What follows is one of the most important and fascinating lessons I’ve ever learned about performance. Any kind of performance.
Cover of What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures
In his compilation book What the Dog Saw, Malcolm Gladwell re-publishes his New Yorker article, “The Art of Failure,” in which he discusses the psychology behind why people buckle under pressure. Here’s what he says about the process that we call “choking”:
“Choking” sounds like a vague and all-encompassing term, yet it describes a very specific kind of failure. For example, psychologists often use a primitive video game to test motor skills. They’ll sit you in front of a computer with a screen that shows four boxes in a row, and a keyboard that has four corresponding buttons in a row. One at a time, x’s start to appear in the boxes on the screen, and you are told that every time this happens you are to push the key corresponding to the box.
According to Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, if you’re told ahead of time about the pattern in which those x’s will appear, your reaction time in hitting the right key will improve dramatically. You’ll play the game very carefully for a few rounds, until you’ve learned the sequence, and then you’ll get faster and faster. Willingham calls this “explicit learning.”
But suppose you’re not told that the x’s appear in a regular sequence, and even after playing the game for a while you’re not aware that there is a pattern. You’ll still get faster: you’ll learn the sequence unconsciously. Willingham calls that “implicit learning”–learning that takes place outside of awareness. These two learning systems are quite separate, based in different parts of the brain.
Willingham says that when you are first taught something–say, how to hit a backhand or an overhead forehand–you think it through in a very deliberate, mechanical manner. But as you get better the implicit system takes over: you start to hit a backhand fluidly, without thinking. The basal ganglia, where implicit learning partially resides, are concerned with force and timing, and when that system kicks in you begin to develop touch and accuracy, the ability to hit a drop shot or place a serve at a hundred miles per hour. “This is something that is going to happen gradually,” Willingham says. “You hit several thousand forehands, after a while you may still be attending to it. But not very much. In the end, you don’t really notice what your hand is doing at all.”
Under conditions of stress, however, the explicit system sometimes takes over. That’s what it means to choke. When Jana Novotna faltered at Wimbledon, it was because she began thinking about her shots again. She lost her fluidity, her touch. She double-faulted on her serves and mis-hit her overheads, the shots that demand the greatest sensitivity in force and timing. She seemed like a different person–playing with the slow, cautious deliberation of a beginner–because, in a sense, she was a beginner again: she was relying on a learning system that she hadn’t used to hit serves and overhead forehands and volleys since she was first taught tennis, as a child.
The same thing has happened to Chuck Knoblauch, the New York Yankees’ second baseman, who inexplicably has had trouble throwing the ball to first base. Under the stress of playing in front of forty thousand fans at Yankee Stadium, Knoblauch finds himself reverting to explicit mode, throwing like a Little Leaguer again.
Way back when, I took scene study classes in college. Beginning actors come in to programs rife with bad habits and shitck that had served them in the past. Early scene study classes have two general purposes: 1) break actors of bad technical habits, and 2) get them thinking more thoroughly about what’s going on in a scene. During such classes, the acting quality starts to improve, but the actors become less free and expressive. You can see actors start to struggle and second-guess themselves, trying to do the scene “right.” Teachers would say about such students are “in their heads,” and needed to “get out of their heads,” but without further explanation or direction the students seldom knew what that meant.
Implicit Learning – Letting the subconscious get a “feel” through repetition
Lo and behold, being “in your head” and “out of your head” has a distinct physiological meaning, as we see from Gladwell’s work. When you learn an element of performance, whether it’s a sport, an instrument, a test, taking the stage, or anything else that creates an “event,” you use one part of your brain to train another part. The conscious, explicit-learning part of the brain can think through what it’s supposed to do step-by-step, but it cannot produce a quality performance. So we condition ourselves by practicing technique explicitly and technically, over and over, until our unconscious, implicit-learning brain “gets it.” For more information on instructing using implicit versus explicit activity, read this article.
