The news trumpets stories about the best of the best. Stand-out entrepreneurs, star athletes, successful performers, talented artists. These elite performers bring talent and hard work to everything they do.

In many cases, they also leverage psychology to hone their craft and gain the extra edge they need for success.

A 2019 issue of Consulting Psychology Journal was dedicated to definitions and examples of performance psychology and high performance across multiple professions.

What is performance psychology?

Performance psychology focuses on helping people achieve better performance in their chosen area. It can be applied to business, sports, arts, medicine, education and more.

Performance psychology techniques alter the mental skills that affect performance and go beyond basic teaching about the task.  These mental skills that affect performance include managing emotions like anxiety and frustration, increasing confidence and performing under pressure.

Performance psychology is not about teaching someone to do a basic task – like teaching a leader how to give a speech. Instead, performance psychology takes the leader who has learned how to give a presentation and gives her the mental skills needed to manage nerves and deliver the speech on stage. Techniques for building mental skills include mindfulness, visualization, imagery, bio-feedback and management of anxiety and stress.

Example of performance psychology

A typical soccer coach teaches how to dribble the ball and kick penalty shots. That coach teaches the basic skills.  A soccer coach who also leverages performance psychology would go beyond that.

He might also teach about staying calm under pressure, developing a winning mindset and building trust in the team. These performance psychology techniques could be used with one or two of the top players – like with the goalie during the play-offs. They could also be used with the entire team to build a winning mindset all season long.

Elite performers benefit from techniques

Not everyone benefits the same way from performance psychology. Some people will dismiss it as unimportant. Others will still be struggling with basic skills and not be ready for developing mental mindset.

Once a person reaches an elite performer level, performance psychology starts to make sense. By definition, elite performers have already mastered the basics of their area – whether that is athletics or music or business. Now, they want to find the extra edge to take their performance up another notch.

With challenging self-imposed goals, elite performers actively seek learning and techniques to give themselves an advantage. They demand excellence from themselves and the people supporting them. These people embrace and benefit from the techniques of performance psychology.

Applications of performance psychology for executives

You can apply these concepts of performance psychology to your own situation. Executive coaches also leverage these concepts to support executives.

For example, senior executives need to manage their own anxieties and stress levels in order to address company issues. Performance psychology techniques such as mindfulness help executives grab spare moments between events, slow down, re-center and prepare for the next task.

These techniques can be part of the solution for helping an elite executive to perform even better. They could be applied to situations such as helping with a specific behavior change, understanding how to influence other people with different styles and problem solving with new issues.

Over the next few posts, we’ll go deeper into the concepts of performance psychology and how they can be applied to coaching executives.


Special thanks to the Guest Editor of the issue, Stewart E. Cooper, who also wrote the introduction to the special issue.

S.E. Cooper (2019) “Introduction to the Special Issue on Coaching Elite Performers”, Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, Vol 71, 2, 63-71.

Stewart E. Cooper, Valparaiso University

This article was originally posted on Science of Working on July 16, 2019 as “Performance psychology applied to elite performers“.