Achieving peak performance in juggling: a guest blog by Dr. Edson Filho

dr. Edson Filho
Dr. Edson Filho

Today’s blog is a special treat; it’s a guest blog from Dr. Edson Filho, lecturer in sport and exercise psychology at the University of Central Lancashire (view his profile here). Edson’s research agenda centres on peak performance experiences and high-performing teams. Edson explains:

“Essentially, I am interested in understanding how individual performers get “in the zone” and how teammates reach what is colloquially known as “team chemistry”. To this effect, I have authored and co-authored a series of studies on juggling, which is a highly studied task given that it has good internal and external research validity; that is, juggling is a real-world task that can be examined under well-controlled conditions.”

Stress-Recovery balance and mindfulness key to peak performance in solo juggling

When studying peak performance in juggling, we have learned that the two big psychological challenges that prevent jugglers from “getting in the zone” are burnout and fear of failure. Jugglers are at a risk of burnout because they tend to engage in long hours of demanding and, oftentimes, solitary practice. Jugglers are afraid of failure during live shows because mistakes are visible: everybody can see when a juggler ‘drops a ball’. To prevent burnout and to be able to perform at peak level, jugglers must match their stress demands with physical, social and psychological recovery – what is known in the literature as “recovery-stress balance”. To get “in the zone”, jugglers also need to learn how to mindfully regulate their emotions, and ensure that their attention is in the present moment and their inner critic (judgemental thinking) is “turned off”.

Peak performance in dyadic team juggling associated with shared zones of optimal functioning

JugglerAlong with colleagues, I have also investigated team coordination and peak performance in juggling dyads. We wanted to understand how two jugglers manage to keep the balls (or any other prop) in the air by doing “the right thing, at the right time, and for the right reason”. We learned that, in order to perform optimally, two jugglers get their breathing rates and heart rates in sync, probably by learning how to co-regulate their activation levels and attentional states. Moreover, when we looked at the jugglers inter-brain interactions during cooperative juggling, we learned that, for the most part, the two jugglers activated similar areas of the brain.  That is, to perform optimally in team settings, jugglers need to leave their Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning and find their Shared Zones of Optimal Functioning, wherein they can sync their minds and bodies.

Want to know more? Take a look at these scientific papers!

Filho, E. (in press). Shared Zones of Optimal Functioning (SZOF): A framework to capture peak performance, momentum, psycho-bio-social synchrony and leader-follower dynamics in teams. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. Available soon.

Filho, E., Aubertin, P., & Petiot, B. (2016). The making of expert performers at Cirque du Soleil and the National Circus School: A performance enhancement outlook. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 7, 68-79. See here.

Filho, E., Bertollo, M., Robazza, C., & Comani, S. (2015). The juggling paradigm: a novel social neuroscience approach to identify neuropsychophysiological markers of team mental models. Frontiers in Psychology, 1-6. Access full-text for free here.

Filho, E., Bertollo, M., Tamburro, G., Schinaia, L., Chatel-Goldman, J., Di Fronso, S., Robazza, C., & Comani, S. (2016). Hyperbrain features of team mental models within a juggling paradigm: a proof of concept.  PeerJ, 1-38. Access full-text for free here.

Filho, E., & Rettig, J. (2018). Team coordination in high-risk circus acrobatics. Interaction Studies, 19, 500-519. See here.

Stone, D., Tamburro, G., Filho, E., di Fronso, S., Robazza, C., Bertollo, M., & Comani, S. (2019). Hyperscanning of interactive juggling: expertise influence on source level functional connectivity. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 1-13. Access full-text for free here

 

Three evidence based tips to take care of your psychological wellbeing right now

Early 2020 will probably go down in the history books as a challenging time for many people across the world. In Australia (where I live), the extreme bush-fire season was barely over when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. I have consciously refrained from commenting on the conversations about this on social media, because I believe it best to follow the advice from experts (such as epidemiologists, the World Health organisation, etc.). That being said, I am an expert on wellbeing (BSc, MSc, MSc, and PhD), so I would like to share some advice on how to take care of your wellbeing. This advice is based on some of the core principles of acceptance and commitment therapy.

Accept that things are difficult, and forgive yourself for not feeling your best at the moment

Many circus artists are currently unemployed, performances are cancelled and circus schools have closed down. The financial stress on most artists and circus organisations is substantial. Coaches, performers, and schools are competing to sell online courses to keep their heads above water. Some artists are still able to train while others may feel like they are falling behind because they do not have equipment or facilities readily available. There will be people stuck in a country away from their loved ones, worrying about the health of those they care about. There are circus artists who thrive on human contact and touch, and who feel down being deprived from this sensory input. Whatever your situation is, know that your feelings are valid. For example, just because you may have no money worries right now, this doesn’t mean that you aren’t allowed to feel upset.

