If you saw the cellist Yo-Yo Ma a half-hour or so before one of his performances, you would see him do curious thing: he mellows out. He makes jokes; he smiles; he chats. You could easily mistake him for an audience member.
If you walked into a professional sports locker room an hour before the start of a big game, you’d be surprised by the number of athletes who are in a similarly easygoing state — playing videogames, lost in their music headphones, or, quite often, unconscious in a chair, grabbing a quick snooze.
We’re often led to believe that we should approach Big Moments — i.e. pressure-packed games, recitals, meetings — with a mindset of gritted, focused intensity that we know as “the game face.”
In fact, our instincts are wrong. In fact, practice is the right time for intensity and scowls; performance is the time for lightness and ease.
Here’s why: practice is an act of construction. It’s the place to stretch, to make mistakes and fix them. It’s the time to reach and repeat, over and over, until you’ve built the reliable skill. It’s the place to experience and embrace the effortful frustration that’s part of the building process.
Performance, on the other hand, is a very different situation. You are not trying to construct the skill; you’re are trying to employ it; to be alert, and to react to an unfolding set of possiblities. In these kinds of situations, unless you happen to be Ray Lewis, the most productive mindset tends to be a light, broad, attentive focus; one that stays in the moment, and controls the emotional ups and downs.
A beautiful example of this mindset is provided by Joe Montana, the 49ers quarterback who led 31 fourth-quarter comebacks in his career. Once, in the fourth quarter of the 1989 Super Bowl with three minutes left and his team down by three points, he unexpectedly lifted his head from the huddle and stared into the stands — he’d spotted a familiar face from television.
“Hey,” Montana said, “Isn’t that John Candy?”
His teammates were in disbelief. But it makes perfect sense, because Montana had the right game face on: relaxed, attentive, open. As the great acting coach Constantin Stanislavki put it, “The rehearsals are the work; the performance is the relaxation.”
What’s ironic (and a little insane, in my view) is that many parents and youth coaches do precisely the opposite. They treat every performance or game like it’s the Super Bowl, and treat practice as mere routine, an afterthought.
Which makes me wonder: how might that mindset be reversed? How do you de-pressurize performances and funnel intensity toward practice? I’d love to hear any suggestions or ideas you might want to share.