Sport psych meets improv

Sport psych meets improv

Another staple of Vancouver is its phenomenal improv scene. From Instant Theatre to Blind Tiger to the Sunday Service to Second Storey Theatre to Vancouver Theatre Sports League — early homes to improv legends Colin Mochrie and Ryan Stiles — to my own personal favourites, the Fictionals, this city is just teeming with improvisers. And each group has their own home about town: Granville Island, Cafe Deux Soleils, Havana Theatre, Little Mountain Gallery, Fox Cabaret, the Instant Theatre Conservatory… and these are just the weekly venues! There are bigger gigs as well, like the regular Improv Against Humanity or Shakespeare After Dark acts at the Rio, or the much-lauded Vancouver International Improv Festival where players from throughout (mostly) CanUSA collide for a week of brain-racking creativity leaving audiences laughing for weeks in their wake.

It’s not surprising to see well-known comedians practicing in the Vancouver circuit. When I recognized Josh Ruben of CollegeHumor fame performing with Instant Theatre, I almost squealed with joy

My own love of improv began with the classic Whose Line Is It Anyway?, a show I discovered and absolutely fell for right away as a child but also something that I didn’t see much of afterwards, the whole time wondering: “Why? How is this not huge?” Fast forward a few years and I rediscovered Drew Carey & friends online while studying in the mid-00s. Of course, I immediately watched literally every episode, from the guest appearances by Stephen Colbert, Robin Williams, Richard Simmons, Whoopi Goldberg, Mel B, and Chyna, to the special features with cheerleaders, contortionists, and bodybuilders… and then, again, at the end of it all was left wondering why the buck seemed to stop there. How was the world not laughing with me? This stuff was brilliant!

And then I moved to Vancouver, where an Airbnb host randomly dropped the line, “Hey, want to go see some improv? It’s down the street.” I was flabbergasted. Of course! How had I lived here for two years without discovering this on my own? And so began my third introduction to the wonderfully wacky, deliciously zany world of improv comedy.

We went to see the Fictionals at Cafe Deux Soleils  with Daniel Chai leading the fray and since then it’s a rare time indeed that I’m in town and miss a single show. Over the years, I even puckered up the courage to answer a few calls to the stage for audience volunteers, something that took tremendous force. The high I felt up there is as magnificent as it is terrifying. When I’m in the zone and the energy of the stage is crackling all around me, I feel like I’m on the edge of a cliff and the view is glorious but I’m still mostly just terrified of falling.

Fun and laughter aside, the psychology of the art was what really started tickling my brain. And so I took a workshop where I learned key rules that could easily become life philosophies: “Always say ‘yes'”, followed by a “Yes, and…”; “Everything is an opportunity”; “Fall, and then figure out what to do on the way down“; “Treat everyone like the genius they are”; “There are no mistakes”. I learned the Canadian roots of modern improv theatre, that it’s not actors performing skits but players playing games, and that the art is referred to as a sport just as often. I learned that improv is widely considered the “extreme sport” of acting, that it’s like driving a car by only looking in the rear-view mirror… the applications of this field and all its great leaps and bounds in performance studies for my own budding sport psychology career couldn’t be any clearer. In short, I learned how intense a performance improv really is, on a level similar to but from a facet drastically more vulnerable than almost anything else I’ve ever come across in life.

Earlier this spring Daniel began running amateur nights at the cafe, coupled with unofficial monthly practice sessions at a studio nearby for those who could make it. I quickly joined this series, but only because Daniel made the process exceptionally supportive and non-threatening. After about twenty years in competitive sports — right up to the national level — I can honestly say that all the nerves of my entire sport history bundled together simply paled in comparison to that first night baring my soul on stage to a small room of ~15-20 smiling, supportive strangers left over from the mainline show that had just finished. There were incredibly awkward moments and in general I was uncomfortable more often than not. I was eager but terrified, I screwed up so many times and caved under the pressure more than once. But I also drew a few good laughs… and walked through friendly faces smiling congratulations and even a high-five and a handshake or two on my way out, numbly hearing “You were quite funny up there, man, it was good to see you…” trail off through my ears while all my brain was paying attention to was my thudding heart, a thudding I hadn’t heard since hitting some crazy ramps with my bike for the first time in my life ten years prior. Luckily, this rush here left me with my face intact and not missing any more teeth. That evening was a surreal blur, but my brain just could not let go of all the psychology it had not only witnessed, but lived.

