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Performance Psychology: Mindset for Success in School and Life

Catherine Brandon, Director, Genazzano Institute

What are the keys to success?  We may look to successful people for some clues.  Accomplished musicians, top executives, inventors, great teachers, elite athletes, talented artists, leaders and innovative thinkers exhibit some common traits that include having clear goals, a mindset of growth and optimism, a drive for improvement, perseverance in the face of challenges and the ability to learn from feedback.  

We know that optimal performances are not only important for virtuoso violinists, world champion swimmers and top sales executives. School life is full of performance opportunities and requirements for students of all ages in activities such as drama, debating, music, sports, collaboration, dance, orals, public speaking and exams.  There is no doubt that hard work and skill development is required for success in such educational activities.  However, psychological factors also play a critical role in performing.   

Regardless of effort or ability, mental factors can ‘make or break’ a performance.

Negative cognitions such as fear, worry, pressure, doubt and stress can serve to undermine performances. These mental blockers can manifest in debilitating psychological, physical symptoms or behaviours such as forgetting, errors, racing thoughts, breathing difficulties, ‘choking,’ headaches, avoidance etc., thereby, ruining the person’s ability to perform at an optimal level.

What is Performance Psychology?

Performance Psychology is a branch of psychology that draws on cognitive, behavioural and coaching principles to focus optimizing achievement.  

Evidence-based psychological techniques have been used by elite performers for decades to produce optimal performances.

A strategic approach to performances is promoted through key skills and activities including: deliberate practise, setting goals, using feedback, performance routines, collaboration, flow experiences and reflection.  Development of these key skills promotes focus, optimism, persistence, teamwork, confidence and motivation.  Reducing stress and identifying unhelpful cognitions are also critical skills to learn for optimizing performances.  Notably, these skills can diminish or overcome some of the psychological obstacles that can serve to hinder performances.  

For students, Performance Psychology education can be extremely helpful to assist the development of transferable skills that can be used to improve performance outcomes in school and life.

Genazzano fcJ College has placed a deliberate emphasis on Performance Psychology education since 2008.  Techniques are taught alongside sessions in positive education and wellbeing topics through the College’s whole school wellbeing program, GenSTAR. 

The aim is to help students to: approach learning in a purposeful way; adopt helpful thinking; pursue goals; overcome setbacks and celebrate personal growth.

What is the impact?

Dr Margaret Osborne of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Music and Mind led a study to explore the effects of performance psychology training in music students in collaboration with Genazzano.  55 music students participated in an 8 session skills training program learning key performance psychology techniques.  

The following is taken from the abstract of Dr Osborne’s empirical paper for the International Symposium of Performance Science: Following participation, students showed a ‘significant reduction in music performance anxiety, along with improved self-belief, planning, persistence and control over successful outcomes , as well as reduced failure avoidance, self-sabotage and disengagement.  This study demonstrates the efficacy of these psychological techniques to reduce performance anxiety and improve motivation, engagement and resilience in adolescent music students.’ (Osborne, 2013)

Genazzano College conducted action research in 2015 with the entire Year 9 cohort to study the effects of a performance psychology program with aimed at enhancing confidence in public speaking and oral presentations.   Pre and post testing indicated that after the skills training, students reported significant increases in positive self-perceptions and significant decreases in negative self-perceptions around speaking in public.  

Student Feedback: “Growth Mindset is about when you can’t do it – YET. But you practise and practise, and then you can.” (Evanthia Year 1)

“The practise and thinking skills for public speaking helped me so much – I felt more confident going into my oral.”  (Maddy, Year 9)

"I became quite nervous right before my piano exam and I used the breathing technique to try to calm down.  It helped a lot" (Jessica, Year 10)

"I like the mental rehearsal. I’ve used it with exams and sports, and even before a job interview. It really helps me feel more positive and confident." (Emily, Year 11)

Students provide feedback through regular surveys and focus groups.  Overwhelmingly they indicate that the program is valued and helpful.  Students are keen to be more involved in aspects of program development and delivery and this is being implemented in 2017.  Encouraging research results in a school setting, as well as very positive survey and anecdotal feedback from students, lends support for performance psychology techniques to be promoted in schools.  

References: Brandon, C. The Performance Edge:  Optimising Wellbeing and Achievement.  Conference: ACE 2015 National Conference. Educators on the edge: Big ideas for change and innovation, At Brisbane, Volume: 24-25 September (pp 62-65). VIC: Australian College of EducatorsBrandon, C.  (2008) Skills for Excellence and Wellbeing pioneered at Genazzano FCJ College. Inpscyh: The Bulletin of The Australian Psychological Society, 30(1), 15.Kenny, D.T. (2011) The Psychology of Music Performance Anxiety.  Oxford University Press.Osborne, M.S. (2013). “Maximising performance potential: the efficacy of a performance psychology program to reduce music performance anxiety and build resilience in adolescents,” in Proceedings of the International Symposium on Performance Science 2013, eds A. Williamon and W. Goebl (Brussels: Association Européennedes Conservatoires), 303–310. Terry, P. (2008). Performance Psychology: Being the best, the best you can be, or just a little bit better? Inpscyh: The Bulletin of The Australian Psychological Society, 30(1), 8-11.