How Watching a Sitcom Could Help You Excel Under Pressure

On How To!, a sports psychologist shares tips for letting go and using anxiety to your advantage.

The feet of someone jumping off a diving board.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by John M. Lund Photography Inc./DigitalVision via Getty Images Plus.

On a recent episode of How To!, bassist Michael Martin is dead set on landing a spot in the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra. But he’s putting too much pressure on himself: “I’m thinking a lot about how much I want this job and how much it means to me. It would mean a perfect life for me. It’s a dream job in a dream city.” To get Michael ready for the audition, host Charles Duhigg brings in Don Greene, a sports psychologist and former Green Beret who has trained dancers, Olympic athletes, musicians, and more to excel under pressure. This excerpt of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Don Greene: It comes down to not whether the pressure’s going to be there—it’s going to be there. It’s what you do with it, whether you make use of it or whether it abuses you. What Olympic athletes have learned from sports psychologists is how to use that energy to jump higher, run faster.

Charles Duhigg: That’s fascinating. So your job isn’t to teach them to avoid the pressure or to deal with the pressure.

Greene: That’s a waste of time. That’s counterproductive. It’s going to be there. They can deny it or push it away—or learn how to use it.

If this is at all important to you, the adrenaline’s going to kick in. And you’re describing a situation where this is your dream job; it’s a perfect job; it’d be the perfect job the rest of your life; you love the Chicago Lyric Opera; you love opera; your girlfriend lives in Evanston. This is absolutely perfect, which to my mind is a dirty word. I can hear in your voice you either have perfectionistic tendencies or you are a perfectionist. And that’s like a triple whammy because there is no perfection in music. It’s too challenging. But there’s a difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence, and I’m a big fan of striving for excellence. That you can do.

Desire is very important, but if you’re focused on winning, you’re focused on the wrong thing because you really don’t have control over that. Buddha said that attachment to results is the cause of all suffering, and you’re already extremely attached to these results.

Duhigg: Mike, what do you think of that?

Michael Martin: I think that sounds very true. When you said that I was a perfectionist, you definitely are correct. Yeah, I definitely think about playing things perfectly a lot, as much as I know that that’s kind of a lost cause.

Duhigg: That’s the next rule. Don’t strive for perfection. Strive instead for a loose sense of control. Focus on the things where you know you’re in charge, and let yourself explore the freedoms that exist inside those choices. And then all the things that you can’t control—like hitting the notes perfectly or what the judges are going to think—as much as you can, ignore those things completely.

Greene: One of the things I ask musicians to do is put a piece of music on the stand that’s low-difficulty, high-energy. So what you do is you set it up, turn the tape recorder on, leave the room, and get your heart rate up far higher than it ever feels in your most anxious state. Get the blood flowing, get your heart pumping. Squat against the wall like skiers do, and just squat like in an invisible chair until your heart’s pounding. But also mentally imagine that the audition panel from the Chicago Lyric is waiting to hear you play, so put pressure on yourself. But in spite of that, go in there, pick up the instrument, and play with reckless abandon, total disregard for intonation, pitch, tempo. The goal is to find freedom. Perfectionism ties you up in knots. Fear binds you like rubber bands around your body. Make a lot of mistakes.
Explore freedom.

Do this two or three times a day. Don’t listen to the recordings until you get the idea and start to feel the energy, start to ride the wave, start to drive the music. And then after you do it seven or eight, nine times, then listen to the recordings from the beginning, and you’ll watch your progress in finding freedom, and then you can start reining it in.

Duhigg: And you’re not worried about someone learning bad habits? Because when I listen to this, I think to myself, no. If you’re an elite athlete, if you’re an elite musician, you’re all about trying to get better and better and better, right? You’re supposed to get better control.

Greene: This is how you get control, by letting go of control and not overcontrolling. That’s the problem.

Duhigg: But what else does he do to mentally prepare himself for his big day?

Greene: Well, there’s a lot of things. Too many people do the wrong things the last two weeks: They overplay, don’t get enough sleep, obsess, too many lessons. And they go in exhausted. If they’re tired enough, the adrenaline won’t affect them, and then it’s a double whammy. So starting now, you want to watch your time but not overpractice. Do things you’re not normally used to doing, like take the whole day off on Sundays. There’s all sorts of studies showing how important sleep is to optimal functioning.

Prize fighters do not fight the week before a fight. But musicians, they’re pounding away—don’t get me started on brass players, they’re the worst. But you need your body fresh and rested, and your fingers. You need to get all the lactic acid out of your body that’s been building up with this intense training and obsession that you’re doing, so you want to start drinking a lot of water, a whole lot of water.

And get your mind in the right place, not thinking about results. That’s bad thinking. You can’t control it. You’re just going to make yourself miserable and anxious. You can’t play the audition until you play the audition. In the meantime, you want to keep your head in a happier place and just say it’s going to go fine, it’s going to go fine, it’s going to go fine, over and over and over.

The last two weeks before an audition, it’s an emotional roller coaster. You go through the whole range of emotions. It’s an up-and-down, moment-to-moment thing. It’s easy to get into a negative space, then the anxiety kicks in, then the lack of being perfect, that you still don’t have everything down right. Rise above it. And that’s why, believe it or not, what I recommend people do the last week before an audition is spend every morning listening or watching comedy until they’re laughing out loud. I’m absolutely serious.

Duhigg: What’s amazing to me, Don, is that all of this seems so counterintuitive. I feel the same way that Mike would feel, which is if you want to win it, you’ve got to earn it. You’ve got to work yourself. The person who’s going to perform the best is the one who works the hardest, is willing to make their fingers bleed. But what you’re saying is: “No, man. You’ve been doing all this work for years. The person who’s going to win is the one who gets a good night’s sleep and watches some Netflix until they’re laughing and goes in and just plays the thing that they love to play.”

Greene: Bingo.

To listen to the full episode—and find out how Michael’s audition went—click the player below or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.