• Ryangarmoe

4 Pillars of Sports Psychology for Musicians

Alright! This is part 2 of my series about sports psychology and music. In the first post I explain why I’m interested in sports psychology, why I believe it is applicable for musicians, and share some 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.

In this current post I'll discuss 4 pillars of sports psychology that consistently appear in the  books I have read. For each pillar, I'll give a brief description of the concept as well a few thoughts on how the idea could implemented into a musician's practice or overall approach to art form. If you’re curious, the books I have recently read are The Champion’s Mind by Jim Afermow (in progress), The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Galloway, Relentless Optimism by Darrien Donnelly and The Art of Mental Training by DC Gonzales. After I finish the The Champion’s Mind, I’ll conclude my readings with The Mind Gym by Gary Mack. 

One of the reasons I want to write this specific post is because of the interesting relationship I have observed between musicians and the sports psychology genre. I touched on the 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 be instantly and permanently changed.  Speaking from experience, it might actually be detrimental to your overall experience to project these responsibilities onto books.

Yes, I can say that after reading one of these books it is possible to sustain a certain enlightened momentum, but any concrete and long lasting changes we wish for ourselves must be practiced and cultivated in the same way as our musicianship! That means consistent, deliberate, and intelligent applications of the ideas into our lives and music.  With that in mind, lets dive into our 4 pillars. They are: 

Self Talk 



Goal Setting 

Of course there are more than 4 main concepts discussed in sports psychology books, but I think an awareness of these ideas in particular offer a solid foundation from which to build. I also must admit I was drawn to these specific ideas because they have resonated the deepest in my own life. What I have gained from reading these books might not be what someone else would gain, but that is okay. The important thing is to begin the conversation and follow it from there.

Self Talk 

I put self talk first because I have found learning what self talk is and how it works has been the most personally revealing of the sports psychology pillars. Essentially, self talk is the way in which humans, in our minds, communicate with ourselves. To some extent, all of us have an inner dialogue that runs through our minds while we are awake. The narrator that people describe as their ‘inner voice’ and what that voice says to you is self talk. Or do you say it to yourself…? 

Even though our inner voice is essentially always active, it doesn’t necessarily have our best interest in mind. For example, it is this inner voice, that after an awkward conversation, will keep you awake as you lie in bed thinking about how awkward you are and how you could’ve said something different to makes things less awkward and thus had a more positive experience over all but you’re just an awkward person and say awkward things all the time. Gosh! It would be better to just go sleep. More often than not, how we self talk is a manifestation of how we really feel about ourselves. 

Furthermore, our self talk has profound influence on our physical processes. For example, if we are ‘lost in thought’ about something that makes us nervous, our bodies will respond with symptoms of nervousness, such as shortness of breath, muscular tension, or sweaty palms. As playing music is a physical and mental activity, it then makes sense that themes of our self talk can have serious impact on our musical endeavors. This is a vast reduction of the idea, but I think you get the gist. 

Our inner voices has been actually called different things throughout history. Timothy Galloway, author of the Inner Game of Tennis, calls it Self 1, psychologist Sigmund Freud called it the Superego, the Buddhists call it the Self etc, etc. Recognition of this part of our minds and it’s influence over our lives is not in the slightest a new concept. Actually, it is possible our self talk was an evolutionary development, as animals needed a mechanism for responding to dangerous situations in a a way that could maximize their lifespan. Those that survived passed on this mechanism and the human ego was born. Following this line of thinking it, it can be concluded that the main purpose of our inner voice, is not to foster happiness, but to self preserve. 

Take the following scenario: 

“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! I why did I miss that I never miss there!... "

I could keep going, but you get the point.  I’m sure all of us have had a similar scenario to this at least once in our careers. Personally, nothing feels more helpless than playing a piece of music you cannot stop while delving deeper into the thinking mind and further away from the music. Let’s see how negative self talk might look 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 to not be! Hell, even soandso 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?” 

The reason our self talk becomes exponentially louder during performance is because our minds see performance itself as 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, being thought of as good, and hundreds of either reasons all create a brooding ground for our self talk to kick into an unfortunately high gear. 

So how do we as musicians identify our self talk and how can we begin to change? 

I think in anything one wishes to change, especially with something as personal and deep seeded 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. 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 reactions associated with just holding your instrument will multiple 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 and your thoughts while playing?

Practice idea: Take a piece of music you have struggled or are struggling with and go directly to a most difficult passage.  Play through it once to get used to it. 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 2 exercises while obviously not an end all be all, might be a starting place to figure out the relationship between your thinking mind and your music. Again, any change you wish to make in the way communicate with yourself must first be preceded by the knowledge and awareness of what you and your self talk are doing. Be patient with yourself and discoveries! 


The ideas of focus and self talk are intimately related but worthy of separate discussion. I feel like humans have an idea of what focus means and feels to us as individuals, but a singular definition is hard to pin down. Throughout this section, I’ll give a few possible definitions to help clarify the larger concept. If I had to give one to start off, I think focus would be presence to the task at hand. We can start here, but hopefully by explaining some more characteristics of focus we can get explore different angles of our pillar.  

