• Ryangarmoe

Sports Psychology, Music, and a Brief Life Update

We’re back at it! On my 3 week vacation between cruise contracts I took a break from doing any writing. I instead spent time with my family, girlfriend, friends, and cats. I was a groomsmen for a good friend’s wedding and also did recording sessions for my band Wave Cage and the Paul Lichty Jazz Orchestra. I also watched a lot of baseball, got mad at baseball, turned off baseball, and eventually started watching baseball again. All in all, I wish I would've had more time to see friends and family, but sometimes that's just the way it goes. I’m now back on a different cruise ship for my longest contract yet. Iowa, I’ll see you in a few months.

Since this past April, I've had a blooming interest in sports psychology. I ran into the topic a few times in college, but my efforts were never concentrated and the information generally went in one ear and out the other. However, after recently going through a few different books, I’ve decided to dive into sports psychology full bore.

We’ve all heard of those life changing texts that pivot your mind and set you down a new path of success and opportunity. Maybe you’ve even read some. A popular choice amoung musicians for one of those dramatic books is the seminal sports psychology classic, The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Galloway. Funny how it's not a book about music. 

I first read the Inner Game of Tennis my sophomore year of college, upon recommendation from my trumpet professor. If I’m being completely honest, my trumpet teacher in high school also recommended the book, but I was obviously unreceptive. As a 20 year old, however, The Inner Game had a certain zen mystique, an aura that hinted the silver bullet to my trumpeting woes of the day was now in my hands. I carried that mysticism with me through my initial read and afterwards, thought I had drank from the chalice of zen and was suddenly ‘cured’. Uhhhhh, nope. A week later I was back to my usual ways of thinking and playing while The Inner Game of Tennis was back at the library. 

I next stumbled upon sports psychology my 5th year of college. On a whim, I checked the books Peak and The Champion’s Mind from the university library. Given the spontaneity of the event and an increase in some aspects of maturity, I didn’t project the same responsibilities on to these books as I did The Inner Game of Tennis. I remember for a short time being more interested, but not interested enough to make a dedicated study of the subject. 

Fast forward one year to April, 2019 and again sports psychology pops up, mostly by coincidence.  On my travels I was growing tired of carrying around physical books, so I bought an Amazon Kindle. Logical, right? It turns out that with a new Kindle, you get a free trial for Amazon Unlimited, which is like an online library curated by Jeff Bezos himself (kidding, hopefully).  One of the first recommended books that appeared on my quite limited Amazon Unlimited free trial was the Art of Mental Training by DC Gonzales. I gave it a read and finally, after this particular book, came to the conclusion that sports psychology should be studied not only by athletes, but all performers. That’s why I have decided to write this current post and the posts to come. 

Okay - I’m thinking there will be multiple posts in this series. I don’t know exactly how many I will write, but I’m thinking more than 2 and less than 5ish... maybe. Instead of prescribing a set number of posts or certain things I feel like I need to discuss, I’m more content to just see where it goes. Hopefully my upcoming readings and feedback from readers will be the deciding factor in where to go next. My process for this study will mostly involve reading a variety of sports psychology books and attempting to connect, apply, and practice their ideas in a musical setting. I also might end up diving into a few clinical studies if the conversation heads in that direction. How exactly everything breaks down we will find out together! 

Right now, you might be wondering what sports psychology even is. Of course we’re getting there, but I should note that throughout this post and process, I will be using music as a foil to describe to sports, and vice versa. Hopefully my ideas will be illuminated by this comparing and contrasting. That is also why I’ll first define music psychology. 

Directly from Google: 

"Music Psychology is a psychology subspecialty that focuses on the music's ability to have a profound physical and psychological impact. The field seeks to determine what those impacts are and if certain psychological conditions can be altered or created by the application of some forms of music"


"A field of research with practical relevance for many areas including music performance, composition, education, criticism, and therapy, as well as investigations of human attitude, skill, performance, intelligence, creativity, and social behavior"

For reference, a Google search of 'music psychology books’ brings up a variety of texts with no one clear focus. What about sports psychology? 

Directly from Google: 

“Sports psychology is an interdisciplinary science that draws on knowledge from related fields including biochemistry, physiology, kinsiesology, and psychology. It involves the study of how psychological factors affect performance and how participation in sport and exercise affect psychological and physical factors"

The difference in specificity is striking! I raise this point because as opposed to the study of music psychology or even perhaps psychology of music performance, sports psychology is (almost) the singular study of human performance. The top books from a Google Search also almost exclusively deal with the ‘psychological factors affecting performance” part of our sports psychology definition.  

