Published June 22, 2019 by Bowdoin Magazine

If Not Now, When?

Educator and performance psychologist Ben Bernstein ’69 has spent his career helping others get the most out of themselves, and endeavors to walk the talk himself as an opera composer, producer, and director.

photo of Ben Bernstein '69
Ben Bernstein '69. Photo by Brian Wedge ’97

You’ve been back on campus a couple of times recently to work with student-athletes and with coaches. Can you tell me a little about those visits and what they entailed?

Bowdoin’s director of athletics, Tim Ryan ’98, invited me to campus to offer workshops in optimal performance. I shared with the student-athletes and coaches the evidence-based training model I’ve developed over forty years of research, teaching, and practice. It’s a set of nine tools for getting into “the zone” and staying there. When most athletes talk about “the zone” they sound like it’s a magical, if not mystical, “happening.” I can assure you, from my experience, it’s not! It’s actually a conscious process of learning to stay connected in body, mind, and spirit, moment-by-moment, in present time.

I use the model with the wide diversity of my clients—athletes, entrepreneurs, dentists, lawyers, actors, and many students taking tests, to name a few. Naturally, I customize the coaching according to each person’s needs, but the principles are always the same. In constructing the model, I drew, in part, on the best practices of sport psychology.

How did you become interested in performance psychology? Can you talk a little bit about the path that led you to where you are today?

As a young boy in New York I showed great promise as a pianist. I loved playing piano, but I was pushed into recitals and competitions, which were terribly nerve-wracking for me. Every time I was before an audience or a panel of judges my knees and hands started shaking and it was almost impossible to get my fingers onto the right keys. It was a nightmare. I dreaded each and every performance and didn’t want to play anymore. My teacher and parents couldn’t understand what was going on and said things like, “What’s the matter with you? It’s all in your head. You’ll grow out of it.” Bottom line—no one actually helped me deal with the stress and anxiety of performing. Eventually I just stopped playing the piano.

This happened all over again at Bowdoin where I was active in theater, but before every show I was overcome with horrible stage fright. In the years following Bowdoin, and through the excellent training and mentorship I received in the fields of education, theater, and psychology, I gradually learned to reduce my performance anxiety by training myself to be to be calm, confident and focused. As I got myself more securely into the driver’s seat, the debilitating performance anxiety dissolved completely. Now I am totally comfortable in front of audiences from twenty to two thousand. This “three-legged stool”—how to be calm, confident, and focused—is the basis of the work I’ve done on myself, my three books, and the coaching I offer individuals and groups worldwide.

The goals differ, of course, but are there similarities to the key performance mindset that you work on with different performer types such as an athlete versus a singer, or student, or business person?

Your question raises two important points. First, about goals: I actually think the goal is the same for anyone who wants to improve his or her performance, whether it’s a singer at the Metropolitan Opera, an athlete competing in a NASCAC tournament, or an entrepreneur about to embark on a risky venture. Each person wants to do her or his best. Notice I didn’t say, the goal is “to wow the audience” for the singer, or “to win” for the athlete, or “close the deal” for the entrepreneur. Those are outcomes. The goal should always be to keep improving your own performance, individually and as a team player.

Next: you reference “mindset.” There’s a common misconception that top performance is all about mindset. That’s only part of the picture. When you’re on the stage, or a ball field, or in an exam room, your mind is one player in a dynamic trio that also includes your body and your spirit. In years of observing and working with performers in many fields, across a wide age span, I have seen that the three optimal states for top performance are being calm in the body, confident in the mind, and focused in the spirit. Trouble in any one of those areas will affect the other two. Whatever you’re doing you want all three to be equally present, robust, and ready for action.

How do you quantify the causal relationship between the coaching and the performance?

Over time, performance in any field, with or without coaching, either improves, deteriorates, or stays the same. If coaching is part of the mix and the coach knows specifically what is needed to improve performance and tailors the coaching to the “performer,” and the person consistently follows through with the coaching, almost always the person’s performance will improve. She or he will experience more fulfillment, deeper engagement, and come away with a satisfying experience. While “winning” is beyond the individual’s control, higher test scores, and better results in all fields are usual outcomes. The coach-performer relationship is true teamwork: the winning combination is on-target coaching and steady follow through by the performer.

Are you able to follow your own lessons/advice in your own pursuits? If so, how do you do it?

