Mental Blocks, Cognitive Techniques and Reward Theory

Common performance issues... and how to overcome them.

Posted Jun 25, 2020

I was recently interviewed by an Australian Ph.D. candidate about performance psychology and related issues. Here's an excerpt I hope you find helpful; embedded in the text are links to articles that expand upon each theme.

1. What mental blocks do vocal performers experience?

There is a wide range of issues that singers, public speakers, and other performers deal with. That said, there are certain prevalent blocks that I see in my practice. Fears of success and failure, issues involving one’s self-worth being tethered to singing and performing, general insecurity becoming exacerbated in the spotlight, harsh self-criticism, and perfectionism are all (and all too) common. 

2. What techniques are used to overcome these blocks?

In my work, I’ve found that reward theory is a good place to start. Encouraging clients to see the balancing act between their competing desires — to sing with comfort, perform with ease, and have a successful career as an artist, against protecting themselves from failure, vulnerability, and anxiety — throws into focus the core issue that a conscious choice must be made toward the former in order for the latter to dissipate. As well as helping clients realize that, while perhaps unconsciously, the choice to prioritize fear is already being made when we find ourselves stopped and stuck.

Ultimately, the greatest technique for overcoming performance issues, including anxiety, is... to perform. We must all first do the work out in the world rather than inside of our heads. By performing constantly, at every opportunity large and small, we normalize performance in concept and in practice. And as a result, we alter the way that it occurs for us.

3. Do you think that using cognitive techniques can improve performance, and if so, why?

That depends. I believe that context is decisive. Meaning, that positive thinking and cognitive work will only go so far so long as an attachment to fear– coupled with the "reward" of not risking failure, judgment, or what have you — remain firmly in place. In my experience, issues only and ultimately resolve when the occurrence of the circumstance shifts, as I suggested a moment ago. That is to say, when a different reward, or vision of the issue, is experienced as greater than the mental blocks and concerns. With practice, we externalize and lock into place these new experiences and by extension, new and healthier thoughts and feelings about those experiences.

Visit Finding Your Voice to read more about the psychology of singing and performing.