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W&L Students Examine, Attempt to Achieve Peak Performance

A Washington and Lee University psychology course on achieving peak performance is more than a mere academic exercise.

According to Brodie Gregory, visiting assistant professor of psychology, by the time the students complete the four-week Spring Term course she’s offering, they will not only understand the underlying psychological theories but they will also have a strategy to reach their own peak performance in whatever area they choose.

“The fun thing about this class is that students are going to learn all these different theories and focus on many different areas of psychology,” said Gregory. “Students will pick an area of their life where they have a basic level of skill that they want to work on maximizing to achieve peak performance. By the end of the course they will have the skills, strategies and a plan, based on everything they learn during the course, to help them do this.”

Perhaps that helps explain why 75 students applied for the 18 available seats. The course appealed not only to psychology majors but also to athletes, musicians and business majors and from first-years to seniors. Gregory wasn’t surprised: “W&L students are very talented, driven and achievement-oriented. They want to succeed, and it’s fun to take a class where you can focus on that.”

Gregory acknowledged that peak performance is a tricky subject because it is subjective. “What is peak performance for me might not be peak performance for you. It all depends on what you are capable of,” she said. “It’s about reaching your full potential, not about comparing yourself to other people. One of the hardest things about peak performance is that it’s hard to define.”

To illustrate her point, Gregory cited the story of the Olympic athlete Roger Bannister, who ran the first four-minute mile: “No one thought he could do it. It was accepted as physically impossible. Yet in the week after he broke the record, an incredible human feat, several other people broke the barrier too. And now it’s not unusual for people to run the mile in less than four minutes.

“If we don’t think something is possible, then we are never going to achieve it and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So we’ll talk in the first week of class about criteria, assessing performance, and being able to set a goal, but also how to revise that goal as you develop.”

The course will draw on areas of cognitive psychology, positive psychology, social psychology and personality psychology.

Gregory said the course will discuss the concept of “flow,” which comes from positive psychology. “Getting in ‘the flow’ is basically another term for getting in ‘the zone,'” she said. “You must have a certain level of competence to get into flow state. You can’t be too relaxed or too keyed up. The term is really defined by getting to a state where you lose sense of time and awareness of things around you, and you’re totally engrossed in what you’re doing.”

Gregory stressed the importance of feedback. “There’s a theory in psychology called control theory that basically uses goals and feedback. The idea is that you have a current state and a desired state, and the only way you can tell the difference between the two is through feedback,” she said.

According to Gregory, negative feedback is the most useful, but it can take some training and effort to get someone to the point where they feel comfortable receiving negative feedback without being defensive or threatened. “We’ll talk a lot about how to give and receive negative feedback,” she said, “because it’s an imperative source of information if you want to move from where you are to where you want to be. You have to see it as a building process.”

Another area the course will examine is a theory called “mindset.” Gregory explained that individuals have either a growth mindset or an entity mindset. Those with a growth mindset inherently believe that they have the ability and the self efficacy to grow, develop, learn and change. Those who have an entity mindset think their abilities and skills are basically fixed and that they can’t grow, learn and change.

“People with an entity mindset tend to be more focused on demonstrating that they are competent, while people with a growth mindset tend to be more focused on learning and growing from their experiences,” she said. “So if people with an entity mindset try to demonstrate their competence and fail, it’s a very destructive blow to their sense of self. On the other hand, if people with a growth mindset do something and fail, it doesn’t have such a negative impact because they see failure as a learning opportunity.

“You can change from an entity mindset into a growth mindset, but it takes a bit of effort. We’ll focus on that during the course, because there’s no better way to learn than through failure, in my opinion.”

Gregory also pointed out that experiences in childhood can help develop these mindsets. “For example, if a child gets good grades on a test, you shouldn’t say, ‘You’re so smart, good job.’ You should say ‘You worked really hard, good job.’ In that way, you don’t attribute the child’s success or failure to his or her abilities, but to working hard,” she said.

At the end of the four-week course, each student will present to the class an individual plan for reaching peak performance. “They’re going to get really constructive feedback on their plans from the other students,” said Gregory. “And in turn, they’ll get a lot of experience in giving constructive feedback to the others.”

Gregory is an alumnus of Washington and Lee, where she gained her B.A. in psychology in 2003. She received her M.A. and Ph.D., in industrial/organizational psychology from the University of Akron. Prior to returning to W&L she worked in Global Leadership Development at Procter and Gamble.

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