It is important to note that even though these books might have a sport specific title, such as The Inner Game of Tennis, the content is very rarely sport specific. It is somewhat inevitable these authors eventually detail technique, but it is generally used to help clarify a non-sport specific concept. Instead, from what I have been able to gather in my brief experience, the rule to sports psychology texts is more about explaining, applying, and practicing the mental skills and climate necessary for peak performance, regardless of discipline. It also then makes sense to make the leap and say that sports psychology is really the broader study of performance psychology. It just so happens that in the modern era, it has mostly been through the medium of sports these general mental performance skills have been researched and applied. These are the reasons I am so interested in this field.

So what we know now: 

-There is the field of study called sports psychology and it is focused on improving the performance of athletes through mental training

-Famous sports psychology books don’t necessarily credit sport specific technique as their main instruction points

-Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that these instruction points, with adaptations per discipline, can readily be applied to areas outside of sports

So how could techniques developed for athletes be applicable for musicians? I’ll explore those specific ideas in a later post, but the concrete similarities between sports and music are worth noting. Musician friends, I know it might tough to swallow but we might actually have something common with…the athletes. 


Live Performance 

I can think of few fields besides sport and music where the preparation for and execution of a live event is the most critical aspect in the profession. Other fields might be surgeons, pilots, and lawyers. This pivotal ‘live action' necessities a period of preparation and practice outside of what most would consider to be regular working hours. Also, a concept which many professions actively work to avoid, risk, is inevitable in live performance. Regardless of preparation, it is impossible to determine exactly how live performance will play out. This raises the stakes and the pressure for the participants and what makes live sports and music exciting. Furthermore, the structure for any of these live events is generally set in stone. The rules of basketball don’t change game to game and Beethoven’s 5th will always be Beethoven’s 5th. The determining factor in quality is then performer's ability to execute at the right moment. 

Team and Individual Performance 

In endless combinations, music and sport involve live team and individual performance. Team performance could take the form of a basketball team and a big band, while individual performance might look like a solo gymnast on the vault or and a solo classical pianist giving a recital. In regards to teams or ensembles, the analogy can be taken further with the examples of a basketball player shooting free throws or musician playing an improvised solo in a big band. These 2 events still take place within the framework of the team based event, but the individual’s overall skill and performance capability in that moment has profound impact on the trajectory of the game or music. 

Team and Individual Practice 

In theory, performance preparation (practice) in sport and music is essentially identical. In both fields, participants come together to work on becoming a single performing entity, one that is greater than the sum of its parts. Before or after this practice or rehearsal, maximum growth of the entity is dependent on the individual’s willingness to improve their own skills and the team leader’s ability to recognize what their group needs to succeed. Musicians and athletes practice individually not only because they enjoy it, but because continued excellence in performance requires the never ending practice of one’s craft, away from the entity of the team. This could take the form of extra free throws, batting practice, time in the weight room, or learning a complimentary instrument, individually refining new repertoire, or writing new music for your ensemble. 

Dependent on Physical Skill 

You may not be able to tell by looking at us, but musicians actually take part in an activity that requires physical skill and training. For example, the literal process of playing trumpet involves breathing, strengthening and refinement of delicate face muscles, dexterity of fingers, posture to let it happen naturally, and countless other coordinations, adjustments, etc. I believe it is comparable to learning how to throw a baseball or football. Every time humans perform an action, neural pathways in the brain are created, refined, or forgotten. Over time, consistent use of these neural pathways leads to the development of habits, regardless if we deem them to be good or bad habits. It just happens. Music and sport are 2 fields where the creation and fostering of optimal pathways for the necessary physical actions are a defining factor in, not to be shallow, your paycheck. If any of my processes mentioned above are ‘incorrect' (which some are, believe me), performance will be less than optimal and I will need to work doubly hard to create a new, more efficient pathway. This could take the form of a hitch in my breathing or a comparable hitch in a pitcher’s wind-up. These are better known as ‘mechanical errors’. 

Furthermore, physical excellence in these 2 ares without a working and applicable knowledge of the activity is essentially useless. It is not enough to be a specimen. The musician has to know when, how, and why to play that money note the same way a baseball pitcher has to know how to get the important outs. If our pitcher can’t deliver that money pitch to put away the game, it doesn’t matter how fast he or she can throw. 