There is no benefit to competing when it comes to pain, and providing unhelpful comments such as ‘well I spoke to circus artists X and they are much worse of than you’. Following a core principle of acceptance and commitment therapy, accepting that you cannot do much to change the current situation, instead of fighting the unchangeable is a beneficial step to start to improve your wellbeing. Yes the current situation is stressful, and you may feel worried, anxious, or hurt. That’s okay.

Drawing of girl in lyra; Art by Sharon Krisanovski. Instagram: @sharon_k_creative
Art by Sharon Krisanovski. Instagram: @sharon_k_creative

Reflect on your values. What do you find important? 

Then take the opportunity to think about the things in your life that are important to you. Circus may be one of them (or not, that’s fine too!). Other things on this list could be your friendships, family, personal development (mental and or physical), spirituality, your culture, being creative, being kind, being serious, being funny, the list goes on. I encourage you to reflect on what you find important.  Personally, I’m big on list making, so I would say, why not brainstorm, write it down, leave it for an hour or so, then go back to it and see if anything is missing.

Take action: find a project that interests you, and go do it

You may not be able to change the situation, but there are many things you still have control over. And one of these things is what you decide to spend your time on. I highly recommend everybody to find a project that interests them. This will allow for opportunities of mindfulness, where your attention is completely focused on the present moment. For many circus artists, circus may be their vehicle for experiencing mindfulness, so you may wonder what you can do achieve this. Well, I would recommend you to find a non-circus related project (gasp!), that aligns with your own values. Why? Because you are more than a circus artist. You are a whole person, and circus is a thing you do, an important thing you do, that can be a big part of you. But there is more to you. And those other parts of you are worthwhile and important too. I challenge you to nurture those other parts of yourself, not only because it will help your wellbeing right now, but also because evidence shows it will help protect your wellbeing in the future. So what could these things be? A few examples:

  • Lets say you value your relationships with others, and are interested in learning a new language.  Well, let’s start studying! Download an app, do a few practice sessions, and then be bold… Call that (circus) buddy of yours that speaks that language and attempt to strike up a conversation with them in their native tongue (giggles guaranteed!).
  • Perhaps you are big on personal development, and keen on being a source of accurate information. Maybe you’ve always been interested in psychology (you are reading this blog), exercise science, chemistry… Why not start learning more about it. There a many reputable sources online, some universities have youtube channels where you can follow brief lectures for example.
  • Perhaps creativity is important to you, as well as bringing joy to others. Maybe you love stage-make up and want to have a bit of fun with your family doing make-up together. Perhaps you love baking cakes, and want to share one with a housemate, your neighbour, that elderly person down the road that has been locked in their house for a while.

The sky is the limit. Learn how to sew, refurbish old furniture, show off your dog-training skills by teaching your pup to ride a skateboard (I want to see videos of this, including bloopers). Create a personalised video to surprise that friend or family member who is far away… The best projects for your well-being are linked to your personal values.

And finally, take care of yourself by maintaining physical distance from others, but reach out to mentally support each-other

Take initiative. Be there for the people you care about. Truly listen to their stories, how they are managing these uncertain times. No need to solve their problems, listening alone is very powerful. Let them know you are there, and you can always ask if there is something you can do for them. So set up that video call, surprise someone by sending a postcard (you can even create them online, and have them posted), play games together from a distance (houseparty is an app I enjoy; it has pictionary, my favourite game), exercise together from a distance. Physical distance doesn’t have to mean social disconnection.

 

 

Want to make circus even more fun? Follow the principles of self-determination theory!

Self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2010) suggests that people are more likely to enjoy an activity (and stick with it) when participation in this activity fulfils three key psychological needs. These three psychological needs are the need for autonomy, relatedness and competence. In this blog, I will explain how you can use the principles of self-determination theory to increase students’ enjoyment in circus classes.

Fulfilling the need for autonomy

Autonomy represents the feeling of being allowed to make your own choices. Research suggests that autonomy is highly predictive of people’s enjoyment of an activity (Vansteenkiste et al., 2004). This is the case for children, but even more so for adults.  So how can you provide circus artists with experiences of autonomy while working within the boundaries of what is safe for that student? Below are three options to increase autonomy that I believe are easy to implement within circus schools:

  • Provide your students with options. For example, during warm-up, show your students three exercises that target more or less the same outcome, and let them choose individually which one they’d like to do.
  • Ask your students if there is something in particular they want to achieve during the term. In each of your classes, give students a bit of time (for example 5 minutes) to work on exercises that will help them achieve that goal. Make sure the students understand how these exercises will help them get closer to their goal.
  • Provide students with opportunities to create their own mini-acts and routines. This provides students with choices about the character they would like to portray, the music they’d like to use (if any), and the skills they would like to incorporate in their act. As a bonus, this will help your amateur students feel like true circus artist.

