How Sports Psychology Benefits Musicians

Between juggling rehearsals, performances, and a day job, you may feel you are under constant pressure as a recreational musician. Aside from the physical demands, your mental skills are put to the test. To cope, music makers may want to seek help from sport psychology consultants, known for assisting athletes.

According to Certified Consultants from the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), many of the mental stresses they help performers cope with are similar to those faced by athletes—coping with injury, maintaining focus, and performing under audience scrutiny.

“Self-doubt, lack of confidence, and having the personal resilience to deal with setbacks is quite universal,” says Dr. Sharon Chirban, owner of Amplifying Performance Consulting, with offices in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts. “This group of people (performers) tends to be perfectionists, so tolerating failure is often quite difficult. We work together to build strategies to manage perceived setbacks.”

For example, one client, a talented, but obsessive timpani player, was winning auditions, despite using self-medication as a strategy for managing his anxiety. “If he had the slightest tremor, as a percussionist, it would show up in his technique, and he would lose control and not be able to do the job. We worked on mental strategies, using relaxation,” explains Chirban.

She also discovered that he was over-preparing, which is another common problem among musicians. “It’s just like being an athlete, where you are prone to overuse injuries and burnout,” she says. In cases like that, she helps performers figure out the balance and find strategies to stay ahead of the burnout cycle.

Other areas where performance psychologists can help musicians include injury and recovery. “It’s providing tools to come up with strategies for what life might throw at you as a performer,” says Chirban.

Dr. Kate Hays, a sport psychologist with The Performing Edge in Toronto, Ontario, says issues among her performing clients can often be more “real-life” based. “Musicians need to be able to perform at a specific moment in time at the top of their ‘game,’ and able to handle the challenges of high expectations for their performance,” she explains. “Instrumental musicians can be at the mercy of their instrument’s temperament. Performing artists also often need to deal with economic pressures in a society that may not value the arts as highly as other forms of entertainment.”

These factors compounded can lead to problems associated with anxiety, and here, too, the strategies of sports psychology can help.

For example, one reed player was dealing with low self-confidence and continuously second-guessing her skills and abilities. “We worked together on issues of self-esteem and musician identity, using mental skills that are often used with athletes—but adapted to her issues as a musician,” says Hays.

Another musician client had difficulty staying focused while onstage. He was going through a challenging time personally, and responded well to methods that helped him keep his personal life and his performance life separate—at least for a few hours at a time.

According to Chirban, quite often, within three months to one year musicians can learn strategies to help them overcome their performance issues and cope on their own. “Treatment is often focused around specific events,” she says. “It’s almost like training where they go out and perform or audition, and then come back and we tweak the tool. With both athletes and musicians, it’s usually about a year of that kind of collaboration that allows them to really turn the corner.”

Regardless of the specific issues at hand, one point is clear. Sport and exercise psychology has extended its positive impact into the performing arts. The Association for Applied Sport Psychology offers free resources and a listing of AASP Certified Consultants at www.appliedsportpsych.org.

This article is from our November-December 2013 issue.

About Cherie Yurco

Cherie Yurco is an editor at Making Music and has worked as a freelance editor and writer for 20 years. She’s written about topics from travel to business, in Asia, Europe, and the US. When she settled near Syracuse, she rediscovered her passion for photography. She especially likes photographing musicians caught lost in their music. Cherie also enjoys exploring, photographing, and writing about music-related destinations around the country. Visit her blog at http://musicalcities.com.

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