If you do have any other ideas to add to this list, please let me know! Of course this isn’t a comprehensive discussion of sports and music's similarities, but I think you get the point. The most important thing to remember is that the performance, preparation, and types of skills necessary for success in these two fields are highly similar. These parallels, combined with the fact that sport psychology texts rarely discuss actual sport technique, should spark immediate interest in any musician looking to up their level of performance. It is low hanging fruit in the most obvious sense. 

This brings us to a few other questions: 

-If these two activities are seemingly comparable, why is there such disparity in the level of performance research?

-Why is music psychology broad and non-specific while sports psychology is almost singular in its focus?  

I believe these answers lay in the one key difference between sports and music: competition. 

This key factor of competition, aka having a winner and loser, is where I believe sport and music diverge into the objective and subjective. The most controversial events in the objective realm of sports occur because of human error in referees or umpires. Developments in instant replay, for example, have allowed major sports to minimize this human events, thus making the game more fair. A more robust example of objectivity in sports is the rise and prevalence of statistics. Let’s take a look at baseball, where almost every action in the game can be quantified numerically. Statistics like earned run average, on base percentage, wins above replacement, and countless other numbers allow baseball minds to know exactly what they are getting for their dollar in the construction of their teams. These numbers and their projections justify hundred million dollar contracts, the signing of international teenage prodigies, and the trading of a fan favorite for future value. Baseball people even made up a term for their numberings called sabermetrics. Here’s the Google definition: 

Sabermetrics is the empirical analysis of baseball, especially baseball statistics that measure in-game activity. Sabermetricians collect and summarize the relevant data from this in-game activity to answer specific questions. 

This level of objectivity isn’t necessarily specific to baseball, but perhaps the most developed here given the construction of the game. This is important because it is the objectivity of sports, as supported by developments like replay and sabermetrics, that perhaps allowed for performance psychology to be most effectively studied and applied. It could be thought that sports psychology is essentially the effort to improve numbers. Because numbers themselves are objective and measurable, it should be easy to tell when an technique to improve the numbers did or did not work. 

There are two other reasons why I believe performance psychology developed as sports psychology: the static development of prominent sports since their inception, thus allowing for greater continuity and growth in study and performance practice, as well as the big money surrounding athletics both in academic and professional settings. I won’t dive into these two ideas, but I think they are worth consideration. 

Now lets take a look at music. For our purposes, there is very little in music performance that is useful to quantify. Of course adjectives like good, bad, etc are helpful descriptors, but unlike a sports match, there are no objective numbers to be derived from a musical performance that could help improve the next. Except for external justifications such as marching band competitions, auditions, or a battle of the bands, musical winners and losers are not only difficult to determine, but largely impractical. 

People also might say they feel happy or sad when listening to a particular music. Trying to quantify that happiness or sadness, or perhaps even trying to get a performer to evoke ‘more sadness' or 'more happiness’ is grey area. An increase in the performance factor of more emotion in the music, which is generally seen as a positive, cannot be numerically quantified by performer nor listener. Contrast this to a baseball player trying to increase his home run total, which is generally seen as a positive, by changing the launch angle of his swing. Launch angle, unlike emotion in performance, can be explained with numbers start to finish with with relative ease.

You cannot use numbers or even words, for that matter, to accurately describe music. Perhaps that’s why there isn’t a convincing universal definition, even though so many people have memorable musical experiences. I believe trying to quantify music with words, numbers, trophies, or anything else actually limits and confines what music is and can be: by the very act of description we bring it down. It’s also difficult to study a field that means something different to every person who has experienced it, on or off the stage. For me, thinking about it in this way sheds light on why the definitions of music psychology are so amorphous or why so many musicians recommended a book about tennis. 

So what next? From the sports psychology books I am currently reading and have recently read, I will create a condensed list of what I consider to the main tenets of sports psychology. I’ll also discuss the general style of how these books are delivered and its parallels with music instruction. After that, I’m thinking I’ll detail my own struggles with the mental side of playing music and how with the integration of of sports psychology into my practice, I’m beginning to overcome those barriers. Again, this is just a rough outline - if something more interesting pops up or the conversation heads in a different direction that is where we will go! 

I hope you enjoyed reading this post and found it interesting and beneficial. If you would like to discuss any of these ideas, I would be more than happy to talk with you. You can leave a comment below, send me a message on Facebook, or email me directly at Ryangarmoemusic@gmail.com. Thanks for reading! 


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