How do you help yourself or someone else reach a level of elite performance? Here are seven mental coaching techniques to try.
For deeper insight and background, click on these definitions of high performance and performance psychology. You can also find information about the Yerkes-Dodson law regarding performance under pressure.
7 mental tricks to boost your performance
In “Everyday Lessons of Stargazing” from the Consulting Psychology Journal, Rob Kaiser shares seven techniques to support high performance. The first five coachable skills come from sport psychology and are regarded as the “canon of psychological skills” for enhancing performance (Andersen, 2009).
Each technique brings a different value to supporting high performance. Find the ones that apply to you or your high performer. There are a plethora of resources that can help you dive deep into these techniques and apply them to your situation.
Technique 1: Relaxation
Relaxation is about finding the moderate, optimal level of arousal. Remember, Yerkes-Dodson shows that too little or two much arousal causes problems. Relaxation helps elite performers manage anxiety and stay in the performance zone.
Technique 2: Positive self-talk
We all have that voice in our head that either cheers us on or cuts us down. This technique is all about strengthening that positive voice and turning off the negative one. This is easier said than done. One approach for this technique is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy which focuses on re-writing the script in our heads to contain positive, performance supporting messages.
Technique 3: Imagery
Imagery, or visualization, refers to the act of mentally rehearsing a complex skill. The mental rehearsal supports the physical practice.
For example, an executive could carefully write and practice a presentation for the Board of Directors. Although the work is done, the executive physically shakes with nerves when he thinks about giving the high-pressure presentation. This is when a technique like imagery or visualization could help!
The executive could visualize the large, imposing boardroom, so it starts feeling more familiar. He could also create a mental picture of the board members around the table and anticipate what questions each one might ask. Finally, he could imagine himself finishing the presentation and feeling strong and confident.
These imagery exercises calm anxiety and set a solid mental foundation for facing the high-pressure task.
Technique 4: Goal setting
By setting goals, elite performers can stretch themselves and understand what they are working toward. But the kind of goals they set is important.
Goals should be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) to be effective. This advice shows up in most goal-setting techniques.
To heighten the impact of the SMART approach, the focus should be on process goals instead of outcome goals. Process goals are about accomplishing interim steps toward a longer-term outcome. They provide a clearer road map and positive reinforcement as they are completed.
While reading the article for this post, I was also watching my son’s diving practice. His coach perfectly illustrated process goals. The coach did not emphasize the outcome goal – qualifying for district and regional meets. Instead he focused on the process. The goal that day was to get higher on a specific dive. The coaching specified minor corrections – keep your head up, move your arms sooner, tighten your stomach. By the end of the practice, my son had added 6 inches of height to the dive.
Technique 5: Concentration
Concentration involves blocking out distractions in order to apply all energy to performance. The previous four techniques – relaxation, positive self-talk, imagery and process goals – can enhance concentration.
These first five techniques came from the sport psychology literature (Anderson, 2009). Kaiser added two additional techniques.
Technique 6: Energy Management
Managing one’s own energy levels contributes to high performance. This could involve refreshing yourself via meditation or relaxation or visualization. It also means getting enough sleep, eating regular and healthy meals and exercising. Elite performers expend a lot of energy. Staying in peak form keeps the elite performer ready for tackling the next task and continuing to improve results. Executives who neglect energy management often face burnout. Burnout creates a downward spiral that can knock an elite performer off the fast track.
Technique 7: Ego Management
In this case, ego management is defined in terms of the elite performer’s connection to the performance results. After investing extensive time, energy and money, the elite performer can become unhealthily intertwined with the goal. The goal becomes inextricably linked with the elite performer’s view of himself.
Accomplishing the goal becomes critical to maintain a feeling of self-worth. Failure in reaching the goal becomes failure as a person. Managing the elite performer’s attachment to the goal is critical for keeping them mentally healthy. Having some distance is healthy and likely to actually improve performance.
Executives, artists, Olympic athletes and other elite performers are also spouses and parents and students and workers and hobbyists. You are more than your goals.
Consider your situation. How can you apply some of these techniques to continue to elevate your performance?
Andersen, M. B. (2009). The “canon” of psychological skills training for enhancing performance. In K. F. Hays (Ed.), Performance psychology in action: A casebook for working with athletes, performing artists, business leaders, and professionals in high-risk occupations (pp. 11–34). http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/11876-001
Yerkes, R. M., & Dodson, J. D. (1908). The relationship of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit formation.Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459–482. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/cne.920180503
Kaiser, R. B. (2019). Stargazing: Everyday lessons from coaching elite performers. Consulting Psychology Journal, 74, 2, 130-139. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cpb0000143