Over forty years ago, when I started out in private practice, a senior analyst said to me, “Your problems will walk through the door.” At first, I didn’t quite understand what he meant, but over the years the truth of his wisdom has proven to be true. While each client presents a different set of issues, the similarity, across the board, is that everyone wants to improve his/her performance. That includes me! Every day I’m coaching people to be more fully present by training them to be calm, confident, and focused. So, each session gives me a nugget for my own continued growth: Am I practicing what I’m telling the other person to do? Am I walking my talk? The more regularly and steadily I work on myself to be calm, confident, and focused, the more I’m in the zone, and the deeper and more effective my work as a coach becomes. It’s a great challenge to have created a work that I have to live on a daily basis!

I have learned so much over the years and have gotten consistently better at what I’m doing—which means that my clients are experiencing much more connection and fulfillment in their lives. When two people in a partnership—teammates, business associates, spouses—are both engaged in “upping their game” individually and together, life becomes more fruitful, meaningful, and truly joyful. We never stop growing. The challenge is whether we support that growth through productive habits of body, mind, and spirit, or if we undermine ourselves by being physically unhealthy, self-doubtful, and distracted.

How did you become involved in opera? Do you sing as well? Do you still actively compose music? If so, what type?

In the early 1980s, I was hired to be a stage director in the drama division at The Juilliard School. I was then invited to work in the American Opera Center, also at Juilliard. Since music is in the core of my soul, and with my background in theater that blossomed at Bowdoin, opera came as a revelation and a great gift. Drama, music, passion, the works! I loved it. In the early ’90s, I paused my psychology practice so I could return to my first love, music, and was accepted to the graduate music composition program at Mills College. My thesis project was a one-act opera that I composed, produced, and directed. What a kick! While I love to sing, I’m not “a singer”—however, twenty-three years ago, I started a non-profit workshop for opera singers called The Singer’s Gym. Through the Gym, I developed a program that has given hundreds of singers the experience of being fully connected while on stage. Performing on the opera stage isn’t just about producing a big sound, it’s about making the music by being fully engaged with the score, the space, the character, and the other singers. This leads to great vitality and spontaneity in live performance.

What do you see as the greatest challenges to American education, and what steps would you take to begin to fix our education system?

In 1969, my senior year at Bowdoin, I had the opportunity to volunteer in Bath at a brand new pre-school program called Head Start. Upon graduation, I had the great good fortune to be trained as a primary school teacher in progressive primary schools in inner London. In both settings, the children were active all day, doing things that fully engaged them—building, cooking, sewing, fantasy play, taking surveys, making books. Learning was purposeful and the students looked forward to coming to school each day.

Since then—and this year marks my fiftieth year as an educator and fortieth as a psychologist—I have worked with students at all levels of the American educational system who are disaffected, bored, underperforming, restless, and rebellious. Far too often, the student is slapped with a label: conduct disorder, ADHD, anxious, or depressed. Labels stick, and these kids often become further marginalized and end up leading problem-filled lives. But we’re pointing the finger of blame in the wrong direction. How can we expect anyone between six and eighteen years old to sit at a desk almost all day “learning” things that bear little connection or use to their day-to-day lives?

There’s an old Chinese proverb, “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.” Learning has to be active and engaging. Mostly our schools fall far short of this mark.

Yet, engaging activity is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a good education. As I see it, the great challenge to American education today is to create schools and curricula that lead to purposeful learning. While being financially successful can be a positive goal, the outcome of our educational system should not be: “How can I make the most money?,” or “How can I beat my competitor?,” but must be: “How can I serve others?,” How can I contribute to the greater good?” Our education system should be focused on bringing out the best in everyone so we can have peace and harmony in the world. A first-century scholar, Rabbi Hillel, said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” This is a guiding light for my life.

We live in a very challenging time of rabid individualism, unhealthy competition; racial, religious, and gender discrimination; interpersonal strife, and separation from ourselves, each other, and the planet. Yet, it is also a time of infinite capacity for profound healing and upliftment. We need an educational system that brings children, teenagers, and adults together to create a healthy, loving world, where each person learns how he or she can best serve the whole. Our education system will be a win-win when it brings out the best in every individual so that they can support others to do the same. If not now, when?

Bowdoin Magazine cover, spring/summer 2019
This story first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. Manage your subscription and see other stories here.