Top Stories in Performance Science, 2016

7 ways to improve your performance, backed-by evidence

Over the past year — via my newsletter, research and reporting for my book, and my magazine writing — I’ve been wholly immersed in the science of human performance. What follows is a list of the most interesting and actionable topics that I’ve covered. If you want to explore beyond the brief summaries, just click on the links and you’ll be routed to original, more detailed articles. And, if you want to stay abreast of the latest science in human performance, please consider subscribing to my newsletter for monthly updates. 

Top Stories in Performance Science

1. Brain Training: In 2016, we learned that the marketing behind brain-training games is far stronger than the science. Although it’s become nearly a billion dollar industry, brain training — or playing video games that involve tasks like holding numbers in your memory or quickly reacting to on-screen objects — doesn’t live up to its claims of slowing dementia, staving off age-related cognitive decline, or improving focus. Discouraging as this may be, there is at least one kind of training that really does enhance cognitive function. And that is physical training. There is increasing evidence that you can boost near-term brain function and prevent long-term cognitive decline with exercise. Some simple tips on how to do just that are here.

2. Turning Anxiety Into Excitement: Prevailing wisdom holds that if you are feeling nervous prior to a big event — be it a meeting, business presentation, athletic competition, exam, or artistic performance — you should tell (and try to force) yourself to calm down. But this may not always be the best idea. Sometimes, it’s better to reframe your anxiety as excitement. Research shows that something as simple as telling yourself “I am excited” can help turn typically destructive nerves into positive, performance-enhancing energy. In addition to this simple intervention, there are a few other practical ways to manage performance anxiety. More on that here.

3. The New Science of Resilience: It turns out that the key to bouncing back from adversity may lie in the stories that we tell ourselves. Research shows that when a negative event occurs, those who are able to integrate it into a part of their broader personal narrative (versus focusing on it as a singular catastrophe) tend to be more resilient. This is NOT to say that you shouldn’t feel sad and grieve when things go south. You should. But you should also do whatever you can to draw out any positives from the event and integrate those positives into your forever unfolding story.

4. The Costs of Going All In: There are few things more gratifying than really going for something. Whether it’s a physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual endeavor, giving something your all is what living is all about. But doing so comes with real costs, and we’re not just talking about everything that you sacrifice for your pursuit. We’re talking about the pain and suffering that often strikes when it’s time to move on. Just being aware of this is a start. But better is to realize that a life of passion and performance is, generally speaking, not a balanced life. This is OK, so long as you own your story and actively recreate yourself when the time comes. Again, it’s not so much about constantly being “balanced” as it is about constantly progressing.

5. The Benefits of Nature: Nature is the best. And, it helps make you your best. In 2016 we learned that just a 15 minute stroll through greenspace can significantly boost creativity. Regular exposure to nature has also been shown to lessen depression and anxiety. Nature may even shorten recovery time after hard physical efforts. Although the exact mechanisms are unknown, scientists speculate that when we are in nature our stress response gets quieted, allowing both our minds and bodies to relax. As goes the popular refrain in the blockbuster book and movie Wild, when you’re stuck in a rut, “Put yourself in the way of beauty.”

6. Harnessing the Power of Belief: The world’s top coaches and performance consultants are starting to harness the power of what they call “belief effects,” or the very real performance improvements that accompany belief. Increasingly, we have reason to believe that it may not be the actual ingredients in most supplements or the theories behind many interventions (think: ice-baths, compression socks, or electronic stimulation) that improve performance, but rather one’s belief that they will. As Brad wrote earlier this year, “I have no idea if the beta-alanine or beet-root juice I’m taking will help me [in my marathon], but I’m quite confident that my belief that they’ll help me will help me.”

7. When to Rely on Intuition: A gut feeling can lead to breakthrough, but it can also lead to ruin. Whether or not we follow our intuition should depend on our prior experience in a given field. The more experience we have — and more precisely, the more we’ve reflected on our past experiences — the more accurate our intuition will be. Although our gut truly does work faster than our brain, it’s still almost always beneficial to check our premonitions by going through the following exercise:

  • Remind yourself that intuition is only valuable if it concerns a field in which you have true expertise. Ask yourself: Am I truly an expert in this area?
  • Check for emotional biases. If you are in a happy mood you are more prone to taking risks whereas if you are in a sad mood you are more prone to loss aversion.
  • Think back and try to find examples of similar situations. How did those play out?
  • If applicable, use any objective data you have to analyze your intuitive hunch.
  • Test your idea with other experts and seek their feedback.

If you’re into the science of performance…

You can learn more by following me on Twitter @Bstulberg, singing up for my newsletter, and checking out my own forthcoming book, PEAK PERFORMANCE.