcribing and playing an entire solo or a classical flautist reaching a certain speed on their scales. Regardless of if your goal is musical, professional, physical, or financial, goal setting practices from sports psychology can help us achieve what we set out to accomplish.
An unfortunate litmus test for the drive of a musician is the amount of hours they practice. While practice time is obviously necessary, I believe musicians of all ages would benefit from a clean cut distinction between time spent practicing and our amount of improvement. Time spent practicing does not necessarily equate to improvement. Instead, it is the quality of our practice which determines how much we improve. Yes, I understand nothing works without time. But it is possible to “shed” six hours a day and see minimal progress in our musical skills. Actually, too much practicing can be detrimental to our progress—we can overwork our bodies and minds, thus setting us down a risky and difficult path of physical injury or burnout. Instead, why not promote an approach to practice that emphasizes quality over quantity and thoughtful, goal-oriented decisions?
Goal setting is critical because goals provide the foundation for intelligent, thoughtful action in our practicing. As you experience measurable and steady improvement through working on proper goals, your confidence increases, vision for the future further clarifies, and quality of practice automatically improves. Here are some properties of effective goals:
Slightly out of reach
Goals should inspire hard work, yet still be attainable with dedicated effort.
If they are too high they will be unreachable and frustrating.
If they are too low they defeat their purpose.
This allows one to constantly review what they are working toward.
The physical act of writing and reading a goal makes it more concrete in the mind.
Much like visualization, we want to condition ourselves for success.
Often times our goals have a negative connotation, such as “Don’t play out of tune in measure 33."
This is not so much a goal, but a fearful reaction to what we don’t want to happen. A positive rewording might look like “Listen to pitch more carefully in measure 33."
For goals to be most effective, we must have a crystal-clear idea of what we are trying to accomplish.
If you do not know where you are going, how will you know when you get there?
Another important point in this discussion is the different types of goals. Sports psychology books often reference a sort of goal pyramid structure, where small, daily acts form the base for higher, more ambitious achievements. Everything is built upon what came before it. This idea is most clearly laid out in The Art of Mental Training by DC Gonzales. In the chapter on goal setting, the narrator presents a list of 25 goals to his teacher, Leo Tai. In response, Leo Tai says the following:
“Ask yourself what you want to accomplish over the next two or three years. Make these your long-term goals. Give them a completion date. Then think of at least three things that you want to achieve within the next year. Make these your short-term goals. Give them a completion date. Then decide what it is that you can do every month to help you accomplish your short-term goals. Write these down. These are your monthly goals. Give them a completion date too. Set daily goals, that help you achieve monthly goals, that help you achieve your short-term goals, which in turn help you achieve your long-term goals. When your goals fit together this way and you set off to accomplish them, you make progress”.
Changing our practice routine to fit this structure would take time, discipline, and more than a few mess-ups. Remember that when working toward a goal we are not striving for perfection, but progress. Even if we don’t end up reaching the specific goal, we often discover other things about ourselves and our craft which can be equally, if not more, rewarding.
Practice Idea: Try it!!
I hope you found these ideas interesting and applicable to your own musicianship. If you have any different practice ideas or general thoughts on the techniques listed above, please leave a comment below, send me an email at Ryangarmoemusic@gmail.com, or reach out to me directly on Facebook. Hearing your thoughts and opinions would quite literally make my day.
My next post in this series, coming out two weeks from today, will be about my own experience with the mental aspect of playing music and how I have begun to overcome my roadblocks. I want to write out this narrative for others who might struggle with similar things as myself: concepts like self doubt, lack of confidence and trust, and consistent inconsistencies. Hopefully through the sharing of my experiences, other performers can become more aware of their own self-defeating habits and how they can begin to conquer them. Until next time!
This concludes part 2 of my series on sports psychology and music. I hope you found these ideas interesting and applicable to your own musicianship. If you have any different practice ideas or general thoughts on the techniques listed above, please leave a comment below, send me an email at Ryangarmoemusic@gmail.com, or reach out to me directly on Facebook. Hearing different opinions would quite literally make my day 🙂
My next post in this series, coming out 2 weeks from today, will be about my own experience with the mental aspect of playing music and how I have begun to overcome my roadblocks. I want to write out this ‘narrative’ for others who might struggle with similar things as myself: concepts like self doubt, lack of confidence and trust, and consistent inconsistencies. Hopefully through the sharing of my experiences, other performers can become more aware of their own self defeating habits and how they can begin to conquer them. Until next time!