In this paper, the psychological factors involved in a professional performer’s performance will be explored. Dr. Kenneth Kao, DC, a chiropractor, parkour, free-running, Kung Fu instructor, and a competitive pole dancer, was interviewed for this paper (also, see appendix for complete bio). His chiropractic practice specializing in structure and athletics adds further understanding and knowledge to the effects of psychological factors to physical condition and performance of a performer during competition, performance, and injury.
Psychological Factors in Performance
The relationship between psychology and performance has become one of the primary focus in the world of sport and performance today. Experts and professionals, both in the field of psychology and athletics, consider psychological factors to play a key role in understanding and determining the different levels of performance as well as how to enhance it. Some of the major psychological factors involved in sport and performance include personality, motivation, stress anxiety, and concentration.
In understanding performance based on personality, various theories and concepts can be applied. Martens (1975) provided three levels of personality: psychological core, typical responses, and role-related behavior. Psychological core is the most basic level of personality that includes attitudes, values, interests, motives, and beliefs about one’s self and self-worth (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). Typical responses involve ways in which we adjust and respond to events and our environment. Typical responses can be attributed to the psychological core. Lastly, role-related behavior is a person’s action and behavior based on how he/she perceived his/her social situation, and considered the most changeable aspect of personality (Weinberg & Gould, 2015).
Other psychologists, such as Ford (1980), used the ABC’s of personality to determine the differences among athletes. According to him, Type A and Type B personalities are most susceptible to the negative effects of various life stressors. The ABC’s of personality defines Type A’s as people who are often seen as aggressive, hard driving, ruled by the clock and obsessed with accomplishing more than time will allow. Type B’s are people who are classified as easygoing, calm, optimistic, and moderate. Type C’s are people who are viewed as dependent, sweet, passive, gentle, and nice. However, internally they are usually resentful, unforgiving, worried, anxious, bored, frustrated, and apathetic. Type C’s often feel helpless, useless, and unworthy, and tend to experience excessive guilt and despair (Ford, 1981).
When it comes to the big five personality traits, Tok (2011) found that individuals who participate in risky sports scored significantly higher on extraversion and openness to experience and scored lower on conscientiousness and neuroticism. For individuals who showed higher levels of openness to experience (OE), Tok (2011) found a correlation between OE and the need for esthetically pleasing views of natural surroundings. This is supported by McCrae and Costa’s (1997) argument that OE includes cultural sophistication and imagination. Sensation seeking (SS), or “the need for varied, novel, and complex sensations and experiences and the willingness to take physical and social risks for the sake of such experiences” (Zuckerman, 1979, p.10), was found related to high levels of extraversion (E). This finding is supported by Eysenck’s (1990) proposal that SS is a primary trait inherent in E. When it comes to neuroticism (N), Tok (2011) found that individuals who scored high in neuroticism (N) prefer lower levels of arousal. Applying the concepts of stress, anxiety, self-confidence, and self-efficacy, persons who are high in N may not take risks because of their belief that they will not be able to cope with the situation. This notion supports Bandura’s (1997) theory on self-efficacy. Finally, persons who participate in risky sport have lower levels of conscientiousness (C) (Tok, 2011), or “an individual’s tendency to think before acting and consider the potential consequences of an act” (Miller et al., 2004). Tok (2011) suggested that low level of C, characterized by lack of discipline and impulsivity (Miller et al., 2004), may be considered as a possible risk factor for injury or even mortality.
Perfectionistic tendencies is also considered as a contributing personality factor in performance and related to failure-orientation, anxiety and self-presentational concerns among performers and athletes. Hewitt and Flett (1991a), identified three components of perfectionism. During the development of the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (MPS; Hewitt & Flett, 1991, 2004), Flett and Hewitt (1991, 2004) described three sub-scales or types of perfectionism: (1) self-oriented perfectionists: follow strict standard, strongly motivated to attain perfection, avoid failure, engage in rigid self-evaluation; (2) other-oriented perfectionists: set unrealistic standards for significant others paired with a strict evaluation of other people’s performances; and (3) socially-prescribed perfectionists: experience pressure to be perfect by others, believe that they are being critically evaluated by others, and believe that others hold unrealistic expectations for their behavior (Flett and Hewitt, 1991, 2004). Kilbert et al. (2005) on the other hand, describes self-oriented perfectionists as those individuals who use their accomplishments and efforts as their motivation to improve and enhance their work, while socially-prescribed perfectionists are more concerned about failure, embarrassment, shame and guilt (Kilbert et al., 2005, p 154).
