Why do experienced artists make mistakes under pressure?

Train your own hero

Volume 122, No. 8September, 2022

Dr. Don Greene

My recent columns have been about conventional peak performance methods, exercises and strategies. These have included controlling and channeling nervous energy, raising confidence, and improving one’s focus. These are covered more in depth in the first two chapters of my new books, “Train Your Own Hero: Reach Peak Functioning in One Month or 21 Steps,” and the accompanying “Train Your Own Hero Journal.” The second two chapters of these books addresses the essential components of performing one’s best under pressure. These came after decades working with elite musicians and their teachers, as well as Olympic athletes and their coaches.

However, throughout all that time, I was continually puzzled by the same question: why do even the most talented and highly trained veterans make unforced errors, especially under pressure? These mental mistakes seemed to occur at the worst possible times, like the finals of a major professional audition or Olympic event. Unfortunately, they usually happened without the victim ever understanding what happened to them at the time or what really caused the disaster. That made it likely to repeat unexpectedly at some point in the future under similar circumstances or conditions.

Five years ago, I finally reached what I thought was an answer to the problem. I taught several of my private clients about the new information. After they completed the program, they all stopped making unforced errors under pressure, in consequential situations. After their many successes, like winning back-to-back orchestral auditions, I started to write a new book about the game-changing information. I thought that I could explain the solution in a few months or so. Silly me! It took at least nine months just to finish the first draft of the text and have several respected colleagues review it. They all said that the new ideas actually did solve the problem of unforced errors, but it was much too academic, as in boring. They all said that the book needed life. They suggested that I share the stories of performing artists and competitive athletes who I’d trained to win, or better yet, allow them to tell their personal experiences with the cutting-edge information.

I contacted several of my clients who’d already completed my new program. They all agreed to be interviewed by one of my editors, with express permission to include their own words and personal stories in the book. Most of them allowed me to use their real names and specialties. They included professional musicians, competitive dancers, a PGA golfer, and 4-time Olympic gold medalist, Greg Louganis, as well as his Olympic diving coach, Ron O’Brien. It took several more months before all the interviews were edited and approved by everyone. By then, the pandemic had hit with full force. I was fortunate that I could stay at home and work. Other than my articles for Allegro, I was free to write my new book most all of the time. Nevertheless, it took another two years to put all the new ideas and strategies together and have it edited, before I turned it in to my publisher.

A month later, in February 2022, “Train Your Own Hero” was released on Amazon and Kindle. “Train Your Own Hero” guides the reader day-by-day, for one-month, leading up to an important live performance. It could be a mock or real audition, a recorded or live speech, a standardized test or exam, or any type of athletic contest or artistic performance. After the reader follows my recommendations and completes the challenging exercises, they will likely experience peak functioning, without any unforced or unexplained errors. Within two weeks after “Train Your Own Hero” was released, it achieved international best seller status in several categories in eight different countries, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, the U.K. and Japan.

After several clients and colleagues had read my book, they suggested a journal to accompany the book. It took another three months of writing, but the “Train Your Own Hero Journal” is now available on Amazon and at

So what causes otherwise talented, trained, and experienced individuals to make unforced errors, often at the worst possible times? The answer is found in the writings of Joseph Campbell, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi and Wayne Dyer, as well as the teachings of the Buddha, martial arts masters, and modern day performance psychologists. As to the real cause behind self-sabotage, Shakespeare said, “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge as mine.” The elusive character responsible for unforced errors is captured in Billy Joel’s song “The Stranger.”

In “Train Your Own Hero,” I explain how the stranger, or what Carl Jung called the shadow, can be a major source of problems for musicians performing under pressure. This is when peak functioning, without any unforced errors or unnecessary mental mistakes, is essential to a success, especially in consequential performance situations.

Dr. Don Greene is a frequent contributor to Allegro. He has taught his comprehensive approach to peak performance mastery at Juilliard, Colburn School, New World Symphony, the Met Opera Young Artists Program, Vail Ski School, Perlman Music Program and the U.S. Olympic Training Center. During his 38-year career, he has coached more than 1,000 performers to win professional auditions and has guided countless solo performers to successful careers. Some of the musicians Dr. Greene worked with have won positions with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Concertgebouw Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, San Francisco Opera, and the Montreal Symphony. Dr. Greene has authored “Audition Success,” “Fight Your Fear & Win,” “Performance Success,” and more recently, “Train Your Own Hero” and the “Train Your Own Hero Journal.” For more information, visit