Hitting the ‘relatedness’ sweet-spot

The second psychological need, relatedness, refers to feeling part of a community, and creating friendships with other people in the circus. Relatedness is important for adults and children, and seems key in exercise participation of females. In my experience, circus excels in fostering feelings of relatedness. That being said, some coaches and schools are better at this than others. One best practice example I vividly remember was from a training centre I went to after I had just moved to Perth. Before the class even started the coach came up to me and said, ‘Hi you must be Fleur!, I am … and I’ll be taking your class’. He then proceeded to quickly explain what I could expect from the class, showed me where everything was, and then – perhaps most importantly – walked me up to a classmate and said ‘Hi …, this is Fleur, she just told me she loves lyra, just like you’. Instantly this coach had made me feel part of the group by not only showing that he cared enough to learn my name, but also to introduce me to someone he knew I had something in common with. This made it easy for me to talk and connect to that person. I later learned this training centre also organised occasional outings, for example visiting circus shows together. This also fosters feelings of relatedness among students.

Experiences of relatedness can also be created during circus classes by making students work as a team. This can include partner stretching or doubles/group skills, as well as providing specific challenges to pairs of students. For example, you could challenge two students to together come up with as many transitions as possible out of a particular move, to perform the same skills portraying as many emotions as possible, and so on. Within this, be mindful of the personalities of your students. You’ll want to avoid overwhelming your more introverted students with too many team/group activities, and too many partner-swaps. If this occurs, they will feel uncomfortable and will experience low levels of relatedness. As a result, they will be likely to quit your classes. Similarly, if you have managed to create a tight group of students this is wonderful, but please ensure that any ‘new’ students quickly feel like the have become part of the group. If they feel like an ‘outsider’ for too long, they are also more likely to quit your classes.

Fleur in Lyra
Picture by Jealous by Nature

Making your students feel competent

The final psychological need, competence, refers to feeling like you’re successful in what you’re doing. Beginner students in particular may feel like they are failing in classes, and that they can’t keep up with others. Of course, providing options and progressions of skills will help students achieve little victories which likely will make them feel good about themselves. But don’t let the feeling of competence solely depend on the circus artists’ own thought processes. Instead, simply point out what you believe they are doing well. As a guideline, research suggests that 80 to 90 percent of feedback to students should be positive. This is particularly important for children, but adults like positive feedback too. So is your student getting more flexy? Compliment the student on their progress. Is a student working extremely hard at a skill and still not getting it? Make a comment about how proud you are of their work-ethic. Did a student finally overcome an (irrational) fear? Celebrate with them! Creating feelings of competence amongst students is all in the little things, you’d be surprised about the difference a high-five or a simple smile can make. Further, when you provide instructive feedback (for example: point your toes), make sure that you also reward the student for following your feedback (that looked much better with pointed toes, well done!).

Even if you’re not a circus coach, providing a few honest compliments can change the dynamics of the entire circus setting. These compliments can range from ‘I love the pattern on your leggings!’ to, ‘I noticed how hard you have been working on this skill, you have made so much progress with it’. I recommend any circus artist to give this a go and to see what happens. As long as these compliments are honest and true, you will start noticing that others will join in on the positive attitude, and that the environment will become more supportive of people’s accomplishments.

References  

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.

Vansteenkiste, M., Simons, J., Soenens, B., & Lens, W. (2004). How to become a persevering exerciser? Providing a clear, future intrinsic goal in an autonomy-supportive way. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 26(2), 232-249.

Trouble sleeping after performing or training in the evening? Using psychological skills might help!

With the festive season in full swing, many circus artist are experiencing their busiest time of the year. Late night performances are common, and might result in disturbed sleep. Disturbed sleep does not only affect your physical recovery, but also increases chances of experiencing accidents. So what can you do about this?

There are several psychological skills that have been shown to improve sleep, one of my favorites is progressive muscle relaxation (McCloughan et al., 2016). Over the past five years I have taught progressive muscle relaxation to over 500 university students and elite athletes. Based on feedback approximately 90% finds it relaxing and useful.

Fleur in lyra
Picture by Olive Oates Photography

What is progressive muscle relaxation?

Progressive muscle relaxation uses conscious awareness of the difference between muscle tension and muscle relaxation to promote overall relaxation. For this reason, it is called a ‘muscle to mind’ relaxation technique, meaning that you are using your body to calm your body and mind. I think this technique is particularly useful for circus artists because we are often unaware how tense and tight our bodies are after performing/training. Awareness of this can help you reduce the tension in your body, calm your mind, and as a result you are likely to fall asleep more quickly.

How does progressive muscle relaxation work?

Essentially, during progressive muscle relaxation you tense muscles for approximately three seconds, and then you release them. You do this in a systematic manner, either from your head working your way down to your toes, or from your toes working your way up to your head. Avoid randomly tensing and releasing muscles, it doesn’t work as well. While you are doing your progressive muscle relaxation, you focus on how heavy and relaxed your muscles feel after you release the tension. Prior to starting progressive muscle relaxation I recommend everybody to find themselves a comfortable spot (for example: your bed), to close your eyes, and to take a couple of slow, deep, breaths in and out. After this, you start your progressive muscle relaxation. I use my own progressive muscle relaxation script with my students and clients, but there are several great scripts available on youtube and in apps. An effective video on youtube that I quite like is this one.

Psychological skills need to be trained

Notice how I have used the words ‘skills’ and ‘technique’ through-out this blog. Just like circus skills, psychological skills require a bit of training before you become an intermediate, advanced, or expert user. So don’t expect miracles the first time you use the skill ‘progressive muscle relaxation’ (or any psychological skill). Instead, give yourself time to develop the skill via training and practice. Once you’ve got the basic down, it will start to pay off. As an extra bonus, progressive muscle relaxation hasn’t just been shown to improve sleep, it is also helpful to reduce performance anxiety when you use it prior to going onstage (McCloughan et al., 2016).

Are there other techniques that can help me fall asleep?

Which psychological skills work for you depends a bit on your personality and personal preferences, and although it works for many people progressive muscle relaxation might not be the relaxation technique that comes most naturally to you. Usually you would figure this out in collaboration with a psychologist (sport psychologists for example are well-trained in this). Together with your psychologist you could explore other relaxation techniques such as mental imagery and deep breathing exercises, or implement sleep hygiene strategies.

Reference:

McCloughan, L. J., Hanrahan, S. J., Anderson, R., & Halson, S. R. (2016). Psychological recovery: progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), anxiety, and sleep in dancers. Performance Enhancement & Health4(1-2), 12-17.

Psychological mechanisms underlying accidents and near misses in contemporary circus

Last weekend, I attended the Australian Society for Performing Arts Healthcare conference in Melbourne. An inspiring conference during which I learned more about the psychological and physical health of performing artists in a range of different domains, including ballet and music. At this conference, I presented the findings of a recent study (van Rens & Filho, in press) about psychological mechanisms underlying accidents and near misses in contemporary circus arts. For this study, 248 circus artist completed an online survey containing measures of sensation, emotion regulation and agency (Barlow et al., 2013), personality (using the “Big Five”; Costa & McCrae, 1992), accidents and near misses as well as demographic information.

Dr. Fleur van Rens presenting at ASPAH conference
ASPAH presentation

Predictors of accidents and near misses

We used the data from the survey to create a model which predicts accidents in contemporary circus arts. Our findings showed that the personality trait conscientiousness (i.e., being self-disciplined, diligent, and careful), experiences of emotion regulation (experiencing that circus increased control over one’s emotions), and the perceived risk associated with the circus disciplines predicted accidents and near misses. Specifically, artists who score high on conscientiousness experienced less accidents and near misses. Artists who perceived the risk associated with their circus discipline to be high, and artists who experienced more emotion regulation during participation in their circus discipline were more likely to experience accidents and near misses. Unlike artists in other domains such as music and dance (Feist, 1998), circus artist scored high on the personality trait conscientiousness. It seems that this could protect circus artists from experiencing accidents.

Not all circus disciplines are the same

I also want to highlight an important secondary purpose of the study. Most scientific research about contemporary circus arts has classified circus artists from a range of disciplines (e.g., clowns, acrobats, object manipulators) all together under the umbrella ‘circus artists’. No distinctions between their respective circus disciplines were made. To me this seemed problematic. Therefore, we conducted statistical analyses to explore differences among circus artists in the disciplines aerial acrobatics, floor acrobatics, and object manipulation.

girl in lyra

Our findings showed that aerial acrobats scored particularly high on conscientiousness, significantly higher than object manipulators (floor acrobats scored somewhere in the middle, not significantly different to aerial acrobats or object manipulators). This high score on conscientiousness is consistent with efforts from aerial acrobats to create an illusion of risk and danger, while simultaneously engaging in preventative behaviour to reduce the actual risks of accidents (for example by engaging in equipment checks, and carefully selecting relatively safe tricks to perform). Further, aerial acrobats scored higher on the personality trait agreeableness than object manipulators, perhaps this reflects the amount of teamwork and trust involved in (particularly group/duo) aerial acrobatics acts. We also found that aerial acrobatics and floor acrobatics were seen as equally high-risk, meaning that the consequences of mistakes or accidents were deemed equally detrimental to the physical health of the artists. Object manipulation was seen as significantly more low-risk compared to aerial acrobatics and floor acrobatics. However, floor acrobats reported experiencing the most accidents, scoring significantly higher than aerial acrobats and object manipulators. Floor acrobats also experienced significantly more near misses than aerial acrobats.

What does this mean?

First, our results confirmed the expectation that conscientiousness, emotion regulation, and perceived risk are predictors of accidents and near misses. Experiences of sensation (i.e., chasing an adrenaline rush) did not predict this, neither were there differences between circus disciplines on experiences of sensation. Second, the findings suggest that we cannot simply group all circus artists together in scientific research. Instead, we need to start investigating differences between circus disciplines to better understand the costs, demands, and benefits of the different contemporary circus disciplines. Finally, the findings emphasise that it is important to focus on floor acrobats when it comes to accident prevention. This may also have implications for research investigating acute and chronic injuries among circus artists.

 

Our study is available ahead of print now:

Van Rens, F.E.C.A., & Filho, E. (in press). Not just clowning around: investigating psychological mechanisms underlying accidents in a heterogeneous group of contemporary circus artists. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/aca0000289 or download the full-text accepted version for free here.

Other references:

Barlow, M., Woodman, T., & Hardy, L. (2013). Great expectations: Different high-risk activities satisfy different motives. Journal of personality and social psychology105(3), 458. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23795909

Costa, P. T., Jr., & McCrae, R. R. (1992). Four ways five factors are basic. Personality and Individual Differences, 13, 653–665. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0191-8869(92)90236-I

Feist, G. J. (1998). A meta-analysis of personality in scientific and artistic creativity. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2, 290–309. http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15327957pspr0204_5

The journey from elite gymnastics to professional circus: “It’s like placing for another Olympics”

Recently, our research project about career transitions from elite gymnastics to professional circus was published in the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. I interviewed eight (inter)national level gymnasts who achieved a career as a circus artist. What can we learn from their experiences? Our analysis showed that the journey from elite gymnastics to professional circus is challenging. We identified three phases within this transition process:

  • During the realising phase, the gymnasts try to achieve a circus contract in order to become professional circus artists. The gymnasts participate in audition processes, intensive training programs, and often face several rejections. High levels of psychological resilience are required to be successful in obtaining a circus contract.
  • The adapting phase requires new circus artists to adjust to their new life. The former gymnasts will encounter various stressors during this phase. Some are similar to those commonly experienced in sport, for example the high physical demands of circus. Other stressors are specific to the circus environment, such as unique performance pressures, managing the risks involved with several circus disciplines, interdependency, and fitting into the circus culture. Due to these stressors, the new circus artist may feel overwhelmed, isolated, and may lose their self-confidence.
  • During the thriving phase the circus artist flourishes both in terms of performance as well as psychological wellbeing. Key to achieve this thriving phase were experiences of freedom, personal development, and social connections. Achieving the thriving phase was indicative of the artists’ career longevity as a circus artist.

49698538_10156293113424779_8692261857114718208_oWe can use this information to help prospective circus artists during their journeys from sport to the big-top. During the realising and adapting phases of the career transition, the ‘social support’ component of psychological resilience is expected to weaken because the new circus artists are away from their existing social support networks. Yet this form of support is very important during these phases. To support psychological resilience during these phases we recommend:

  • Formalised buddy systems in which new circus artists are matched with more experienced circus artists by their circus companies.
  • Practitioners in gymnastics are encouraged to remain in contact with retired gymnasts during the realising and adapting phases of their career transitions.

To facilitate thriving, we recommend circus companies to create and maintain an autonomy-supportive environment, in which circus artists may voice their opinions, feel listened to, and have opportunities to continuously develop their skills (be it circus skills, creative skills, or any other skills that could be applied to the circus context).

Reference:

Van Rens, F.E.C.A., & Filho, E. (in press). Realising, adapting, and thriving in career transitions from gymnastics to contemporary circus arts. The Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. 

Download the full-text publication for free here, or view it on the journal’s website.