Perfectionistic concerns are mostly maladaptive in nature — it can be both self-oriented and socially-prescribed (Flett & Hewitt, 2004). The study conducted by Frost and Henderson (1991) supports this theory when they found that individuals who are concerned over mistakes tend to exhibit anxiety, low confidence, a failure orientation, and strong reactions to both positive and negative responses from other people (Frost & Henderson, 1991). Perfectionistic strivings on the other hand, is considered adaptive in most situations — which are mostly self-oriented and other-oriented (Frost et al., 1993). Individuals who exhibit this type of perfectionistic behavior strive for excellence and improvement, and can be considered a healthy form of perfectionism. Although, studies also suggest that if an individual has high levels of perfectionistic strivings, said individual also tend to exhibit high levels of perfectionistic concerns (Flett & Hewitt, 2005; Hall, 2006; Stoeber, 2011).
Dr. Kao (2015) shared some of his experiences during and before a major competition involving several misfortunes such as physical injury, food poisoning, vehicular accident, and personal issues. According to him, the injury and personal stressors helped his motivation and boosted his performance by setting a strong mindset on doing well despite any physical and emotional challenges.
In the world of sport and professional performance, motivation is one of the major factors involved in determining the likelihood of success in performance. Sage (1977) defined motivation as the direction and intensity of one’s effort (Weinberg, 2015). Ryan and Deci (2000), on the other hand, suggest that motivation is considered to be the core of cognitive, biological, and social regulation.
When Dr. Kao (2015) was asked about what drives him to become a professional and competitive pole dancer, he mentioned that his biggest drive is the future. “This includes personal growth, inspiration for others, and the excitement of discovery (of the future). You never know what can happen either in the performance or as a result of the performance, and you'll never discover it without trying to discover it”, he added. Based on the definition of motivation, its components involve direction of effort or the reasons or “motives” behind a person’s participation and performance, while intensity of effort is how much time and effort a person dedicates in completing the task (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). Motivation can also be classified based on its sources —— intrinsically or extrinsically. Intrinsic motivation comes from within and influenced by factors such as enjoyment, enjoyment, improvement and enhanced feeling of self-worth. Extrinsic motivation is more focused on external and material rewards. Based on the responses of Dr. Kao (2015), his motives for performing is to improve his skills and the positive feelings he receives from performing. His participation and performance are more directed toward task goal orientation and driven by intrinsic motivation. Task goal orientation, also called a mastery goal orientation, is when a person focuses on improvement relative to his or her own abilities and past performances, not based on comparison with other people’s performance (Weinberg & Gould, 2015). In addition, Weinberg and Gould (2015) mentioned that people can be both task or outcome oriented, but tend to be higher on one type of orientation.
Goal setting is considered one of the most effective motivational techniques. To achieve specific skill and performance goal, one can utilize the SMARTER acronym: make the goals Specific and detailed as possible; goals should be Measurable based on standard or previous performance; the goals should be Accepted by everyone involved in the goal-setting; goals should be challenging, but also Realistic and achievable; goals should be Time-framed; the entire process should be Recorded as a guide and reference if one is moving towards achieving the goal (Meyer, 2006).
