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Performance Psychology and Its Power

It’s remarkable how much our mental habits and self-image can influence our learning – performance psychology is the study of this phenomenon.

If you want to master any skill or pursuit, you need to have your mindset dialled in. If you don’t, eventually your own psychology will work against you and destroy your chances of reaching your goals.

On the other hand, you can cleverly exploit this effect to increase your chances of success.

Let’s talk about what performance psychology is before we discuss its importance in learning.

What is Performance Psychology?

A key tenet of performance psychology is that an event is much likelier to occur if we believe and act as though it will. Life tends to conform to our thoughts and ideas, especially our personal life. This is called the Pygmalion Effect. In this article we’ll focus mostly on this effect because it underlies much of modern performance psychology.

As I say in my article What is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy? The Pygmalion Effect, humans have known about this psychological phenomenon since the days of Ancient Greece, at least.

In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a sculptor who fell in love with his statue of a beautiful woman. So fervent was his love that he desired it to become a real woman. And after he repeatedly prayed to the goddess Venus, the statue eventually came to life.

It’s a simple myth, but it shows us some powerful aspects of the self-fulfilling prophecy. For one thing, the fact this appears in Greek mythology means that this aspect of human psychology has been known for a long time. The Greeks were clearly aware that thought, belief and desire are powerful entities.

You might be polytheistic like the Greeks, Egyptians and Romans, or believe in an omnipotent, omnipresent God that punishes evil and rewards good, or prefer the idea that we manifest our reality by collapsing quantum fields. Regardless of the explanation for it, this myth shows us that life somehow conspires to our thoughts and actions.

So how can this affect how we learn? What does it have to do with performance? Let’s look at an example that both simple and relatable.

Learning Maths and Performance Psychology

We tend to believe that we’re either made to do maths or we aren’t, as though it were written in the stars. Perhaps you cling to ideas like “maths doesn’t run in the family” or “my brain isn’t wired for this”.

These beliefs abound in our society, yet though they have a scientific veneer and flow off the tongue, they’re no more than a hangover from dodgy Darwinism, pseudoscientific at best. And they don’t reflect the reality of learning maths.

There is no maths gene and learning is not a genetic trait. Your parents don’t determine your maths skills – I’d never have achieved my degree if they did. Neither does your brain wiring determine your maths abilities. The human brain is remarkably plastic, capable of rewiring much more than just the circuits for repetition, memory, abstract thought and reasoning.

It also implies that maths is some kind of special mode of functioning reserved for brainy people. But learning maths, even to unviersity level, is mostly about repetition. It has much more to do with memorising structures and approaches than rational thought processes.

The distinction between capability and incapability is much greyer than we believe. By giving pseudoscientific explanations, we take what is a temporary obstacle – difficulty with maths – and frame it as a lifelong disease. This is a recurrent theme in performance psychology.

My experience: Teaching. I spent almost ten years doing private maths classes, and I repeatedly witnessed remarkable improvement in struggling students. I think part of my success was not pedagogical but psychological: not once, not even with the poorest, slowest students, did I promote the idea that they were inherently incapable. My attitude was always one of: “You can do this – let’s get to work.”

And after all, the belief that we’re incapable of learning maths is self-fulfilling. This is performance psychology Effect at work.

Here’s how it works. If children take their teachers’ and parents’ pseudoscience too seriously and develop this belief, theyll subtly pay a little less attention in class, try a little less, and even do things a little worse than they would otherwise. After all, we humans always act according to our beliefs. Can you relate?

Lo and behold, the blunted attention, lack of effort and increased self-sabotage will mirror their original belief back to them. Their grades will take a hit. They will struggle to learn maths. And because of this internal consistency, they won’t even question the cause: their own faulty beliefs.

If you understand this and begin to see how such a simple mechanism can hold you back in your own pursuits, you’re a step ahead others when it comes to performance psychology.

Performance Psychology and Language Learning

Let’s take another area that’s suspectible to faulty performance psychology: languages.

Part of our vulnerability when it comes to languages is that we first learn them at school, usually to a mediocre level. Fast forward to adulthood, and this early experience can easily make us think we’re forever doomed to the beginner level in whatever language we decide to learn.

We think back to our school days and remember how clumsily we spoke the language. We remember struggling to learn the basic vocabulary. This is our only experience of language learning, so it inevitably skews our perception of the task at hand.

And like with maths, we tend to believe that we’re either capable or incapable of learning foreign languages, as though it were some kind of fixed variable.

I should know. When people hear of my level in Spanish, they react with a mixture of awe, dumbfoundedness and envy, as though I somehow magically acquired the language. They plain ignore the enormous amount of blood, sweat and failure behind it, and that I’m constantly immersed in the language at home.

So when we decide to attend beginner’s classes in French, for example, what happens? In the early days, it’s inevitably difficult to learn new vocab and impossible to understand normal speech, and you can forget about stringing sentences together. This is the initial experience of learning a language – for us all.

To get good, you have to persist through the Beginner’s Hump. But if you hold those horrible limiting beliefs, you’ll simply conclude you’re not cut out for it, and will stop going to your classes before you really had a chance to build competency. Result? You reinforce those skewed beliefs.

Check out my video on the Pygmalion Effect for in-depth knowledge of how it works.

Performance Psychology: The Pernicious Impact of Negative Beliefs

The impact of holding disempowering beliefs is ridiculously obvious when you give it some thought. Simply, if you believe you can’t learn a certain skill, you’ll never give yourself the chance to do so. You’ll never go out and buy the books, find the right teachers, or take the courses. Lo and behold, you won’t learn.

Even if you do begin walking the path – heck, even if you become a professional – your negative mindset will catch up with you. Eventually reality will conform to your ideas. Believing you’re not cut out to get really good, your progress will stutter. You’ll study with less tenacity than required. You might even actively sabotage yourself with some overt action. Whatever form your destructive behaviour takes, you’re bound to prevent yourself from making real progress.

But if these beliefs doom us to failure, why do we hold them?

Why Do We Hold These Beliefs?

You might raise an objection at this point. “Ross, if these beliefs are so damaging, why do 99% of people hold them? Surely they must be true. We really can have a maths brain or a knack for learning languages.”

Well, just because somethings seems true and seems self-evident doesn’t mean it is. Here are a couple of good reasons why we hold them.

We Acquire Them From a Young Age

Many of these negative, disempowering cliches (“maths brain”, “maths doesn’t run in the family”, “my brain isn’t wired right”) are drummed into us by teachers, family and the media as we grow up. Since we don’t have the learning experience necessary to see that these opinions are faulty, we absorb them, and we never question these ridiculous ideas later in life.

Now our whole view of learning is skewed, completely hijacked by these tired catchphrases.

Mistaking the Beginner’s Hump for Inherent Incompetence

For the first five to ten years of school, we’re acquiring the basics of the subjects we study. We are beginners. So inevitably we struggle and look clumsy.

The same goes for learning as an adult. For the first few hundred hours of a pursuit, we’re trying to understand the basics. We feel inferior. It’s mentally challenging to keep practicing. We feel like we’ll never get there.

The problem is that clumsiness and difficulty are not permanent states that we either avoid completely or stay stuck in forever. They’re simply features of the Beginner’s Hump, an inescapable and necessary part of the journey. We all experience them whenever we dip our toes in a brand new pursuit.

My experience: The Beginner’s Hump. Traversing the Beginner’s Hump in a range of pursuits has permanently altered how I view talent, competence and the entire learning journey. Whenever I start a new endeavour, I basically expect to suck. I brace myself for some humbling experiences on the journey. But I’m able to direct my focus away from my fears and fantasies and towards routine and diligence. I roll with the initial struggle and tedium, knowing I’ll be rewarded with flow states and satisfaction further down the line.

Yet we humans are often myopic. The Beginner’s Hump is painful and uncertain. And we struggle to calmly sit with our incompetence and confusion and realise that they’re inevitable. We can’t create the mental space required to think five to ten years ahead. So we take this temporary state and imagine that it’s somehow inherent and fixed. At least it gives us stable ground to stand on.

In my opinion, whenever we put klutziness down to inherent incompetence, we’re being too short-sighted and not seeing that the Beginner’s Hump is causing it.

If you’ve spent six months learning a language and don’t see any progress, don’t fret. You’re not incapable, or faulty, or untalented, you’re just experiencing the Beginner’s Hump.

Performance Psychology In Positive

self-perpetuating (adj): capable of continuing or renewing oneself indefinitely

I’ve been pretty negative so far, criticising our faulty ideas about learning and underlining how they destroy our chances of getting good.

But there is an upside to all this: performance psychology works in the positive too. Empowering beliefs make it much more likely you’ll succeed. They have you take action towards your goal and keep you on the path to get good. Not only that, they affect your performance in the moment. We see this in top sportsmen, who aren’t only masters of their craft, but of the mind too.

Two Key Positive Beliefs For High Performance

I’ve written several articles on how to develop a powerful mentality for learning, but these two beliefs alone are powerful and will help you create positive self-fulfilling prophecies on the learning journey.

Key Belief 1: I’m not inherently good or bad at anything

This is the growth mindset. If you believe that you weren’t born good or bad at anything, you start with a blank state, and you regain your power to decide your future by changing how you act.

Go into depth with the growth mindset with my article The Key Qualities of the Growth Mindsets.

Key Belief 2: I’ll get there with persistence

Persistence is the most powerful trait you can possess for learning. When it comes to our personal lives, we have a lot of power over what we can control. Yet we often get impatient and short-sighted, which leads us to quit, meaning that the power of persistence has no chance to work its magic.

Believe in persistence, and you’ll be able to overcome most of the obstacles on your path. To wield its power, you don’t need to believe you’re special, were born with the right genes, or have natural talent. You just need to keep going regardless of how lost your cause seems.

Any learning goal you can imagine now – no matter how distant it seems – is achieveable, so long as you persist. Whether you want to be competent at maths, master a language or learn an instrument, you have a fighting chance if you stay on the horse.

Let’s Get Drunk: Fully Exploit Performance Psychology

In the end, you act according to whatever you believe about yourself. We can use this to our advantage by intentionally picturing our future self, knowing that over time we will slowly change into that person.

This is a mental trick that famous writers from Napoleon Hill to Joe Dispeza have spoken about at length. Dispenza has even called it brainwashing – we mentally immerse ourselves in our new selves so much that we eventually become that new self. Your nervous system can’t tell the difference between your imagination and a real experience, so we brainwash it into positive action.

So if you regularly imagine yourself being a confident, fluent speaker of a language, literally seeing and feeling that you’ve already arrived to that level, you’re slowly becoming that new self. You have to become so intoxicated with that vision that nothing will deter you from making it a reality.

Skepticism is the rocket fuel of scientific advance. But doubt, to a sportsman, is poison. Progress is made by ignoring the evidence; it is about creating a mindset that is immune to doubt and uncertainty.

Matthew Syed

If you want to fully exploit this power, set aside time for visualising. Sit in a spot where you have no distractions. Make sure you stay alert. Picture who you want to become, shooting for the stars, and allowing yourself to imagine possibilities that seem silly right now. If negative images come up, replace them with their positive version. Five minutes a day before you practice is enough – do it for a month and see what happens.

Do this long enough, and I can guarantee you’ll become so intoxicated with your goal that nothing will get in your way of achieving it. You have fully exploited your psychological workings.

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