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Excelling Under Pressure

By Gerald Klickstein


The Olympics are in full swing, and we’re bound to witness some athletes who triumph and others who choke under the stress of performing. What differentiates those two groups?

I’ve been probing that question for decades from the perspective of a musician and educator. Through my research and experience, I’ve come to appreciate that, for athletes and musicians alike, the primary distinction between those who excel under pressure and those who crack lies in how they prepare to perform.

As an illustration, before we look at athletes, let’s juxtapose two pianists:

Pianist 1 performs a solo and feels his heart rate accelerate and his hands start to quiver. Unnerved by the odd sensations, he fumbles a couple of passages. Then, in an attempt to reclaim the relaxed groove he prizes, he imagines that he’s playing on a tropical beach, but that only distracts him further, provoking several memory slips. He exits the stage bewildered because he played flawlessly in the practice room.

Pianist 2 plays a comparable piece and experiences similar adrenaline-fueled jitters. In response, she breathes deeply, releases her shoulders, and focuses on expressing each phrase. Her hands remain cool, but her execution is secure and she projects the joy in the music. As the closing chord sounds, her audience erupts in applause.

Pianist 1 underperformed because, in practice, he would play his piece over and over until it “just came out.” Problem is, such automated learning requires automated recall, which readily breaks down under stress. As his hands became unsteady, he groped for control but there weren’t any guideposts for his mind to latch onto because he ingrained his piece mindlessly.

Pianist 2 encountered parallel sensations but directed herself in tactical ways. Furthermore, when she practiced her piece, she absorbed its structure in detail, allowing her to track her place in the musical landscape. Her memory and performance skills were assured, so she could devote herself to making art.

What distinguishes mindful performers, like Pianist 2, is that they operate from a place of awareness and never run on autopilot. That’s not to say that they over-think. Instead, they rely on what psychologist Ellen Langer terms “soft vigilance” (The Power of Mindful Learning, p. 43-44).

In practice, they take in their material from multiple perspectives, and then they do mock performances, applying maneuvers that boost creativity and quell nervousness. On stage, their mindful habits enable them to trust in their preparation, provided that their preparation is truly thorough.

Thorough performance preparation spans three categories codified by Glenn Wilson in Psychology for Performing Artists: person, task, and situation (p. 211). Here are some quick examples:

  • Person: Mindful performers learn to regulate their emotions. They monitor their inner states and rally themselves into practice or performance mode.
  • Task: They attain the inclusive skills needed to execute securely in high-stakes conditions. On good days, they perform easily but maintain filaments of awareness connecting everything they do. On tougher days, they exert more effort, expanding those filaments into high-bandwidth channels to bring things under control.
  • Situation: They rehearse dealing with diverse performance settings so that they can focus regardless of the circumstances.

I don’t mean to oversimplify; deep-seated personal issues can impede performers in insidious ways. But when it comes to high-stakes performance, mindfulness is indispensable. In Langer’s words, “Learning the basics in a rote, unthinking manner almost ensures mediocrity” (p. 14).

Now, let’s hear from an athlete. In a July 27 multimedia post on the New York Times website, US Olympic swimmer Dana Vollmer contrasted her approach to the butterfly stroke with that of less-accomplished swimmers:

“People pull on the water with all their might or they really kick down with their legs and they’re thinking that that is what makes you go fast. It’s much more about feeling the flows off of your body that make you go fast.”

Mindless swimmers pull “with all their might,” but Vollmer, a mindful athlete, feels herself flow through the water. She notices. She responds.

Mindful performers also stay open to discovering new things, which feeds their drive to practice. Here again is Vollmer on swimming the butterfly (on July 29 she won gold in the 100 meter competition, setting a new world record):

“I feel like I learn something new about myself and about swimming and just about life in general every time I do it.”

Vollmer epitomizes the fascination with craft that motivates athletes and musicians to work. And when they work mindfully, regardless of whether they win medals, performers go forward knowing that they’re doing their best.

Gerald Klickstein (@klickstein) is author of The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness (Oxford 2009) and posts regularly on The Musician’s Way Blog. Director of the Music Entrepreneurship and Career Center at the Peabody Conservatory, he previously served for 20 years on the faculty of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. His prior contribution to the OUP blog is titled “The Peak-Performance Myth.”

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Recent Comments

  1. Wendy Wiseman

    Fantastic insight! I have lived these moments over and over as a performer.

  2. J A

    I agree with the fact that Pianist 2′s ability to understand and self-regulate their emotions will be beneficial to performance. But being mindful of the feelings of a performance (I.e. feeling of swimming through the water) sounds very much like a form of self-focused attention. There is a huge body of literature that clearly shows self-focused attention to be detrimental to the performance of self-paced skills (e.g. penalty kicks, piano-solo, golf putt etc.). So while it may work for the swimmer, I would never suggest it to to a pianist. I would much rather teach them about the characteristics and meaning of their emotions and how they may actually be beneficially to rheir performance.

  3. Gerald Klickstein

    Thanks Wendy & J A for contributing.

    JA: I agree that self-focused attention can be detrimental to performance – e.g., a pianist focusing on how her hands feel as opposed to the emotional content of her music.

    Although mindful performers use their awareness to counter physical problems – e.g., they breathe deeply and release muscle tension to quell the jitters that arise due to fight-or-flight activation – as Pianist 2 illustrates, they focus on expressing the music they perform and not on themselves. They’re able to do so effectively because of the inclusive nature of their preparation, which liberates them to make art even in highly stressful situations.

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