Stress and Anxiety
How does stress affects performance? Dr. Kao answered this question by stating that, “Stress is usually a result of insufficiency. In relation to performance, it's either deficiency in rest or in readiness”. He also added that there are stressors that are outside a person’s control. However, one can manage other factors that a person has control of to decrease stress. This may include diet, time management, etc. McGrath (1970) defined stress as “a substantial imbalance between demand (physical and/or psychological), and response capability, under conditions where failure to meet the demand has important consequences”. Furthermore, McGrath (1970) identified four stages of stress: environmental demand, perception of demand, stress response, and behavioral consequences. How stress affects athletes and performers can be based on their perception of the event or situation. Cognitive appraisals when coping with stress can be classified into two types: primary appraisal and secondary appraisal. Primary appraisal is when a person evaluates the importance of the event, while secondary appraisal involves the evaluation of coping responses that a person can utilize to manage the demands of the event (Nicholls, A.R., Polman, R.C.J., 2008).
Another maladaptive emotional state that can affect performance negatively is performance or competitive anxiety among athletes. Performance anxiety can manifest itself in two ways: physical (somatic) anxiety and mental (cognitive anxiety). The effects of anxiety on both the physical and mental state of a person are almost interconnected such as excessive worrying can cause sweating and nausea or an injury or pain can affect an athlete’s concentration.
Research when it comes to acute stress in sport linked the athletes’ coping styles and strategies, such as approach and avoidance, and how they affect their motor performance (e.g. Anshel & Anderson, 2002). Anshel and Anderson (2002), for example, found that the use of approach coping strategy shows higher relation to increased negative affect. This result supports other findings that avoidance coping is associated with low trait anxiety and improved performance success among German elite table tennis players after physical errors under actual competitive conditions (Krohne & Hindel, 1988). It must also be noted that athletes may switch between approach and avoidance coping strategies during an event partly due to some personal (e.g. personality, dispositions) and situational factors (e.g. resources, sources of stress) (Gould et al., 1993a, b; Hardy et al., 1996). Cognitive re-appraisal is also a process that can help athletes and performers cope with stress and anxiety when faced with challenging or stressful situations. Through continuous cognitive re-appraisal, athletes and performers will be able to assess if the situation is still threatening and eventually reduces their levels of anxiety and stress (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984, 1999). The importance of properly dealing and coping with most sources of acute stress, according to research, can have a significant effect on various psychological process such as concentration, attentional, focus, and arousal (Anshel, 1990; Jones & Hardy, 1989). How does stress and anxiety affect concentration in athletes and performers?
Concentration or attention, according to Smith (1996), involves selectively focusing on one source of information while excluding others. Several researchers suggest that motivational and adaptational factors, including one’s emotional state, are related to prioritization of available information that is required for a type of concentration leading to better performance (Anderson, 2005; Derryberry & Tucker, 1994; Lang, 2000; Yantis & Johnson, 1990). Existing literature suggest that anxiety influences attention and performance and that anxiety can be helpful by encouraging athletes to engage in behavior to avoid failure and threats (Carver, 2001, 2004; Tamir, Chiu, & Gross, 2007; Eysenck & Calvo, 1992; Hardy, 1990) or anxiety can direct attention towards task-irrelevant cues (Matthews & Wells, 1999; Nideffer & Sagal, 2006; Sarason, 1972).
According to Dr. Kao (2015), when asked about how he deals with fear under pressure, he mentioned that he applies a lot of sympathetic readying techniques to get his mind and body focused prior to performance as well as breathing techniques and visualization, among others (also, see appendix). He also discussed how he deals with mental block or lack of focus and shared five steps in dealing with mental blocks. First, make the decision to not let mental barriers get in the way of your performance. Second, make a specific plan based on the different levels of difficulty and performance. This will allow a person to successfully move from one level to the next. Dr. Kao (2015) added that achievement breeds confidence. Third step is visualization or positive imagery of how to perform a particular task. This is a form of mental conditioning on how you would like to perform. Fourth step is conditioning one’s physical body to its sympathetic state or the body’s fight-or-flight response. This type of conditioning allows the body to know that it has to perform to survive. The fifth step is to provide self-reward and an appropriate amount of reinforcement to keep the motivation strong. (K. Kao, personal communication, April 11, 2015).