Which leads us to this interview. A few sessions in, I asked Daniel if I could run a sport psych workshop for his amateur improv players, and he, of course, said yes. I quickly set up a meeting with him to find out more about performance psychology from an improviser’s perspective, notes I’d then compare with sport psychologists at our provincial CSPA AGM shortly after. All this would then integrate in a brief training session for the group of amateur improvisers I had suddenly become a part of. And so we sat down for a very neat conversation on the intersection of sport psychology and improv comedy (clip and media sources as well as theme navigation are available in the description on YouTube):


The conversation quickly turned to the prevalence of support between players on stage, a theme that stayed with us the whole way through. This was one key difference I noted between actors and athletes: athletes are often so focused on beating the competition that there is not much energy left for support. This is true even in team sports where, while supporting your own team, your mind is caught up in defeating the other team at best, and in beating your own teammates for a spot at the next level at worst. This is night and day compared to improv, where inter-player support is seen all throughout, from the pre-performance routines where players pat each other on the back, saying, “Got your back” before the show, to many of the main principles upon which any performance is built (eg: Yes, and…). It is really seen in the game “One Voice“, where actors simultaneously speak as if they were one person without any idea where their speech will lead. Here there is a tendency for one to overtake the other and carry the momentum for a while, until finally collapsing and letting the other take over. Experienced improvisers make these transitions seamlessly while with beginners you can almost see the conversation grind to a halt, one drop the load, and then the other pick it up again like a sack of potatoes.

This support is even seen in the way in which the Fictionals treat their audience members. They never pick on them, and if it is clear someone is uncomfortable, they immediately move on to another subject to deflate the discomfort as quickly as possible, making front seats coveted and not feared as with some comedy shows. Rowdy audience members are handled similarly. Daniel, will ask them to quieten down while his improvisers are on stage mid-skit, only sometimes directly engage them from the stage. In both instances however, he is friendly, cheerful, and understanding, trying as much to bring the noise level down as to make these spectators still feel a little bit special, inviting them to “for an hour and a half, come and be a part of something bigger”. This approach reminded me of my master’s program director‘s advice for dealing with students who are not paying attention: just start walking over to them and watch how quickly they put their phones away.

This replacement of hardness with gentleness is reminiscent of Hou’s thoughts on Finnish culture, noting that in not being focused so much on winning, Finns perform better on most health and wellness metrics than many other European countries.

Show shape & getting out of a mid-show slump

Daniel then shared the idea of  “show shape” he learned from VTSL’s Margret Nyfors, where the storyteller takes the audience on an emotional journey through all the different flavours of improv (similar to Kurt Vonnegut’s story shapes) by pulling in new games as needed: using audience member, then a simple performance with the audience only watching, then a game with more punchlines, then one that is more physical, etc. This technique is also effective when things are not going well, with players quickly changing the show’s direction and energy by something as little as throwing in a new element or plot twist into the scene to starting a new scene or even an entirely new game altogether. The team’s primary goal is to support each other and throwing everyone into newness on a gamble is sometimes what’s needed to revitalize the stage. Sarah Dawn, another Fictional, once shared with me her own strategy of calling herself out and drawing attention to the negative feeling she holds or screw-up that just happened. For example, if she is nervous then she plays a nervous character; if she is suddenly embarrassed by what she said or the audience’s reaction, then she dons that outfit for the scene. It’s much easier to act out these feelings since you’re already experiencing them anyway and the audience always loves an underdog, especially if they’re in on the joke with you.