This is not headline-grabbing science. But within this explanation lies a new idea: even superbly conditioned performers and athletes can fall victim to a take-over by their explicit-brains, and become beginners again. This is paradoxical: we typically tell those who have trouble performing to buckle down and try harder. But in this case, the performance trouble is actually caused by too much buckling down.
2003 Cubs, and Scapegoating
In 2003, the Chicago Cubs were within 5 outs of going to their first World Series since 1945. Everyone remembers what happened next: a young man sitting along the third base line reached out for a fly ball that possibly could have been caught by the Cubs outfielder. And from that moment through the rest of the League Series, the Cubs fell apart. Was it the fan’s fault? Was it the Curse of the Goat? Of course not. It was the fact that that event interrupted the rhythm of the game long enough for the Cubs to realize how close they were to the promised land. Then, in unspoken collective agreement, they all thought, “We’d better not screw this up.” And in so thinking, they became Little Leaguers again: a tapper to short famously rolled right through Alex Gonzales’s legs.
Were they the less talented team? Less conditioned? Less athletic? Not necessarily. They were just the only team on the field that day who hadn’t won a World Series in nearly a hundred years. Had their concentration not waivered, they may have gone to the series. But getting “in your head” feeds on itself. A performer becomes aware that they are not performing…that something is wrong. They react the only way they can, by tightening down on themselves. This further worsens the problem.
This happened to me recently in a graduate class. I’ve been giving presentations and speeches for a long time, so when I showed up for a class on presentation style, I didn’t think much of it. But sure enough, as I started receiving critical feedback, I over-reacted and second-guessed myself. All of a sudden I started losing my mojo. I became bland and wordy, and visibly trying too hard. I became a beginner again.
What causes this take-over? It’s the perception of both pressure (the force compelling you to deliver results) and threat (the idea that your abilities might be adequate for the moment). The more invested one becomes in a particular outcome, the harder it is to keep from thinking, “I’d better not screw this up.” And that thought is the beginning of the end. The higher level of performer you become, the more your performance will benefit when your mind resists contemplating the consequences of your performance. This goes beyond mere concentration and focus to the idea of mental composure. Ordinary experience will not give you mental composure. It takes a special kind of experience: the experience of holding your mind quiet and steady in the face of significant pressure, and keeping out thoughts of external threat and consequences. The higher the stakes, the harder that is to do.
How can we get young actors incorporate their teachings yet stay “out of their heads?”
I wish I had realized all this when I was still an acting coach. My favorite manner of practicing with young speakers and actors was to interrupt their performance with notes and changes, rather than letting them complete and giving notes at the end. But now I realize that my style of coaching would be more prone to put a performer into their head. It’s like a golf instructor who constantly stops a student at the top of the backswing to give correction. “Touch” is acquired through iteration; through getting through the entire process over and over, and getting it “into your body.” I now realize why the two best directors I studied under were also the directors who were the least interruptive during the rehearsal process. The actors got more full iterations, and got their performances more “in their bodies.”
So how do we performers (meaning athletes, musicians, actors, speakers, and really anyone who has to deliver an excellent result under pressure) keep acting from our place of instinct, and resist falling into the quagmire of self-doubt, over-analysis and becoming a beginner again? How do we keep our mojo going? How can we develop mental composure? Here are some thoughts:
1) Divest from the outcome – The moment I thought that I had to prove to my grad school class that I was an excellent speaker, I ceased being an excellent speaker. Had I not cared, I could have spoken more instinctively. When I was more active in auditioning at local theatres, I would make a habit of setting up a bunch of auditions at once, and consequently each individual audition was less vital to me. My audition ability improved when I perceived that I didn’t have everything on the line. The higher you rise in a field, the harder it is to keep perspective, but without perspective you tighten down on yourself, and when you tighten down, you rise no higher.
