Performance Psychology

Cover of Performance Psychology (medium)
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For individuals in the U.S. & U.S. territories

Format: DVD [Closed Captioned]
Availability: In Stock
Running Time: Over 100 minutes
Item #: 4310854
ISBN: 978-1-4338-0364-2
Copyright: 2009
APA Psychotherapy Training Videos are intended solely for educational purposes for mental health professionals. Viewers are expected to treat confidential material found herein according to strict professional guidelines. Unauthorized viewing is prohibited.

In Performance Psychology, Dr. Charles H. Brown Jr. demonstrates his approach to working with clients seeking to enhance or improve their performance. Performance psychology is the systematic application of psychological principles and techniques to performance, particularly when there is a time element and one must perform on demand.

Performance clients typically have skills and abilities that have allowed them to achieve various levels of success in their selected areas of performance. The performance psychologist's goal is to help the clients build on and broaden their skills and learn new habits to help perform consistently at high levels in pressure situations.

In this session, Dr. Brown works with a young woman who seeks to increase her running distance so she can complete a half marathon. Although this example involves a recreational athlete, the model and principles are applicable to all contexts in which an individual must perform under pressure: elite athletes, performing artists, business persons, and individuals dealing with life and death situations such as those encountered in medicine, the military, and law enforcement.


Effective performance consulting requires five specific skill sets: relationship skills, change skills, knowledge of performance excellence, knowledge of the physiological aspects of performance, and a framework for making contextually intelligent decisions (Hays & Brown, 2004). Dr. Brown's relationships with clients are collaborative, where he functions more in the role of a coach or consultant. Change efforts build on the strengths of the individual in a manner that is consistent with the tenets of positive psychology (Seligman, 2002; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), and are grounded in strategic (Haley, 1963, 1973, 1987) and solution-focused models (O'Hanlon, 1987; O'Hanlon & Weiner-Davis, 1989).

Dr. Brown's framework of performance excellence draws extensively upon Nideffer's (Nideffer, 1985) attentional model of performance, which proposes that success in any task can be distilled to three core principles:

  • knowing the key elements that are essential for success
  • maintaining attention to those essential elements
  • ignoring distractions

There are seven key skills (Williams & Krane, 1997) that are typically associated with ability to maintain attentional focus:

  • goal setting (including maintaining one's ideal performance state)
  • activation management
  • thought/attention management
  • use of imagery
  • having a well-developed performance plan
  • use of coping strategies
  • preperformance mental preparation routine

While many sport psychologists rely heavily on cognitive–behavioral techniques and self-talk, a vast number of performers report that during their best performances they "are not thinking at all." Nideffer's model of attention offers a framework for understanding this phenomenon, and how self-talk strategies may actually hinder performance at times.

Attention has two dimensions, direction (either internal or external) and width (either broad or narrow), resulting in four possibilities for directing attention: broad external (e.g., the weather conditions at the time of performance; the terrain of a golf shot); narrow external (e.g., focusing on a specific object, sound, or sensation in the external world); broad internal (e.g., general sensation of how one feels; manipulating concepts and ideas); and narrow internal (e.g., focusing on a specific internal kinesthetic sensation; holding a mental image).

Certain tasks require certain types of attentional focus. A football quarterback relies on broad external focus to read the defense and rapidly scan for an open receiver; a musician uses broad external focus to effectively blend with the sounds of the orchestra. The quarterback needs narrow external focus to lock on his target and deliver the pass; the musician requires narrow external focus to execute his or her entry at the proper time.

Broad internal focus involves juggling ideas and concepts to select the best strategy for a given situation: selecting the right golf club, thinking of how one wants to blend elements to achieve a desired artistic experience. These examples are within the realm of cognition and self-talk. When an athlete holds attention on the ideal shot, swing or line; when the performing artist holds a clear mental image of the desired sound or movement—these are all examples of narrow internal focus. Each modality has its place and role.

Worry and anxiety are processes that occur while directing attention towards the broad internal realm. The individual is typically out of the moment, considering "what if's" of the past and future. Peak performance requires that the person be present in the moment and have an absence of self-consciousness—i.e., to be externally focused on what he or she is doing rather than how it is being done.

Self-talk strategies are excellent when dealing with worries and concerns in anticipation of performing or after a performance; but at the moment of performance, self-talk strategies too often direct attention to that broad internal realm when attention needs to be external, without cognitive mediation. The realization that it is possible to focus without thinking (e.g., cognitive mediation) often leads to rapid and profound improvement.

Using these attentional concepts as a guide, Dr. Brown employs a wide range of skills and techniques to develop routines and rituals to help develop good habits for the performer to draw on in pressure situations.