Here too was another difference between acting and sport, where in sport the strategy is often just to burrow your head, dig your heels in, and keep on ploughing through as the going gets tough (like Greece’s tactic of “parking the bus” that got them their first Euro Cup win in 2004… a strategy that worked, but that was so ugly it’s famous). Having such outs as described earlier always available can be a source of confidence in itself, especially as compared to some sports where, as a golfer once told me, “it’s a game of one mistake: you make that and you’re never coming back, you just have the whole rest of your game to reflect on it.”

AC Milan parking the bus against Barcelona in 2013

On top of redirecting energy, improvisers have the added option of making their audience applaud on command, something that can be used to bring the attention back in from loud patrons and may cause an increased enjoyment of the show via cognitive dissonance… I mean, why would I clap unless I liked the show? These energy redirection techniques are also used in sports, from jumbotrons and kiss/dance cams to when players rile up their audiences into a furor by waving them into applause during key moments in a game.

If all else fails, then taking a minute or a few seconds to stop, mentally refresh yourself, maybe giving yourself a quick pep talk as a coach might in sports, correcting your posture into one of confidence and thereby “killing the ghost” of what just happened (reminiscent of Roberto Baggio in the 98 World Cup or Muhammad Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle), and coupling all this with one deep breath is a good recipe for quickly resetting out of a negative funk.

Psychological techniques used by improv actors

This list is just a springboard into the array, but Daniel shared several:

  • having a pre-performance routine that is made of controllable rituals and not superstitions (because what happens when your lucky underwear is in the wash?); this prevents you from coming in too hyper
  • for some, putting the phone away and just “being present” for the last few minutes before a show
  • creating a mental list from a rough day and then “burning it” in your mind to start fresh for a show
  • before a performance, imagining a full house and everyone going bananas for the show
  • setting the right tone for a show by bringing the audience on board in the first key minutes via introducing the show

For dealing with nerves, Daniel adopts a holistic approach. He noted his nerves are not based so much on the one moment but on how his whole day and, indeed, mindset is doing. Therefore, he tries to always maintain a good psychological state, and not just for performances. When he does feel nervous he directs his energy towards positivity, reflecting Stephanie Hanrahan’s idea of “getting those butterflies to fly in formation” so they’re a constructive and not destructive force. He does so by connecting with his team, his audience, and with the space. This last is especially important, making it “his” and realizing it’s not scary. What helps sometimes is lowering the threat level of the situation, realizing that nothing important is on the line. This realization, when really accepted by the heart, can lower perceived expectations to match shaky confidence so that it can really blossom. Of course, understanding Bandura’s 1977 theory behind self-efficacy helps for those who want to train their confidence so its presence is much more dependable.

Stephanie Hanrahan’s butterflies flying in formation

Relevant sport psych theories

We reflected on the 2006 paper Mental Strategies of Professional Actors by Murphy & Orlick, particularly on how some athletes act a character in competition, drawing on the NBA’s LeBron James, the Bundesliga’s Oliver Kahn, and the NHL’s Curtis Sanford as examples, with Daniel noting that both sport and stage provide people with “a place to be the best version of themselves”. We then went over the science behind the “fake it till you make it” strategy from Startek’s 1991 paper Self-Deception and Its Relationship to Success in Competition, using Ali v. Foreman’s Rumble in the Jungle as an example of this technique successfully applied. We also explored the psychology behind humour via McGraw and Warren’s Benign Violation Theory, something The Aristocrats documentary explores by analyzing the most shockingly disgusting joke you’ve ever heard.

The classic shot of an angry Olli Kahn with Bielefeld’s Fatmir Vata.