The steps mentioned by Dr. Kao (2015) when it comes to dealing with mental barriers can be helpful when training one’s cognitive processes during competition and performance. Positive thinking and conditioning of thoughts, feelings, and emotions, other than just the body, has been associated with concentration and peak performance in sport (Krane & Williams, 2006). Vast, Young, and Thomas (2010) also reported the following results in their study that excitement and happiness were associated with a broad attentional focus significantly more than dejection and anger, and that excitement was also associated with externalized attention significantly more than anxiety. These findings support other research showing how negative emotions reduce focus on performance-relevant factors, while positive emotions provides more favorable attentional patterns and immediate benefits for concentration and performance (Derryberyy & Tucker, 1994; Frederickson, 2001; Carver & Scheier, 1990; Block & Gray, 2007; Memmert & Furley, 2007; Nideffer & Sagal, 2006; Styles, 2006; Carver & Hamon-Jones, 2009). Other researchers also suggest that cognitive behavioral techniques such as cognitive restructuring, self- statement modification, thought stoppage and visualization have been shown to effectively reduce unhelpful emotions, and lead to increases in sports performance (Carter, Forys, & Oswald, 2008; Jones, 2003).
Pressure-induced anxiety, based on other studies, causes shifts in attention that lead to decreased performance (e.g., Behan & Wilson, 2008; Gucciardi et al., 2010; Murray & Janelle, 2003; Nieuwenhuys, Pijpers, Oudejans, & Bakker, 2008; Pijpers, Oudejans, Bakker, & Beek, 2006; Vickers & Williams, 2007). This almost contradicts the concept of concentration. According to researchers, skill-focused attention can impair performance or conscious control of skill executing causes choking ( Baumeister, 1984; Beilock & Carr, 2001; Gray, 2004; Gucciardi & Dimmock, 2008; Jackson et al., 2006; Liao & Masters, 2002; Mullen & Hardy, 2000; Mullen, Hardy, & Tattersall, 2005; Wilson et al., 2007). Two of the cognitive strategies used by athletes, particularly runners, is association and dissociation. When association is used as a cognitive strategy, an individual is attending to his/her body’s internal related cues such as breathing and muscle tension (Morgan, 1980) and/or external performance information such as distance completed, time, race position, and pace (Scott, Scott, Bedic, & Dowd, 1999; Schomer, 1987). Dissociation is when a person focuses on external cues such as listening to music, focusing on the environment, imagining pleasant situations, talking to others, or ways for a person to ignore internal sensory input that can cause discomfort (Tammen, 1996; Schomer, 1987). In a study conducted by Oudejans et al. (2011), they explored if explicit attention to skill execution (self-focus theories) or attention to performance worries (distraction theories) occurs more in athletes when performing under pressure. Their results suggest that the attention of elite athletes focused more on worries than movement execution when under pressure and that performance worries generally explain choking. Furthermore, Oudejans et al. (2010) suggested that positive monitoring, relaxation, imagery, visualization, and other cognitive techniques are effective in countering the negative effects of anxiety and can help athletes control their anxiety (e.g. reducing worries), thoughts, and focus of attention.
What is social support and how does it affect performance? Social support involves psychosocial processes that are intended to provide positive effect on a person’s emotions, behaviors, and cognitions. A network of social support may include significant individuals in an athlete or performer’s life such as parents, family, friends, coachers, and mentors. The benefits of social support to people in sport and performance is becoming an appealing research topic and even recommended to be a useful resource for athletes and performers (Richman, Hardy, Rosenfeld, & Callanan, 1989; Sarason, Sarason, and Pierce, 1990; Gould, Grenleaf, Chung, & Guinan, 2002). Social support has been linked with group cohesion (Westre & Weiss, 1991), coping with competitive stress (Crocker, 1992), slumps in performance (Madden, Kirkby, & McDonald, 1989), burn out (Gould, Tuffey, Udry, & Loehr, 1996), vulnerability to injury (Smith, Smoll, & Ptacek, 1990), the etiology of and recovery from injury (e.g. Hardy, Richman, & Rosenfeld, 1991; Udry, 1996), leadership styles (Chelladurai, 1993), and performance (Rees, Ingledew, & Hardy, 1999). When asked about the significant individuals in his life and how said people affect his life as a performer, Dr. Kao (2015) shared that at the beginning of his journey to pole dancing, he never relied much on anyone for motivation and support. However, his current personal relationship significantly impacted his passion for competitive pole dancing and how he handles challenging and stressful situations in relation to competition and performances. He also added that the pole dancing community, his friends, and other support structures brought positive influences in his life in relation to the effect of physical activity in his entire well-being.