Dr. Brown has a basic knowledge of biomechanics and nutrition derived from formal coursework, reading in these areas, and from personal experience as a triathlete. In recent years he has written and presented on the concept of Contextual Intelligence (Brown, Gould, & Foster, 2005), and draws heavily from his training as a systems therapist (Bateson, 1972; Wynne, McDaniel, & Weber, 1986) for navigating contextual issues.

Making contextually intelligent decisions requires that the personality of the individual and the unique environment in which he or she functions must be factored into any strategy for change. Dr. Brown strives to use a client's language and to keep rationale for any actions consistent with his or her values and view of reality.

Overarching this theoretical model is a core foundation of respect and integrity. Dr. Brown feels that he must respect both the individual and himself, and his actions need to be consistent with his values and isomorphic with the models and concepts that he proposes. As his grandfather once advised, people tend to forget what you actually said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.

Dr. Brown works with performers from all domains0—athletes, performing artists, business people, and those with high-risk occupations (medicine, public service)—and of all ages and abilities, ranging from professional athletes and performers to young hopefuls who are seeking to improve performance.

Clients' concerns tend to fall into one of three categories: basic mental-skills issues, elite performer issues, and life issues.

When addressing basic mental skills, Dr. Brown helps the individual with focus and concentration in pressure situations. These clients may be motivated by having encountered difficulty in performance—some are recovering from injuries, and some of the younger athletes and performers are looking for resources to develop their skills to the fullest.

Clients who already have strong foundations in concentration and attention may be encountering difficulties with managing the expectations and pressures of being an elite performer. With these individuals, Dr. Brown addresses the demands of being expected to perform at a high level on a consistent basis, dealing with issues such as recovery, team dynamics, and maintaining a sense of balance and perspective in life.

The third category, life issues, involves dealing with the myriad of challenges of life outside of performance. Everyone has to deal with family issues, loss, and the pursuit of happiness. Dr. Brown has encountered elite performers who would decline traditional psychotherapy to address these issues but were comfortable working with him because of his status as a sport psychologist and familiarity with the demands of being an elite performer.

All young people struggle with relationships, but the celebrity athlete is faced with the challenge of discerning whether an interested individual is truly attracted to him or herself or attracted to what the performer represents. The struggle of making the transition from college student to working in the "real world" is a typical challenge for young adults. It takes on added complexity when a person suddenly has a $5,000,000 signing bonus.

Dr. Brown has worked with athletes and performers as young as 8 years old, but his preference (and joy) is working with athletes and performers in their early teens, when they have embarked on sport or performance specialization and are making the shift from concrete to abstract thinking.

While he does work with elite performers who present clinical issues, Dr. Brown would not recommend a performance-focused approach for an individual in the midst of a significant clinical episode. In such instances, he typically first addresses the clinical issues within the context of performance; however, performance is secondary to the overall well-being of the individual.

About the Therapist

Charles H. Brown Jr., PhD, is a graduate of Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina. He earned his master's degree at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, and his doctorate in Counseling Psychology at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg in 1979.

He is a licensed psychologist, on the National Register of Health Service Providers in Psychology, recognized as a certified consultant by the Association of Applied Sport Psychology, on the U.S. Olympic Register of Sport Psychologists, and currently works with the U.S. Olympic Canoe and Kayak team. He has worked in full-time private practice totally independent of managed care since 1980.

Early in his career he gained recognition for his skills in providing brief, solution-focused consultation that stressed building on the strengths and resources of the individual, relationship, and family. In recent years these skills have been broadened to help athletes, performing artists, and professionals perform to their full potential. Since 2004 his practice has focused exclusively on performers and their families.

Dr. Brown has published various professional and popular articles related to performance enhancement, mental skills, and work–life balance. He coauthored You're On! Consulting for Peak Performance (published by APA in 2004), a chapter on injuries and the psychology of recovery and rehabilitation in The Sport Psych Handbook (2005), and is currently writing "The Psychologist as a Performer", a chapter for the upcoming book Performance Psychology in Action.

Suggested Readings
  • Brown, C. H. (2001). Clinical cross-training: Compatibility of sport and family systems psychology. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 32 (1), 19–26.
  • Brown, C. H., Gould, D., & Foster, S. (2005). A framework for developing contextual intelligence (CI). Sport Psychologist, 19 (1), 51–62.
  • Hays, K. F., & Brown, C. H. (2004). You're on!: Consulting for peak performance. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  • Hardy, L., Jones, J. G., & Gould, D. (1996). Understanding psychological preparation for sport: Theory and practice of elite performers. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Murphy, S. (Ed.). (2005). The sport psych handbook. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  • Nideffer, R. M. (1985). Athletes' guide to mental training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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