I was dancing, sweating, playing guiro and singing back-up, carried on a wave of sound and positive energy. The dance floor surged with happy bodies, the seated audience beamed at the stage packed with musicians. I looked down at the set list taped to the stage in front of my microphone and realized that I’d be singing lead on the next song. Despite the glorious sounds and pulsations all around me, as I discovered that my song was coming up, I instantaneously heard a small, matter-of-fact voice asking: “What if you screw up the lyrics?” It was easy to hear the voice, because it was in my head.

Photo Credit: Bill Evans

Photo Credit: Bill Evans

Runner’s World to the rescue

Serendipitously, I had recently read “Beyond the Mantra” by Michelle Hamilton in the May issue of Runner’s World, which argues “Reciting positive thoughts is fine, but to really run your best, you’ve got to shout down your inner critic.” The article describes the methods of Dean Hebert, an Arizona-based certified mental game coach.

“No one expects endurance to come naturally, but people think mental toughness does. It’s a big myth. You do not need more will-power. You need to train the brain like you train the body,” says Hebert in the article. Hamilton describes herself as a “classic head case: a negative-thinking, results-oriented runner. Mentally tough athletes are positive thinkers and process-oriented.” According to Hebert’s website, “Training to think ‘tough’ does not happen by reading, learning alone nor by magic. Just as with your physical preparation — it happens through application, repetition and disciplined practice. Your effort will directly reflect your progress.”

Here are the steps to brain training described in the article:

  1. Assess where you tend to beat yourself up (giving yourself excuses to skip practice/workouts, slowing down at the ends of races, making mistakes in performance).
  2. Choose a process goal (practice visualization, practice fast finishes).
  3. Select a focus tool to get you back in the present moment (your breaths, or your footfalls, or how the guiro rhythm clicks with the bass line, or visualizations).
  4. Practice positive self-talk (you’ve got this, fast and easy, looking good, feel the rhythm).
  5. Train your brain by tracking your weekly mental progress alongside other practice metrics.

You’ve got this

Going back to my performance, I knew several things when I heard that pessimistic little voice in my head who had chosen such a prestigious occasion to make an appearance (this doesn’t happen at every gig, thank goodness!).

  • First, I had only nanoseconds to refocus on performing rather than letting my mind wander into the future.
  • Second, I had practiced the poop out of my upcoming song, and performed it on numerous occasions.
  • Third, I was quite sick with a cold and knew that I couldn’t afford to diffuse any of the energy I needed for voice production with a fragile instrument.

I suddenly heard another inner voice: “You’ve got this. You practiced.” And then, “Enjoy this now.” I simply let the worry go at that moment and dove back into the song I was playing. Now was the moment. There was no future or past. I was back on the wave of love, surfing it with all the other musicians onstage. I saw the smiles and joy on the faces of the audience. When that song finished and my lead vocal song began, I was in the pocket, inspired and improvisational. And I nailed it — ok, no shouting required.