A study conducted by Rees and Hardy (2000) found that social support is multidimensional or different types of support can help athletes deal with different problems and stressors as well as similar types of support can be used for different problems. They also suggest for significant others as providers of support to have the knowledge and skill in understanding the needs of athletes and performers instead of relying solely on intuition (Reese & Hardy, 2000). Lehman, Ellard and Wortman (1986) noted that poor providers of support try, among other things, to minimize the importance of an event, avoid open communication, criticize attempts at coping, encourage quicker coping, and give inappropriate advice. This tells us that social support is one of the most important resources for athletes and performers. A statement from Rees (2007) sums up the importance of social support to performance,
“Ongoing support of friends and family is one of the most important factors influencing sports performance. While training, tactics and luck all play a part, the encouraging words or kind gestures of a partner or friend can make the difference between a footballer scoring that winning goal or a sprinter achieving a record time. The encouragement and support of friends and family clearly plays a massive part in building confidence, which is so important when the pressure is on.”
Many studies support the relationship between psychological factors and performance. Recognizing and understanding the multidimensionality of psychological factors involved in human performance can help performers as well as parents, teachers, coaches, and significant others handle and manage the challenges and difficulties involved in the life of athletes and performers — both professional and aspiring. What can be learned from sport and human performance can be applied not just to one or a couple of fields. They can also be applied in other areas of life such as at work, at home, in school, business, and even in our personal relationships. When it comes to relationships, the influence of social network and support is also an important factor in the performance or even success of any individual in sports, artistic performances, or just about any other areas where optimum performance is desired. A popular phrase from John Donne’s Meditation XVII is a good expression emphasizing the connection between an individual to other people as well as his or her surroundings — “No Man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…” (1624, p. 91). As social beings, thriving and succeeding in life cannot be done alone. The sport culture is huge on masculinity, socially defined as behaviors and attributes exhibited by men, and may influence performers and athletes to consider interdependence or seeking help from others as a form of weakness. After all, masculinity, according to psychologists (e.g. Seymour, Smith, & Torres, 2012) emphasizes toughness, acquisitiveness, stoicism, and self-reliance (Clay, 2012). Masculine traits can be positive and beneficial when it comes to performance. However, recognizing the negative parts of masculinity is important due to its physical, mental, and emotional implications to athletes and performers. Not seeking help or advice from significant others may cause more harm than good. By highlighting the positive influence of social support to improved performance and/or recovery from injury should encourage athletes and performers to view social support and help not as a weakness but a necessary part of their growth as performers and athletes. Lastly, social support is a vital component to healthy psychological well-being, which clearly is also an important factor contributing to performance.
- Anshel, M.H. & Anderson, D.I. (2002). Coping with acute stress in sport: Linking athletes’ coping style, coping strategies, affect, and motor performance. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 15 (2), 193-209
- Baugh, F.G., & Benjamin, Jr. L.T., Jr. (2006). Walter Miles, Pop Warner, B.C. Graves, and the psychology of football. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 42, 3-18.
- Clay, R. (2012). Redefining masculinity: Three psychologists strive to build a ‘better’ man. American Psychological Association, 43 (6), p. 52
- Donne, J. (1624). Devotions upon emergent occasions together with death’s duel. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor Paperbacks.
- Frost, R.O., Heimberg, C.S., Holt, C.S., Mattia. J. I., & Neubauer, A.L. (1993). A comparison of two measures of perfectionism. Personality and Individual Differences, 14, 119-126.
- Hewitt, P.L., & Flett, G.L. (1991). Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: Conceptualization, assessment and association with psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60. 456-470.
