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Demystifying Peak Performance (and Preventing Performance Anxiety)
Tiziana Pintus is an Italian Integral Master Coach™ based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. She supports leaders and teams towards their next performance level, in particular when under pressure. She offers her coaching services for indivduals and groups in English, Italian, and Dutch. If you are interest in learning more about Tiziana's work, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I Was Born a Performer
My favourite game, as a 2-year-old, was to ‘step on stage’ (a little wooden footstool) with a jump rope with wooden handles—remember those? After bowing to my imaginary audience, I would use those wooden handles as a microphone and sing entire songs that I heard on the radio that my Mom always had on. Once I finished my song, I would bow again to my imaginary, now wildly clapping, audience and step down from my stage… I could hardly speak, so, many of the words were made up, but the melodies and the ritual of my performances were very accurate, I was told. I loved this game and could spend hours engaging in it.
As I grew older, my relationship to performance shifted quite a bit. Performing on international stages as a concert violinist brought me to be very intimate with performance anxiety, so much so that I made it my mission to learn more about it and attempt to demystify this dragon.
In my search for meaning and understanding around performative states, I went through a period when performing almost felt like a dirty word, a synonym for inauthentic. It seemed very hard to reconcile the freedom of authentic expression (in music, as a coach, and in life) with the strait-jackety demands of delivering consistently high results. How could I move freely while re-creating what I had ‘hammered in’ with discipline and determination, fearing mistakes and failures? A catch-22, it seemed.
When honing and perfecting a skill, one can fall trap to wanting to control the outcome in an attempt to create a safe comfort zone to perform from, holding the misunderstanding that this might bring high results.
However, by attempting to control the outcome of a performance, we inadvertently pave the way for subpar performances at best, and performance anxiety, at worst. Trying to re-create what has already been
and holding on to a preset template of performance, keeps us in the past, while focusing on the end results takes us to the future. Neither space is conducive to optimal performance because they both take us away from the fundamental conditions necessary for performing at our best:
You are totally involved in the task at hand and every move is spontaneous, no need to think, worry, anticipate. You are completely in harmony with the environment and yet like in a cocoon. Nothing can take your attention away from your task, and yet you are aware of everything. A paradox: you feel in control without controlling.
Often associated with productivity, the origin of the word performance refers to ‘giving form to… make come true’. I totally love this definition as for me it alludes to bringing something to life through me in that particular setting, space and time. Coincidentally, this is a very effective strategy to cope with performance anxieties as:
- It brings you to the present moment – focus on the task at hand, no time or mental bandwidth to entertain the past or future.
- It gives you a clear why – fostering intrinsic motivation for your performance and helping you give less attention to extrinsic motivations, like punishment or rewards.
- It encourages you to connect with your audience – hello oxytocin!, our inbuilt stress regulating hormone.
Being present, connecting with your clear why and your audience, calls for different skill sets than simply doing (tools, tips, & tricks), or pushing through—another characteristic often associated with high performance (just do it!).
There are two main areas that are involved in performance. One is naturally ‘what we do’: giving a speech, asking questions, running a meeting. The other, less obvious perhaps, is the way we are in those doings: what we think, feel and experience when engaging in those actions.
The first is exterior (doing) and the second is interior (being), and both must be attended to in order to support the conditions for optimal performance.
For example, if you want to improve the flow of your coaching conversation, you would not want to rely just on rote memory, hammering possible script and questions IN. You might want to prep by experimenting and improvising how to let those questions emerge OUT of you, building the muscles of spontaneity and freedom. And yes, there is a time and place for structured, hammering in, style of preparation, but you might already be past that stage and it’s time for you to embrace the true level of skill and competencies you actually inhabit.
A little context about the stages of competencies. While not explicitly taught, I experienced this model through the fabric of the Integral Coaching® Methodology: from the training path (from Associate to Master level), to the way we coach clients (first creating awareness, then building new capabilities, to finally embodying them), and now also as a Faculty Member supporting the students’ learning journeys.
According to this model, there are 4 consequent stages in which we move through when learning a skill.It starts with the Unconscious Incompetence stage: we don’t know something and are oblivious to the fact that we don’t know… awww … blissful state.
We then become conscious we actually are not that good at something…oooouuuuuch! Conscious Incompetence stage.
We then, with conscientious practice, understand how to perform a skill; however, demonstrating the skill requires hard concentration and heavy conscious involvement to execute it - freedom and spontaneity go ‘bye-bye’. This is the Conscious Competence stage.
And finally, ta-da!! …Unconscious Competence stage: we have practiced something sooooooooooooo well that it has become totally natural, like walking or talking. This is the stage you need to be in for peak performance. Except… whether you get to this stage or not really depends on how you have engaged in honing a particular skill.If your prep time has been focused on strategies more appropriate to the Conscious Competence stage, there is little chance you’ll get to the stage of freedom and accuracy typical of peak performance.
Most clients I have supported to reach their next level of performance, are in or ready to engage in the Unconscious Competence stage. However, most of them keep preparing with the Conscious Competence mindset, geared to control and micromanage, in the attempt to build that ‘safe, comfort zone’. Optimal performance isn’t born from that cautious space, you need to take a leap of faith to be in flow.
Embodied Performance - Gateway to Flow
Your full awareness and presence are required to be able to execute a skill with mastery, as the way to recall a skill, in the Unconscious Competence stage, is through sensorial cues: how does it look, feel, and sound?
Have you noticed the kind of focused attention athletes have just before and during a competition?
What do you imagine they are doing?
Certainly not thinking about the competition or the specifics of how to use their muscles, as that will likely bring them to an anxiety state or provoke choking.
(Choking: Analysis Paralysis, by thinking about ‘what to do and how to do it’ one exhausts time and energy with, as a result, a subpar performance.)
The move is thus from a cognitive approach to a sensorial one. And here is the important part – By prepping to get to the Conscious Competence stage, you have engaged with a lot of cognitive thinking. All of that is very good and necessary, but now is the time to practice letting go of that ‘controlling mind’ and trust the skills that are IN you already. You just need to find the right key to let those skills OUT.
Sensorial cues could be descriptive words (fluid, open, gritty…), sounds, or vivid images that connect you with the message you want to deliver. The use of metaphors in the Integral Coaching® Methodology offers a wonderful way in, here: solid and rooted like a tree, flexible like leaves in the wind, active as a beehive, warm like sunrise.
Most importantly: you need to focus on the sensorial experience of it. Not ‘thinking about it’, as thinking is thinking, and the Tin Man - aka Analysis Paralysis - is around the corner.
By getting familiar with and operating from your sensorial experience, you are also quieting the mind, a great plus when it comes to preventing performance anxiety. A win-win, right?
So, What to do? Let’s Work on it!
Practice #1: Data Collection - Develop Awareness
What is your current approach and what are your beliefs around your performance abilities, either as a coach or in another field that’s important to you? In order to change and improve something, we need to assess the situation with clarity. Write down your observations guided by these prompts:
- When thinking about or actually performing a skill, what kind of thoughts (inner talk), behaviours (unnecessary tension, body changes...) and feelings (ease/tension; calm/aroused, confident/doubtful...) do you notice?
- What are your criteria to determine you have prepared sufficiently to perform a skill?
Practice #2: Creative and Effective Prepping Habits
Evaluate your habits:
- Which interior and exterior elements of your approach to performing a skill are supportive to develop the Unconscious Competence Stage (and optimal performance), and which might be actually limiting you by reinforcing only the Conscious Competence stage (and fear of mistakes and failures)?
- Which new habit do you think would support you most in solidifying the Unconscious Competence Stage and foster Embodied Performance?
Practice #3: Tap into your Sensorial Experience
- Which sensorial cue might work best for you to perform with freedom and ease?
- Focus on solidifying the sensations, feelings, state and mindset that support you perform in an authentic, healthy way.
A Few More Thoughts…
Most of my clients ask me how to get rid of their stress.
Stress is actually necessary for magical performances: no arousal = no world records.
Also, stress is not bad for you. How you relate to it, might be. From a chemical point of view, arousal, either in euphoria or in anticipation of a performance, is triggered by the same changes in our hormonal system. This means that the way you relate to those butterflies in your stomach, is the only difference. When you link them to ‘danger’ you open the gate to dis-stress, which is not good for your health; should you choose to link those butterflies to a positive state (thank you body for getting ready!) becomes eu-stress, a very healthy state and conducive to optimal performance.
A Thank You Note. And a Confession.
I felt honored to be asked to be a guest-blogger from my coaching school, Integral Coaching Canada. The Integral Coaching® Method provided me with a comprehensive map to understand, articulate and express myself. It helped me perform more authentically by supporting my development and reminding me to accept and embrace the idea we all are a work in progress.
As I worked on this blog, do you know how many times I had to remind myself of the tips I have written about?... MANY…
Authentic expression is a lifelong journey and it comes down to deliberate choices. Each day. Each time.
Drop me a message: I’d love to hear all about your experience with my suggested ideas and would gladly support you to reach your next performance level.