16 Mar “Reflections” by Cal Botterill, PhD.

I believe “performance psychology” is heading into a very dynamic era for those who have learned from our past, & appreciate what future opportunities might entail. Performance psychology has roots in sport psychology that have served us well. Journalist, Scott Taylor, has suggested: “The great thing about sport is that it enables us to care passionately, about something that really doesn’t matter”! The passion, emotions, public interest, status, & range of challenges in sport, have made it a great training ground for performance psychology professionals.

However, the developing interest in performance psychology by other fields, will test us in appreciating new contexts, old traditions, & new performance & recovery challenges. Consider the challenge for Jean-Francois Menard who now works for Cirque De Soleil. Elite level artists and athletes from all over the world come together to perform up to 350-400 demanding high caliber acrobatic acts/shows every year. Appreciating the nature/culture of artists, the demands of the acts, the demands of the schedule & travel, & the pressures that might be felt, must be a tremendous challenge.

Similarly, Jason Brooks & I have found high performance work in medicine a challenging 2-way learning experience. It is great to share lessons in performance psychology, but also critical to get “schooled” in the demands & realities of being a Medical Resident. Back-to-back 20hr shifts, & a 130hr week have been reported by Emergency Residents who regularly have people’s lives in their hands!! Jason & I both experienced an 8 hr shift in Emergency in busy hospitals to get a feel for their reality. We were both emotionally & physically exhausted after one 8hr shift.

We do assessment & discussion early to identify resident strengths & priorities. We encourage “sharing” by residents right from the start so we can empathize with their demands, & relate to their fears & expectations. The “blend” of performance psychology with field challenges/realities is what helps. We now have graduates of our “High Performance Physician” courses assisting us with instruction & tutoring in the program.

So, as performance psychology grows, we have work to do. We need to assess what we have learned, & prepare for new & different challenges. Fields like medicine, performing arts, police work, fire departments, rescue work, military work, business, social work, & education can all benefit from a connection with performance psychology. However, being effective will involve much more than sharing a few “mental skills”.


1) When you think you know, you don’t….

There is lots of valuable core & related knowledge in performance psychology (eg. counseling psychology, clinical psychology, relationship psychology, performance physiology, sport medicine, physiotherapy, athletic therapy, massage therapy, nutrition, biomechanics, etc.). We are very much part of an “inter-disciplinary” field (just like Medicine has become). To be effective counsellors, we often need to consider “several” other disciplines.

There is lots to learn, & the amount to learn to be effective in a “new field” is immense. I like this reality – it keeps us humble & growing!! No room for complacency in performance psychology!!

2) Perspective beats pressure….

My 40 years in performance psychology tells me that helping performers develop a meaningful “perspective” is the most valuable thing we can do for them. Perspective involves “foundational psychology”. If we help performers get comfortable with their identity, appreciate their support, & clarify their values, it can make a big difference in performance situations in their life. When we like ourselves, & trust in our future, we become immune to many of the pressures, fears, & distractions that others feel. The inner peace helps our “efficiency” in focusing on tasks, & recovering. By reducing over-analysis, our perceptiveness often improves–which is often critical in “field” performance.

Perhaps most importantly, perspective helps us appreciate & prioritize “life beyond work”. Resulting balance & well-being can make us better people, as well as better professionals….

3) “Want to” beats “Have to”….

“Approaching Success” beats “Avoiding Failure”!! This lesson has been right in front of us throughout the history of performance psychology. Yet we have had limited success helping people in situations where it becomes an issue!! ‘Being a favorite,’ ‘high expectations,’ ‘recent success,’ etc. can all trigger fear, tension, negative imagery, etc. The best solution is a “perspective” that makes you much less prone to “have to” feelings. Loving what you do, can make everything feel like “want to”. Looking at challenge as a “privilege,” reduces feelings of “responsibility.” AND there are specific preparations that can help prevent pressure from becoming an issue.

Basketball Great, Magic Johnson, when was asked once what he did about all the “pressure” from the fans & city of LA, he said “I’m glad they are interested”!! “Pressure” isn’t really a “thing”–it is OUR perception, our creation. I like Magic’s perception much better than the reporters!!

4) Work is commendable, but recovery is essential….

The most important work I have done with performers in the last 15 years, involves recovery. The modern World is full of potential stressors, and many times they are contributing to progressive fatigue (under-recovery)!! Several clients I have worked with have developed all the signs of “burnout”. Many are top performers who have a profile that coaches/supervisors love–but it also makes them prone to burnout!!

“Efficiency” in recovery is a 1st step, but it is amazing how resistant “workaholics” can be!! Some needed days of deep rest & change of pace, others have needed weeks. One thing they all had in common, was that once “recovered”, they felt amazing–like themselves again!! From there, “efficiency” in performing, training, relationships, sleeping, are often all part of the puzzle.

5) Today’s broken heart can be tomorrow’s star….

Perhaps the thing we do most poorly in North American Society is help performers learn & grow from mistakes or disappointment!! It is totally unrealistic & irrational that any performer will be “perfect”. Seeing/feeling solutions to disappointment is how we grow! Yet performers are often left to wallow in their agony…..  I believe it is our “privilege” (& responsibility) to be the “champion” of the disappointed–“Delay Doesn’t Mean Denial”!!

There are great Doctors who are still prisoners of guilt over a lost patient!! Cardiac surgeon, Dr. Curt Tribble, suggests that we all have disappointments to get over. He suggests we need to “Remember & Forgive”–“Remember” anything we might have done to help, then begin to “forgive” ourselves. Even brilliant medical doctors sometimes need help learning & letting go. If we are committed to Human Potential, there is great potential in a role in facilitating meaningful debriefing for people.


So, there you have it – a few reflections on our future in performance psychology, & a few lessons from our past. I am hugely grateful for the timing of my career in performance psychology, BUT I truly believe that careers for young professionals today can exceed my own. Certainly with the developing interest of many of society’s most important fields, the potential is even greater for influential effects in the World!! Go forth prepared to learn, & help people make a difference.

by Cal Botterill, PhD.

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