Improv Helps Increase the Performance of Elite Athletes
Updated: Oct 17
Elite figure skaters who included comedic improvisation (improv) as part of their sports psychology regimen saw a dramatic improvement and increase in their overall all score.
Researchers at the Universite de Montreal and Florida State University recently conducted an experiment that analyzed the effects of comedic improvisation (what we tend to call just "improv") on elite figure skaters - we're talking the cream of the crop of the figure skating world, the ones who spend hours on the ice and in dance classes while their parents stand off to the side and watch.
In a competition where fractions and millimeters matter, it's no surprise that these elite athletes are up to trying almost anything to gain a competitive edge -- think of all of the work that's been done around other sport psychological interventions for athletes, such as the power of self talk, thought control, and mental imagery, for example.
Up to this point, however, no one has thought to put improv to the test.
"By learning how to perform freely (by using improv), the skaters developed a performance state that better facilitated and enhanced their performance."
Think about it: figure skaters take huge physical and artistic risks every day. I mean, who else would be willing to do a triple-toe loop while dressed as a cat on fire in spandex? Suffice it to say, there's an inherent risk in ice skating.
On the other hand, excessive technique can lead to a somewhat "automaton-like" performance.
So, what interventions allow you to practice failure, take risks, get yourself "out of your head,"and laugh at yourself all at the same time?
“Developing the athletes' capacity to laugh at themselves was an important goal...”
What They Did
The program took 9 athletes and worked with them over the course of a single season. During the season, the athletes worked with teachers from Cirque du Soleil, who taught them a series of improvisation and mindfulness interventions (it ended up being 10 sessions at 2 hours each).
What They Found
It may come as no surprise that the artistic scores increased for 77% of the participants - and some of those increases were significant! As an intervention, improv is steeped in creativity and self expression, with an emphasis on taking risks. When you take a risk and it fails, the byproduct is often laughter, and as one of the teachers stated, "developing the athletes' capacity to laugh at themselves was an important goal."
Below are the artistic scores calculated over the season. Check out Participant 9 (P9) who jumped from 3.0 to 4.5. Again, in a competition where fractions matter, this is a HUGE improvement. "It should be noted that the magnitude of the effect sizes were substantial, and indicate a positive change in artistic performance and creative attitude and value."
To reach optimal peak performance, it's critical that an athlete gets to the point of "autopilot" - acting without thinking. "By learning how to perform freely (by using improv), the skaters developed a performance state that better facilitated and enhanced their performance." You may have heard of this type of performance state called "flow" or the "flow state."
The researchers also analyzed the overall performance scores over the course of 3 competitions.
Though increases appear small, 7 out of 9 of the participants saw an increase - some up to almost 12% in their overall score. This is a phenomenal result with people who are already EXCEPTIONAL at what they do.
“Sport being a field in constant evolution, creativity is an important skill to possess to keep an edge on the opponent.”
What Should You Do About It?
Well - you should learn how to improv. And your companies should learn how to improv.
If improv can help with elite athletes, it certainly has the capacity to improve your response to changing business conditions, to rapidly generate new ideas, and to foster a culture of innovation. IT CHANGES YOUR BRAIN IN A WAY THAT MAKES CREATIVITY EASIER. "Sport being a field of constant evolution, creativity is an important skill to possess to keep an edge on the opponent." This is absolutely true in business as well.
There is also a powerful side effect of studying improv within teams - Simply put: the teams get better.
"...the unique type of mutual aid that occurs within the improvisation ... brings out the greatness of every individual."
Bruce T. Montgomery
ExperienceYes focuses on corporate innovation, culture and leadership development by leveraging the neuroscience behind improvisation and creativity.
Soft Skills. Hard Results.
--Source: Richard, V., Halliwell, W., Tenenbaum, G. (2017). Effects of an Improvisation on Elite Figure Skaters' Performance, Self Esteem, Creativity, and Mindfulness Skills. The Sports Psychologist, 31, 275-287.