- Kao, K. (2015, April 11). Email Interview.
- Meyer, P.J. (2006). Attitude is everything. Merced, CA: The Leading Edge Publishing Co.
- Morgan, W. P. (1981). Selected psychological factors limiting performance: a mental health model. University of Wisconsin Graduate School Grant No. 131123
- Oudejans, R.R.D., Kujpers, W., Kooijman, C.C., & Bakker, F. C. (2011).Thoughts and attention of athletes under pressure: skill-focus or performance worries? Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 24 (1), 59-73
- Rees. T., Hardy, L. (2000). An investigation of the social support experiences of high-level sports performers. The Sport Psychologist, 14, 327-347
- Rees, T.; Hardy, L. and Freeman, P. (2007). Stressors, social support, and effects upon performance in golf, Journal of Sports Sciences 25(1): 33 – 42.
- Scott, L.M., Scott, D., Bedic, S.P. & Dowd, J. (1999). The effects of associative and dissociative strategies on rowing ergometer performance. The Sport Psychologist, 13, 57-68.
- Schomer, H. (1987). Mental strategy training programme for marathon runners. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 18, 133-151.
- Tammen, V. (1996). Elite middle and long distance runners associative/dissociative coping. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 8, 1-8.
- Triplett, N. (1898). The dynamogenic factors in pacemaking and competition. American Journal of Psychology, 9, 507-533.
- Tok, S. (2011). The big five personality traits and risky sport participation. Social Behavior and Personality, 39 (8), 1105-1112
- Vast, R.L., Young, R.L., & Thomas, P. R. (2010). Emotions in sport: Perceived effects on attention, concentration and performance. Australian Psychologist, 45 (2), 132-140
- Weinberg, R.S., & Gould, D. (2015). Foundations of sports and exercise psychology, 6th ed. USA: Courier Companies, Inc.
About Dr. Kenneth Kao, DC
Dr. Ken is a Chiropractor, Parkour/Freerunning/Kung Fu Instructor, writer, and pole dancer. Outside of the norm, Dr. Ken loves board games, reading, new experiences, and traveling. He dreams of immersing himself in foreign cultures and meeting people with unique perspectives to grow his understanding of philosophy, the human condition, and the world.
Dr. Ken specializes in structure and athletes, particularly in relation to Parkour and Pole Dancing. He is considered by Mark Toorock of American Parkour to be the Official Parkour Doctor, and is the Pro Team Doctor of APEX Movement as well as the Health Forums Moderator at APK. He is the recipient of the Dr. George Goodheart Jr. Scholarship and the Peggy Sherman Leadership Scholarship, and he was the first student to ever publish and present at the ICAK International Conference. He has studied privately in Japan with Dr. Shan-Chi Ko, founder of Collateral Meridian Therapy. He is frequently interviewed and has appeared in newspapers and media such as Reuters and 9 News because of his unique perspective on Health and Parkour as both doctor and practitioner.
Learn more about his clinic, Vital Balance Chiropractic at:
Dr. Ken has been practicing Parkour since 2003. He is one of the founding members of Colorado Parkour and has been teaching at APEX Movement since 2009. He currently teaches at the Boulder gym as an Apex Certified Instructor and he has appeared in Ninja Warrior and many local news segments. He has been a fight choreographer for some local films and has experience working closely with various stunt teams.
Learn about his gym and team at:
Ken has been pole dancing since Sept ’12. He is a master instructor at Vertical Fusion Boulder, and is elevatED certified. Since being introduced to pole and seeing incredible feats that combine dance, strength, and technique all into one insane little package. He is the Pacific Pole Men's Pro Champion of 2014, the 5th place Finalist in the 2014 World Pole Cup in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and he took 2nd place as well as the "People's Choice Award" in the 2013 Pole Expo Pole Classic Competition. He is best known for being the first performer to jump between two chrome poles space 8 feet apart in a competition venue.
Check out his website at http://KennethKao.com/ to book him for events, workshops, and performances.
For his online youtube pole dancing tutorials, Doctor Ken's Pole Ninja Tutorials: