The Olympics is an opportunity for me to think about such basic ideas as performance – basic as it’s one of the foundation subjects for the work I do on a daily basis. It is, as well, one of the foundation subjects for all psychologists, linking psychological wellbeing to performance. I’m not sure all my psychology colleagues see it like that, but, to me, it’s obvious. If you feel psychologically well you perform better than if you don’t.
Performance relates to everything we do, and is about achievement of tasks, no matter how small. The combination of tasks is how we move through daily life. The performance of tasks is the manifestation of behaviour, and, as such, is preceded by thoughts and feelings. We think before we perform a task. We tell the brain what to do.
Peak performance is the aim for most of us. My ‘Just a Minute’ model of performance, based on the Radio 4 show, includes the need not to deviate, hesitate or repeat actions required to achieve a task. Listening to the show you can instantly tell that the incredient for successful completion of the task to complete one minute without D,H or R requires massive concentration. Why are some able to complete the task whilst others cannot? That is the question at the centre of my current reflections on performance.
Concentration is at the centre of peak performance, and the achievement of concentration requires the elimination of interference, combined with a focus on the task. Focusing on the task brings me back to the Olympics. What has been the task for participants at the Olympics – to focus on their event, and do the best they can, and if the best is better than anyone else, they win. However, the focus is on the task to do the best they can by eliminating interference. The kind of interference they may experience includes pressure to win; the desire to stand on the podium; the anticipation of crowd support. If any of these interferes with their focus they will not achieve peak performance. If the enthusiasm of the audience acts as a positive context for concentration it may help focus; if it interferes with concentration it will impede performance.
Two things about performance are, also, important. Knowing oneself extremely well, as this helps us know if we are properly equipped to perform well, and helps us to identify the kinds of things that interfere with our concentration. Accepting personal responsibility to achieve peak performance is the second. If we accept entirely that our performance is everything to do with us, and little to do with anyone else, we will perform at our peak. What stands in the way is our ability to maintain the personal control that personal awareness and personal responsibility imply.
At work, for example, individuals may do the best they can to focus and concentrate on their tasks, and do their best to eliminate interferences, but find that their best efforts are thwarted by the cultural context and the behaviour of others. Whilst I can provide techniques and approaches that strengthen personal attitude towards events and people (resilience), many will suggest it’s impossible to change the way things are done, and, therefore, have little chance of achieving peak performance all the time. Even under these circumstances there will be tasks during the day where personal focus and concentration should be grasped, as the interference of culture and others behaviour may not have an impact on personal focus.
One way of managing interferences to concentration is to become so confident in oneself, ones’ own abilities and sense of ‘being at one’ with the world that interferences become shadows rather than having an impact. The degree of personal confidence in oneself has a powerful impact on peak performance – it reduces or eliminates the thoughts that produce hesitation, deviation or repetition, and provides a kind of certainty that drives one on, even in a chaotic environment.
So the participants at the Olympics who have a huge amount of self confidence and the capacity to focus and concentrate on the task at hand, will, also, have the capacity to neutralise or eliminate forms of interference with their focus on the task. It enables them to do the best they can; and the best may be better than others and they may win.