Talent, natural or otherwise, is not the defining factor for success in athletics or the arts. It’s a key component, of course, but learning to perform on-demand in high-pressure situations is what separates the champion trophies from the participant ribbons.
Performance psychologist Dr. Don Greene has taught his comprehensive approach to peak performance mastery for thirty-two years. A West Point graduate, former Green Beret, and former competitive diver, Dr. Greene has worked with performers from The Juilliard School, Colburn School, New World Symphony, Los Angeles Opera Young Artists Program, and Perlman Program, as well as athletes at the Vail Ski School and the US Olympic Training Center. Dr. Greene is the first performance psychologist to teach at any music school or conservatory in the US and is the only performance psychologist to have shown meaningful results in the areas of music, sports, and business. He has coached more than 1000 performers to win professional auditions and has guided myriad solo performers to successful careers. Fourteen medals, including 5 gold, have been won by Olympic track and field athletes that worked with Dr. Greene up to and through the 2016 Games in Rio. Dr.Greene’s viral TED Ed video, How to practice effectively…for just about anything, garnered over 25 million views on Facebook and YouTube combined, and he has also authored seven books including Audition Success, Fight Your Fear & Win, and Performance Success.
Enjoy Face the Current’s chat with Dr. Don Greene as we graze the surface of what it means to harness the moment and achieve greatness.
Sasha Frate: How much do your techniques vary if you’re working with an athlete versus an onstage talent, and what does it mean to have meaningful results from performance psychology in the facets of business, sports, music, and the arts?
Don Greene: They vary somewhat, but behind the performers’ physical talents are their mental skills. These skills include performing under pressure, managing performance anxiety, confidence, focusing past distractions, and mental toughness. These are the skills that I teach both to Olympic athletes and performing artists.
Meaningful results in business means a significant increase in the bottom line. In sports, it means Olympic gold medals, Grand Prix series championships, professional tournament wins, and national championships. In music, it’s winning auditions for acceptance into conservatories, then professional jobs, followed by tenure or successful solo careers; in the arts, it’s achieving excellence.
SF: What is “Centering down” versus “Centering up,” and what is high-energy Simulation Training?
DG: Centering down is a focusing strategy designed to lower performance anxiety. Centering up is for athletes or performers to raise their physical and mental energy before they start. High-energy Simulation Training is when an athlete or performer raises their energy up to or beyond the level they feel when they’re actually performing in high-pressure situations. Then, after Centering down, they perform in front of an audience or, in the case of musicians, an audio recorder. Once they start, they do not stop until their performance is complete.
SF: You have helped Olympic athletes, Grand Prix drivers, students of the Julliard School, Colburn School, and New World Symphony to perform their best under pressure and to break the barrier of fear. Who can benefit from your training and what is one of your proven techniques that you discuss in your book, Fight Your Fear & Win?
DG: Those that do very well under normal circumstances but are seeking to do better under pressure will benefit from my training. They can expect to learn and then to practice practical skills for optimally performing in stressful circumstances, which for many people is most of the time. In order to perform their best under pressure, performers need to first understand the nature and detrimental effects of their fear, building up their courage like a muscle. Muscles are strengthened through active use, increased repetitions, and increases in resistance. This means performers must push themselves on an everyday basis, and certainly during competitions or performances.
People certainly need to learn to control and manage their energy. Fear is what drives performance anxiety. Without fear, there is no anxiety. In terms of using adrenaline, that is exactly what I train Olympic athletes, professional athletes, and performing artists, to do. Although they compete throughout each year, adrenaline is why competitive athletes not only set Olympic records, but many world records only once every four years. My performing artists tend to win at auditions because they have learned to use that energy while their fellow competitors attempt to push it down by trying to relax or by taking beta blockers.
SF: How much does fear relate to performance anxiety and how can anxiety be different? Is anxiety considered beneficial in any way, in the sense of “putting your adrenaline to work,” or do people need to learn to control/manage it?
DG: People certainly need to learn to control and manage their energy. (Consider road rage, for example.) Fear is what drives performance anxiety. Without fear, there is no anxiety. Anxiety can be different based upon your interpretation of some of the symptoms. If your heart starts to race, you can interpret it as real danger or just a stressful trigger that poses no real threat.
In terms of using adrenaline, that is exactly what I train Olympic athletes, professional athletes, and performing artists, to do. Although they compete throughout each year, adrenaline is why competitive athletes not only set Olympic records, but many world records only once every four years. My performing artists tend to win at auditions because they have learned to use that energy while their fellow competitors attempt to push it down by trying to relax or by taking beta blockers.
SF: Being the first performance psychologist to teach at any music school in the US, how did you identify the need and benefit for this industry, and why do you believe it went overlooked before?
DG: I’m not sure why it went overlooked before; the need was obvious to me as soon as I began working with performing artists, especially classical musicians. Although they were very dedicated, talented, and technically proficient in their craft, they knew very little about performing well under pressure. Whether it was a school audition, jury, an exposed solo, a graduation recital, or a professional audition, the musicians were not trained or prepared to perform well under pressure.
SF: Tell us about the new sports and esports website you’re launching soon. What are you doing with this website and what are your intentions and goals?
DG: I’m launching the new esports website that’s designed for two different types of competitors. The first is for Olympic and professional athletes in sports like diving, gymnastics, tennis, golf, football, and baseball. The other is for esports gamers in first-person shooter competitions and multiplayer online-battle arena competitors. My intention will be to offer mental training to both types of competitors through online services such as individual assessments, training videos, and one-on-one sessions. My goal is to train them to perform their best under pressure.
For more of Dr.Greene’s musical insights, pick up a copy of his upcoming book, College Prep for Musicians, out later this year.
♦ This interview was originally published in Issue 21 of Face the Current Magazine, featured on pages 98-101. Order a print copy or subscribe to print at our SHOP.