2) Quiet your mental chatter – My brain is chatter-city. Some of us have that going on more than others. It can be helpful with self-reflection, but in excess it leads to scattered focus, over-analysis, and ultimately frustration. Performance craves focus. It craves mental composure. Mental chatter is just the opposite; it comes from anxiety, tightness, and self-flagellation.
3) Train with gradual increases in pressure – No singer ever went directly from one-on-one rehearsal to performing at Carnegie Hall. In college, my vocal instructor had studio recitals, where a small group of her students would sing for each other and offer gentle feedback. The first time I sang for this small and very forgiving group, my knees shook. And then it started to get better. It gradually dawned on me that my abilities were a match for this venue. I then sang at a studio concert in an auditorium. My knees, surprisingly, didn’t shake as much, even though we upped the pressure. You want to gradually increase the pressure so that you can achieve incremental victories, until ultimately the pressure ceases to be in your control. You are training your brain, little by little, to understand that despite the high stakes, it’s okay to let go and trust your instinctive self.
4) Get your mind on what’s right in front of you – This discipline is built like a muscle. In the beginning, especially, it’s very hard to get over judging yourself in the moment. Whatever we’re supposed to be concentrating on, our mind likes to take little vacations, saying things like, “That just sucked,” or “Next round is gonna be tough,” or “I’d rather be in a Siberian gulag than up in front of these people right now.” If your focus is scattered on a million thoughts, you will remain in your head. If you can focus your mind on one thing only, you will live in the moment. Where should your mind be? On whatever is going on right now. If you’re talking to an audience, your mind should be on the action of impressing a point upon them. If you’re acting, your mind should be on your scene partner. If playing a sport, your mind should narrow on the current situation and the field in front of you. Practice holding your focus on the moment…it’s difficult and tiring at first.
5) Make a habit of mental quiet time – Many athletes are starting to meditate now as part of their routine, and that’s excellent for the mental part of the game. If you are like me, and you’re in your head a lot, the best thing you can do is grab 20 minutes once or twice a day, get alone, turn everything off, and quiet your mind down. This could be using meditation, yoga, doing the dishes, knitting, or anything else that encourages mental quiet. Can you picture monks or advanced martial art instructors being over-analytical and scatterbrained? It’s hard to picture that, because those are two groups of people that tend to cultivate mental quiet as part of their whole existence.
6) Learn how to “get it back” – You know when you’re losing it. You know when you’re choking at something, and the golf ball is getting knocked everywhere but onto the fairway. The hardest thing to do in that situation is to stop the death spiral. But that’s a skill like anything else. Jana Novotna or the ’03 Cubs could have gotten it back together, had they more experience at the mental discipline of getting it back together. When you feel yourself pushing, and slumping as a result, getting out of it involves not forcing but releasing – as if it were a Chinese Finger Puzzle. If you become aware of stress, get it behind you, and get your mind back on what’s right in front of you.
7) Control the mental frame – When I’m teaching how to do something, I’m better at it than when competing at that same thing. That shouldn’t be true, because technically it’s the same activity. But talking about choking means addressing perception. If I perceive threat, I contract and try harder. But we are ultimately in control of how we perceive the world, and the magnitude of the threat we’re up against. Most pressure is actually self-imposed pressure. So when you execute, execute from a mental frame as if you’re teaching a master class on how something should be done. Assume that the world is already won over. Assume that you’re good to go. This will help you build trust in your own instinctual abilities.
8) Remember: “Your mind likes to screw with you.” – It took me a long time to figure out that the world is a much more even-keel, much less melodramatic place than it appeared to be. If your brain is anything like mine, it likes to invent things to feel anxiety over, which are almost never worth the resulting anxiety. Our minds like to screw with us. If I ever figure out why, when we screw something up, our mind instantly remembers all the similar screw ups we’ve made in the past, I’ll let you know. Bottom line, when we feel something is important, our minds like to add extra significance and extra pressure. Adjust for that. Your senses are lying to you. There’s much less actual pressure going on in the outside world than you think there is. Take a breath. The drama is probably invented.