There are different sources and types of focus. We can become focused through anger or agitation, in a life threatening situation, or by demands from our thinking minds, which creates a type of psuedo-focus. 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 sight-reading difficult music.

Focus can also be broad or singular, such as holding in awareness different parts of our bodies or an artist midway through painting the perfect line. In my sports psychology readings, it seems the type of focus most applicable to musicians is what Timothy Galloway calls relaxed concentration. While this general mental states is called different things in each book I have read, the characteristics are largely consistent. From what I have gathered, relaxed concentration is: 

- 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 

-Equanamious - there are no 'good' or ‘bad’ value judgements 

-Trust of ones 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 once 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 holding our attention at that moment. 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 occur independent of our thinking minds. It is the thinking mind which interferes with our concentration. It is the thinking mind, that 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. 

An important idea to note is that 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 carries less gravity in our day to day lives. You are only your thoughts if you allow yourself to be.   

If our goal is perform with more attention to the music and commitment 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. So how do we that? 

Practice Idea: Oh man you’re going to hate me…BUT we can practice long tones - Or any simple exercise, really. The idea is to focus our attention in on one quality of our exercise. For example, the recent object of my focus during long tones has been where exploring where my sounds sounds the most complete. I do not try and place value judgements upon my sound, such as good sound or bad sound, but I simply explore and experience the single action of playing that long tone. Listening exclusively to my sound, 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 clicks on only beat 1. Close your eyes and attempt to correctly place beats 1-4 by saying out loud, “1, 2, 3, 4”, while the metronome only clicks on 1. This is similar to an exercise Timothy Galloway calls Bounce-Hit, where tennis students vocalize whenever the ball hits the surface or either racket. The combination of vocalization with a physical cue, or in our case an auditory cue, focuses the energies of the thinking mind on 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 simple problem to ramp up the difficulty. Try to vocalize the off-beats, set the metronome so it hits every 2 bars, or subdivide your vocaliziations into less common groupings like quintuplets. 

With practice of these exercises the different states of your mind will begin to become more apparent. Recognition of what our minds are doing is the first step to changing any of our habits! Of course there are endless exercises to cultivate focus, but hopefully these can get you going in the right direction. Get creative and go for it! 

So up to this point I have discussed concepts that can be practiced in conjunction with our musical skills. These final 2 sports psychology pillars, Visualization and Goal Setting, do not necessarily involve our instruments or any musical skills, but more so clear idea of what we want in the future. 


As with awareness of self talk and cultivation of focus, visualization as a practice is not a new idea. 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. In a practice setting, 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 denominators among these sports psychology books, visualization is one of the most, if not the most, thoroughly discussed techniques. 

So we know that mental imagery can be a powerful tool for practice, 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. Visualization practice essentially works the same way, though we are consciously imagining things we wish to happen. As we consistently feed our subconscious these successful images our confidence, technique, mental fortitude, and other performance aspects, all optimize. 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 difficult situations, these athletes transferred their energy into mental practice and amazingly, even without the ability to physically practice their sport, still won gold medals. Of course these stories are cherry picked, but there are more powerful examples. A personal favorite is the legendary tubist, Arnold Jacobs. 

Arnold Jacobs, legendary tubist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and namesake of the famous Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, was active for a large part of the 20th century. In a time period when brass pedagogy was primarily based in physical processes, Jacobs took a different route. Rather than focus on the physical, 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. 

More information on Mr. Jacobs can be found at https://www.windsongpress.com/arnold-jacobs/

So we know visualization has been around for awhile and has verified success in both sports and music, but what are qualities of successful visualizations? Lets go back to our sports psychology books. 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 sports psychology book I’ve read so far touts that the more detail we can conjure in our minds, the more effective our practice. Also, the narrator is imagining himself complete 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. 

So 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 for real. 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 bandmate's improvisation."

With consistent practice, it would be logical that we could mentally rehearse an entire performance in fine detail! To start out, however, it might best to go with something more manageable. 

Practice Idea: While laying in bed before or after sleeping, take 5 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 personal 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 a personally 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, you only have the utmost confidence. 

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.” 

Goal Setting

Another well discussed pillar in sports psychology is goal setting. As musicians, especially in the academy, we have external goals established for us in the form of juries, school performances, ensemble auditions, etc. We also might 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 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 he or she practices. 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 necesarily 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’ 6 hours a day and see minimal progress in our musical skills. Actually, too much practicing can actually 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? 

End soapbox. 

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 your 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

Written down

-This allows one to constantly review what they are working towards 

-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 are 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, who 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”. 

There is a lot to digest in that quote, but the structure is easy to follow. Of course, changing our practice routine to fit this structure would take time, discipline, and a more than a few mess-ups . An important note mentioned by Gonzales is that we are not striving for perfection. Instead, we should focus on progress. Often times when working towards a goal, even if we don’t end up reaching the specific goal, we discover other things about ourself and craft which can be equally, if not more, beneficial and rewarding. 

Practice Idea: Try it!! 

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! 

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