Strategies for Becoming a Mentally Tough Performer

You, like many musicians, may have heard things like, “You gotta be tough!”  “You have to grow a thick skin!” or “Don’t wear your feelings on your sleeve!”    At the same time, performers are supposed to get their TOUGH selves onto the stage and become vulnerable artists in order to share their music with the audience.  Seems like a paradox?  Let’s see if we can figure this out…

Musicians may not talk alot about being mentally tough so let’s take a look at what being “tough” really means to performers.  Being mentally tough is when your mind, body, and emotions are flexible, responsive, resilient, and strong so you can make the most of your performing.  Being “tough” is NOT having the  “killer instinct,” being “mean,” “cold,” “harsh,” or “ruthless.”

Think of the “great ones”:  Domingo, Fleming, DuPre, Wynton Marsalis, and Perlman.   Would you say these performers are cold, hard, calloused, or insensitive?  No!  They exhibit characteristics of mental toughness—they are flexible, responsive, strong, and resilient under pressure.  We admire these performers for their ability to perform well and consistently in a variety of circumstances.  This is what being mentally tough is all about.

Mental Toughness is the ability to consistently perform at a high level regardless of circumstance.  We can consider mental toughness an umbrella term for mental skills such as positive self-talk, positive visualization, a winning focus, and the ability to shift focus.

Sport psychologist James Loehr, in his book The New Toughness Training For Sports, identifies 17 training strategies to accelerate the mental toughening process that we can definitely apply to musical performance.  I’d like to take a quick look at a few of these…

1.  Change your thinking:

Mentally tough performers have learned to reverse negative emotion or behavior through tough thinking!


The important take-away is that you have substantial control over the direction and content of your thoughts!  This includes use of thought stopping and cultivating positive self-talk.

2.  Change your images:

Images are more powerful triggers of emotion than words.  Mentally tough performers use self-talk sometimes in the form of images to change fear into challenge, disappointment into hope.  Visualizing or using mental rehearsal are powerful tools for performers.


Work daily to make your self-image strong, vivid, and courageous.  When you do so, that’s exactly what you’ll get back in your performances!

3.  Take responsibility for your thinking:

Mentally tough performers don’t play the victim.  They become aware of and take responsibility for their thinking!  Do you find yourself going with the negative feelings or do you block the negativism?

Make every effort to suppress negative feelings during competition or performance.  Negative thinking is in direct opposition to your Ideal Performance State!  One of most powerful things you can do to suppress negative thoughts/feelings is the practice THOUGHT STOPPING!



4.  Practice Positive thinking:

Positive thinking and positive imagery skills are acquired in the same way any technical skill is—THROUGH REPETITION!

Positive Thinking will enable you to be tough-minded!

Practicing and a bank account have a great deal in common:

Each practice session is like a deposit into your performance account.  Think of performing as a cash only world.  When performing, you can only draw out of yourself what you have deposited through practice.  If you have not “deposited” positive thinking practice, there IS no credit, you will have nothing to draw out!

Positive thinking takes regular practice just like playing or singing well does.

5.  Never say/think:  “I can’t.” “I hate.”

These words are examples of non-tough thinking.  They quickly build emotional roadblocks.  The following statements point to the kind of rigid thinking that leads to competitive problems.

  • “I can’t handle it.”
  • “I can’t stand it.”
  • “I can’t believe it.”
  • “I can’t do it.”
  • “I can’t make it.”
  • “I hate that.”
  • “I hate myself.”
  • “I hate mistakes.”

Eliminate these words from your vocabulary!  Eliminate this kind of thinking!

6.  Think/visualize in vivid emotional terms.

Here we are talking about positive affirmations such as:

  • “I will put myself on the line every day.”
  • “I will always give my all.”
  • “I am going to be on MY SIDE all the time.”
  • “I will come totally prepared to perform today.”
  • “I will at least act “as if” I am confident.”
  • “The crazier it gets, the more I will love it.”
  • “I love performing more than winning.”
  • “I am strong enough and tough enough to DO it!”

7.  Think more energetically.

Energy is extremely individual, but attaining YOUR ideal energy level is EVERYTHING.  It is the KEY to competitive success.

Think FUN and more positive energy will start flowing immediately.  FUN describes the types of ideal performances we aspire to.  Success and fun have much more in common than success and pressure or success and strict expectations.

8.   Learn to stay in the here and now.

This is one of the greatest secrets of peak performance:  sustaining a here-and-now mental focus during performance and competition makes the natural expression of talent and skill far easier.

A present-centered focus, particularly during critical moments of execution, is fundamental to performing well under pressure.

During performance, thinking about the future lets fear beat you—thinking about the past lets anger and frustration beat you.

9.  Change your mind about mistakes.

If you fear mistakes, you will make them.  If you fear losing, you will lose.  Performing not to lose or performing not to make mistakes has tragic performance consequences.  It causes you to perform tentatively and keeps you on edge.

How we think about mistakes has a major impact on how we perform.  Mistakes can be TEACHERS, giving us much needed feedback as we get closer to solving a performance issue.  Mistakes can serve as guideposts, pointing us in the next direction.

Remember that mental toughness is your ability to consistently perform at a high level regardless of circumstance.  The mental skills that performers need to become mentally tough can be learned.  Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you would like to start today.


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