Moving deeper into classical sport psychology concepts, we explored Csíkszentmihályi’s 1998 Flow State theory, where optimal performance and enjoyment occurs when the challenge of the act and the skill level of the player are both high, as well as Hanin’s 1997 theory of the Individual Zone of Optimal Functioning (including how eating something high in energy like a pineapple is used by judokas to get there). Daniel then mentioned home court advantage which, interestingly in improv, was at a cross-section with the 60+% success rate it generally means in sports. In improv this traditional advantage is a double-edged sword because there is an increased pressure to perform well in front of your home crowd while when you’re away you can take more risks which, in acting — and especially in comedy — are often less chancy than doing so in sport.

… and that was all May 5th, proving to be impeccable timing because May 6th was our CSPA BC chapter meeting, where I was able to dig deeper into this topic from the sport psych side. I was specifically asking about exercises I could use in running that workshop, focusing on anxiety and nervousness in particular.

During our focus group, Leanne Fielding raised mindfulness, asking, “How do you know you’re nervous? Is it your body that’s telling you, is it your thoughts, your feelings?” The quicker a performer is able to notice something is wrong, the quicker they are able to fix it. She advocates training mindfulness in actors to raise their self-awareness for this reason. During our session she performed an example of such training by having us take a minute to focus on “breathing, blinking, and swallowing”, and in the discussion afterwards we realized how grounding this exercise was, and how, when performed as part of a regular training routine, it could really open up previously unknown channels of peace to tap into during stress. Holistic training aside, one technique Leanne practices is teaching performers to build a mental brick wall with their mind’s eye, so they’re able to separate themselves from their audience when needed.

Christie Gialloreto added to Leanne’s mindfulness exercise by performing it in front of fellow performers, learning to ground yourself in the presence of an observer. She also likes using hands as cues, tying thinking (the mind) to the one and feeling (the body) to the other. If someone finds themselves stuck in the middle of a performance they can look at their hands and quickly ask themselves, “How is my thinking? How is my body?”. From here, if the thinking is off and the brain is in overdrive, then it’s time for a mental intervention like self-talk or imagery, while if it’s feelings of butterflies or sweaty palms that are the problem, then an intervention like a simple, deep breath is the right direction to go.

Dani Wilson then talked about her deejay friends having words taped to the brims of their hats or written on the backs of their hands to glance at, or an elastic band on their wrist to snap to bring them back to the present, reflecting what Sarah, a traditional Ukrainian dancer/actress, had mentioned earlier of stripping costumes between dances and “leaving bad performances in them”, always starting on stage fresh again. Sarah also shared a unique technique she had learned during performing over the years: to salivate at will since doing so stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, pulling her out of fight-or-flight mode and into a calm state. Dave Freeze added his polished approach to these practical tips via his “refresh, reset, reboot” model: refreshing would be something like removing a costume, resetting would be like grounding and re-centring and require some space for mindfulness, while rebooting is something that’s done usually after the performance and involves a bigger break with time for reflection. Once you know which button you know you need to press, that’s half of your solution right there. His main takeaway point though was underlining that there is always something a performer can do.

… all of which brings us to May 10th, not a week later, where I shared a very quick morsel consolidated from our CSPA meeting and my conversation with Daniel to run the following helium stick exercise:

Left to its own devices, the group indeed was raising the stick but once the instructions were clear, I was surprised at how quickly the improvisers got in sync and, without even one finger ever letting go, succeeded in completing this task in just over a minute (searching the exercise on YouTube shows just how much of a challenge this exercise generally is). Even when I tried to throw them off-track with criticism and negative talk, they only paused, regrouped, and then continued on. It was like watching the living being that the group had become take a breath. That was just amazing to be a part of. We then analyzed the whole exercise and drew parallels between it and the support improvisers need to build on stage: if even one person is failing everyone must readjust to bring that outlier back in again. It really is all for one and one for all in this art form.

All this research confirms what I’m coming to realize about working with actors versus athletes: actors are much gentler souls having often come into the field through some very deep self-reflection to begin with, making them not only more open to but even needy of support, which they quickly find with each other… and this is exactly where they find their strength to last out their performance. It is through understanding what makes themselves uncomfortable that they’re able to make the rest of us laugh.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

^ Translate