Train Your Mind To Get Into Your Peak Performance Zone

Train Your Mind To Get Into Your Peak Performance Zone

The extraordinary potential of our abilities resides in our focus and awareness. Specific habits can elevate this potential

A man sitting on a bench looking out over a vista.
Photo by Daniel Salgado on Unsplash

As an orchestra conductor, I’m interested in exploring the power of our mind, and specifically how to focus the mind as we perform. I want to understand why some performances go further than others — how sometimes we can reach a peak state in our performance when we go into our “zone.” What is that zone, and how do we get there?

“Awareness is the greatest agent for change.” — Eckhart Tolle

I want to increase the consistency of the power of my mind — its ability to create, to understand other people, to see connections and relationships between things, to notice subtleties — and I’m aware that this is attainable from the work I do, TK those moments where I touch upon it in a performance and experience something incredible and go beyond.

I know the power of being in the ‘zone,’ and yet sometimes this potential gets undermined by my mind. Some nights it’s focused; other nights I’m more nervous and distracted. The same happens within the orchestras that I work with. Sometimes we impact each other. Mistakes can cause a ripple effect. A focus that was there gets derailed while we clamour to regroup, our self-confidence taking a hit and our emotions reeling haphazardly as we play on. The same happens in sports as a sudden turn of events or new goal creates a distracting reaction or shock.

The goods emerge when our minds are still. Being in the zone implies that we are completely inside the experience. We’re not looking at it from above, or with an outside perspective from afar. And when we get to this still, focused place, we have the potential to become keenly aware — aware of new feelings, experiences, sounds, sights, and even the space and silence around it all.Awareness brings us into a deeper, more vivid experience.

We don’t have to be the victims of unreliability — experiencing a focused event one time and a distracted one the next. We have the power to improve, change, and empower our minds to focus more deeply and more often. We can train our minds to experience awareness when we work on it outside of our performance zone, and develop the skills that will help us to more readily bring our minds into this potential. Then we can get into the zone more often and find deeper awareness there when we perform.

Three Important Components of Training

You may be a speaker, an actor, a musician, or an athlete. Whatever you do, you’re in the category of having work where you need to build skills and prepare for upcoming events. But instead of just these two, imagine that we divide our preparation and work into three categories:

1. Skills

These are lifelong, long-term skills that you gain through hard work, training, and diligence. Over time, as you learn to master each one, they’re automatized by your subconscious mind, allowing your mind to focus on building new skills and to expand, creating increasing competence and higher levels of potential.

It’s tricky to balance the automatization of skills (a dance move that you don’t need to think about, or a perfect backhand that just comes naturally) while still maintaining mindfulness and focus. Being present with our skills is critical to awareness and your highest performance potential. We need to cycle around, revisiting all skills mindfully, even automatized ones, so that we cast a light on what we’re doing with focus every time we work. If you’re a musician, for instance, you can become sloppy on finger technique if you don’t slow things down and revisit focused attention on this detailed work.

As we work on our skills, we should move between intensely focusing on new skills while other times returning to those already automatic to ensure that our mind is connected to all aspects of what we do, and our work is vibrant, mindful, and doesn’t get sloppy.

2. Specific performance preparation

Although you spend a lifetime working at your skills, each new performance is unique and has unique requirements — a specific business presentation to prepare, a new screenplay to memorize, a concert of new repertoire to practice, a fresh speech to write, or a specific terrain to practice for a race. Your skills are used and developed here, but your focus is on a specific set of goals to prepare and accomplish.

3. Awareness

Many of us focus on the first two areas almost exclusively — and just accept our mental and psychological states as they show up randomly for our performances. But this article focuses on this third aspect of training, which I believe should be an important focus of our preparatory work, as it could have an incredible impact on our performances.

If we aren’t mentally equipped for performance, our minds can derail the efforts made in the first two areas — all those hours of practicing and memorization can be undermined if you’re mentally distracted and nervous when you present your speech or perform your concerto. Your tennis game will be sabotaged by a chattering mind if you don’t know how to focus it and direct your mind to empower you. Nervousness, distraction, overreaction, judgement, and instability are all unwelcome visitors, but they don’t have to be if you work in this area to have more control over your mental state.

In this third area of training, we prepare our minds rather than our skills. We learn the power to be focused, present, and still and gain the understanding of how to guide our minds to a more positive, empowering place. And with this investment in mindfulness training, we can come to rely upon ourselves to be aware, flexible, and responsive, so we can harness the heightened potential that resides within the intense experience of performance.

Being Aware of Your Mind When You Practice

When I was younger, I spent hours practicing the piano, sometimes 4–6 hours a day. But as I look back, so much of that time I was thinking about something else, or only half present while my fingers worked on their muscle memory. And then, when I performed, I was terrified. I had trained such mindlessness, that when it came to the performance I was ill-equipped to deal with the presence that performance puts on us. All of the fears of the future “what ifs” descended upon me, and the distraction that I had “trained” into my mind was the dominant experience.

As a conductor on the podium, I’m much more focussed. The orchestra needs a leader who’s listening fiercely, aware of the most intricate details in the sound, and manipulates and balances it. I have to be aware of the energy of the orchestra, how to engage this incredible energy, and to have the mental awareness to respond and mould it.

It’s so interesting to work with music, because it literally turns a collective energy into a tangible sound, like something that’s invisible suddenly becoming visible through the cloak of the sound itself. If you were looking at an orchestra practicing on stage before the concert starts, you’d probably not be able to feel the collective energy of their mood. But once they start playing, you know it from the sound of the music. It will be different every time.

When any of us starts a performance, whether it’s a game or a Broadway show, the “performance” takes over and has its own momentum and plans. Harnessing this moment is the trick. The thrill of it is part of that strange utterly exciting pain/joy that is a part of performing, and we get the biggest thrill when we are present for it. In Eckhart Tolle’s book, “The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment,” he says that this desire to get intensely into the present is probably the reason why some athletes enjoy dangerous sports such as mountain climbing or big wave surfing; it forces them into the Now. I can attest that this is true when I stand on a stage conducting Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

A mind-bending aspect of performance is in the relationships — the space between things, the silence, the reactions of one gesture or sound to the next, the connection between the audience and the performers, the relationship of that particular night with the culture of the world in that very moment.

Performance is a living, moving organism that unfolds of its own momentum. Every moment creates the next moment. We can’t plan for it. We have to be there to witness it. The extraordinary potential of the performance resides in our focus and awareness. With mental awareness, we are enabled to be still, calm, and ‘inside’ these relationships. In this way, we get inside a moment that will never happen again.

Ways To Train Your Mind To Be Aware and Present

Meditate with eyes closed and use breath

Meditation is the starting point because it helps us to feel what it’s like to be present with a still mind and no thoughts. Until we come to know that feeling for ourselves, we won’t get there in performance.

If you don’t meditate, start with ten minutes in the morning. Sit comfortably, and only allow your mind to focus on your breath — ‘in — and then your breath — ‘out.’ Nothing else. Your goal is to achieve an awareness of simply being present, gently dispelling your mind of thoughts.

If you haven’t done this before, you might find this difficult. I know I did. It’s almost impossible at first to stop your thoughts from flitting in and out, swirling around in your head. It might feel like your mind shimmers with activity. Be patient. Our activities and distractions have trained this habit, but I promise you, you can train your mind to be more still. And when you do, you’ll find that it’s empowering.

Another impactful life-changing and performance-enhancing aspect of meditation is that we work on being non-judgemental of our thoughts. Thoughts come and go, but we merely observe them and then draw our focus back to our breath. In our meditation, we work towards being present, and when we get there, we learn to accept what “is.” This is powerful stuff for a performer. When we’re in the Now, we simply experience what “is” and learn for those moments to just “be.” When you’re present, there’s nothing to criticize or worry about. You’re not thinking about the past or the future, and in that moment, what’s to judge?

Dedicate yourself to doing this meditation twice a day, ideally as soon as you wake up, and sometime in the evening to start establishing this habit. Eventually, expand the time to 20 minutes or more, as you’ll find that if you go longer you will get more deeply into this zone. Having been an active doer your whole life, recognize the power of this part of your day and that this “being” is every bit as important and impactful as your “doing.” You are opening a portal into a deeper performance experience.

Get into your body

When you meditate, one of the things that can help you feel truly present, truly “there,” is to focus on your body. As you meditate, start with your breathing, and then turn your awareness towards your eyes, ears, head, shoulders, back, arms and feet, and you will literally feel your physical presence, which helps you feel the presence of Now. This body awareness will give you a feeling of being grounded and provide a focal point for your search for presence. Many of you performers use your bodies in your work, so this also strengthens body awareness.

Each day, when you’re doing other daily activities, try to observe how your physical body is feeling. Notice whether stress is affecting the tightness of your heart for instance, or whether you have tension in your shoulders.

Observation is simply that — being aware of what is happening. You needn’t worry about doing anything, but your awareness, as it deepens, will give you the skills to make changes to manage these things that you notice in your physical body. When you perform, you’ll carry this body awareness more deeply into your preperformance and performance experience.

Open your eyes

Closing our eyes helps us to focus. Thoughts come in and out of the picture, and we let them go, bringing our mind back to the now as often as we can. It’s always a great place to go for our awareness training.

But once you feel ready, try doing an exercise for your eyes. I’m at a beautiful lake, and it’s an exquisite summer morning. I love this lake, and I often sit and stare out at the shimmering water, amazed at how it shifts and fluctuates in mood and energy. That aspect has always been in my awareness.

Photo by author

But on a beautiful morning like this one, I’ve experienced how we can deepen our awareness of what we actually “see.” Find a natural place that you love, and move back and forth between opening your eyes — staying present — and then if you lose your ‘balance’ with it, closing your eyes again to gain your focus. Open and close to keep this awareness of presence.

The first time I did this, incredible things started to happen around 10 minutes into my exercise. I started noticing certain colours that I had never noted before — and the reflection of the mountains, as well as certain groupings of trees suddenly emerged so strongly that I was surprised that I hadn’t noticed them before!

There’s so much of the world that is there in front of us that we don’t perceive. Look deeply to see more, and it will not only emerge to you, but you will recognize that feeling from some of your best performance moments when you went beyond and experienced a perception that was deeper. They are related.

Make awareness an everyday part of your daily habit

Practicing meditation is a great place to start for this awareness training. It gives us a focused, undistracted means for feeling presence. When you first start this work, you might start your practice with the meditations only, and then go about your day not thinking too much further about it.

But as you progress, and you start to feel your awareness more, you’ll feel the reward, and you’ll want to apply it to more that you do within your day. This will have a great impact. Obviously, as busy, ambitious ‘doers,’ you have lots of work to get done. You have training to accomplish, work to fulfill, business that prevails. Awareness training doesn’t mean that it has to take any time away from these important requirements. Get your work done.

But, there are moments in every day, inside everything we do, where we can change our habits. When you eat, for instance, you can practise awareness. Look at your food, savour the flavours, note the texture. Eat mindfully and don’t think about future projects or watch your phone while you do it. You’ll be amazed at how much of the time you eat mindlessly. Believe it or not, this is hard work, but richly rewarding. I find that I don’t do this all of the time — but to take moments in your day where you focus on this for five minutes here and there is hugely rewarding.

For sure, one thing we want to start eliminating from our lives is multitasking. Every time we choose to multitask, or do anything in our lives in a distracted fashion, we carve this habit into our mind, and we open and widen our neuropathways to distracted thought. Your distracted thoughts carve out superhighways in your brain and move about with ease and speed.

The more you simplify your experiences, the more you train your mind to be present, and these superhighways close down. This is going to impact how you perform, and it’s also going to impact how you prepare. You’ll see more, you’ll work more efficiently, and you’ll learn faster. When you’re in the zone, you’re present. You can practice performing on eating your soup, or washing your car.

Any time you can, throughout your day, find five minutes or ten minutes to notice when you are distracted — and bring your mind into presence. If you’re in a boring meeting, you can focus on your breath rather than zoning out or broaden your perception to see what else you can notice. If you’re driving, you can take ten minutes before you make that phone call to see if you can drive with your eyes and awareness in the present without thinking. When you go for a walk, use the first moments to step mindfully so that you are aware of each step. You can practice this skill, too, by going up a staircase a few times a day, and every time you go up the steps, you must be present and without thoughts. If you start thinking, you have to go back to the bottom and start over. Fun, huh?

Apply this to your conversations. How present are you? How much of your presence are you giving to the person sitting beside you? This person is your “audience,” they’re ready to share this moment with you. Are you going to be present for them? Or are your thoughts going to flit around thinking about other things? How you practice this simple task will impact how you perform for your audiences later.

Everything you do becomes a part of your awareness. Your habit to be distracted — or your habit to be aware — is within your power to control and grow. If you’re generally highly distracted, you can get better — all it takes is your commitment, bit by bit, to building a new habit.

The gift that you receive personally will impact your entire life and not just your performances. The joy that you will get out of your performances, the presence that will enable things to emerge for you, the awareness of what’s really possible will intensify and deepen. This will not only change your own life but those present to witness what you do in your performances.

Listen to music

Finally, I recommend that you use your ears. Listening to music is a way to focus our awareness, and specifically to focus us on our emotions, as well as give us a means for practicing the skill of being present with something that’s in motion. If we mindfully listen, without activating our normal everyday proclivity to be “doing something,” we can have an experience of being present and listening within a mood of our choosing, without thought. We learn to feel rather than think at this moment.

Music is a direct conduit to our emotional centres and brings us directly to this highly personal and deeply important aspect of ourselves. You choose the music that resonates with your mood, or the mood you desire. You relate to “your music” on a personal level because it makes you feel a certain way that either recognizes you or makes you feel like someone that you recognize or want to recognize.

We’ve gotten into the habit of using music as something that plays in the background while we work, train, write, or drive. I recommend spending moments in your life where you take music out of the subconscious background and spend some real time with it, fully present, listening to the words, listening to the harmony, travelling with the phrase.

Final Thoughts

Those moments where we really go into a “zone” are often the times when we recede into the energy of what’s happening and relax into the experience. We go for the ride. When we trust and open ourselves to the experience, we let go of gripping onto the surface of what we’re doing. Often this happens when things are going well — when we’re “on.”

Awareness allows us to notice “how we are” in a moment, what we’re doing, and to observe our mind’s distractions while having the awareness and skill to get back into letting go and staying present. With our skills we can get rid of the constant background of noise — the chattering voice that circles in our heads and distracts us from feeling, hearing, and seeing things in the moment. When we know ‘the feeling’ of being present — we can open ourselves into this zone more readily, and be aware of what’s there — right inside the performance moment.

When you work on your mind every day, and then come back to perform — you’ll have this awareness power, and you’ll be able to gently move your mind to be still, present, and aware of extraordinary potential in that moment, which is waiting for all of us.

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