A Conversation with Coach & Psychologist to Some of the World’s Most Elite Performers, Dr. Dana Sinclair.

A Conversation with Coach & Psychologist to Some of the World’s Most Elite Performers, Dr. Dana Sinclair.

What do a major league baseball catcher struggling with pop-flies, an operating room doctor anxious before a surgery, and a slumping sixteen-year-old tennis prodigy all have in common? They’re elite performers who, for whatever reasons, are not achieving excellence, and they’re not sure how to improve. For more than twenty years, Dr. Dana Sinclair has worked with the best of the best to improve results, across business, medicine, the NFL, MLB, NBA, WNBA, NHL, MLS, IndyCar, WTA, PGA, and the Olympics. She helps all her performers shift their focus and deliver their best in the high-pressure moments that define greatness. But her methods also work for students and teachers, business leaders and managers, and anyone motivated to improve. Her approach is simple: figure out what gets in your way, develop actions to address it in the moment, and then stick to the plan. It’s not about how you feel, it’s about what you do. She is a registered psychologist and holds doctorates from the University of Cambridge and the University of Ottawa. She is a clinical assistant professor with the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia and is a member of the American Psychological Association.

In this interview, I speak to Dr. Dana Sinclair, one of the world’s foremost performance psychologists who has worked with Olympic athletes to actors, surgeons to opera singers, fighter pilots, CEOs and more. We unpick what it takes to really be an elite performer, her new book ‘Dialled in: Do Your Best When It Matters Most,’ and what we can apply to our own lives from her work with some of the world’s top performers.

Q: What does elite performance really mean?

[Dana Sinclair]: I believe the concept of an elite performer encompasses a variety of interpretations. Commonly, the initial thought gravitates towards talent, suggesting that it pertains to someone with exceptional technical skills. However, this perspective feels somewhat lacking to me. In my view, an elite performer is distinguished not just by skill but by their ability to leverage their mindset to excel during critical moments. This redefines the notion of elite performance to include anyone and everyone. Regardless of the field, role, or domain, anyone can achieve elite status if they consistently deliver outstanding results and rise to the occasion when it’s most crucial.

Q: What is the role of confidence in elite performance?

[Dana Sinclair]: There’s a widespread misunderstanding about confidence that I encounter frequently, whether in professional settings or casual conversations at dinner parties. Everyone seems to emphasize the importance of confidence, insisting on its necessity for success, the imperative to believe in oneself, and the notion that without it, achievement is out of reach. Yet, I find this emphasis on confidence to be vastly overrated. Confidence, after all, is simply one’s belief in their own ability to accomplish a task or achieve a result. It’s an elusive and abstract feeling. In my experience, many of the individuals I work with, including Olympians, often lack this so-called essential trait. They experience intense anxiety before their events, fretting over an apparent deficiency in confidence.

My approach is always to redirect their focus from this nebulous concept of confidence to the concrete tasks at hand. These are tasks they have successfully completed numerous times. Whether they feel confident or not is irrelevant; the real key is maintaining focus in the moment. Therefore, it’s not about dwelling on this overhyped notion of confidence but about zeroing in on the task, especially under pressure.

Q: How does confidence relate to character, therefore?

[Dana Sinclair]: From my standpoint, character acts as the driving force behind our daily decisions and actions. The distinction between someone with strong character and someone with less of it boils down to their ability to exhibit disciplined behaviour, exercise conscious restraint, thoughtfully consider their actions, and empathize with others’ perspectives. To me, that encapsulates character. Having a solid character, in my opinion, enhances one’s ability to navigate performance situations more effectively, though it’s not a guaranteed success factor.

Q: How do elite performers handle anxiety, and how do they build resilience?

[Dana Sinclair]: Absolutely, everyone is susceptible to anxiety and tension; it’s a significant obstacle that impedes our ability to perform consistently. My advice is not to shy away from it but to anticipate and even embrace it. Consider it a signal that what you’re facing is important and that you’re eager to excel. This perspective allows you to channel your nervous energy into a productive question: “What am I going to do about it?” Having a plan and knowing what actions to take in high-stakes situations are crucial.

Moreover, I believe the most effective strategy for maintaining resilience is mastering the art of self-soothing. The ability to calm oneself instantly, at any moment, stands out as a pivotal skill. It enables you to recover from setbacks and face adversity more effectively. Being able to soothe and calm yourself enhances your clarity of thought, which is invaluable during challenging times.

Q: Do we all need a performance plan?

[Dana Sinclair]: Indeed, and initially, I want to point out how much time we squander attempting to master this when, in reality, adopting some straightforward skills and strategies could be far more beneficial. There’s a natural tendency for self-protection when individuals face significant challenges or confront what they believe to be their limits. The excess of energy and intensity spent fretting over potential outcomes, personal performance, and results can be overwhelming. My aim is to guide people towards dampening these concerns and adopting a more productive approach to facing intimidating situations. The method I advocate involves a process that has proven effective for many, characterized by its practicality and simplicity: it comprises three steps and four skills. Following this approach, you can consolidate your strategies into a succinct plan, concise enough to fit on a post-it note, preparing you to face the ‘lion’s den’ of performance. By continuously self-soothing and referring back to your plan, you’ll not only enhance your performance but also achieve greater satisfaction. This approach is arguably the most beneficial for maintaining mental health, focusing on self-awareness rather than perfection. The objective isn’t to become the world number one; it’s about consistently reaching your best or performing adequately in moments that matter to you.

Q: Is winding down crucial to performance?

[Dana Sinclair]: You’ve hit the nail on the head with the concept of the wind down. To me, winding down, especially from a performance standpoint, involves mustering the courage to introspect — to acknowledge both your successes and missteps. Many people tend to shy away from this self-evaluation, thinking, “I’ll nail it next time,” or dismissing concerns with a nonchalant “It was fine,” thereby side-lining any critical reflection. I recall a client who struggled significantly with job interviews. She found herself unable to secure a position because, during interviews, she would ramble, fail to listen actively, and get caught up in her thoughts about the ordeal’s unpleasantness. This approach never yielded positive results; she wasn’t truly hearing what was being asked. However, once she devised a strategy that involved sitting back, really listening to the interviewer, and focusing on being concise, her performance improved dramatically. But the turning point for her came from taking a hard look at herself, identifying where she was going wrong, and committing to a detailed, self-imposed critique. It was this introspection that paved the way for her to devise an effective plan and ultimately succeed.


Q: What has been your experience with high performers and superstitions?

[Dana Sinclair]: “I’ve got my lucky socks on; I’ll be all set!” It’s funny you mention that. Just yesterday, I was part of a live discussion on Instagram where this topic came up. The host challenged my view on superstitions, sharing that they have a pair of “lucky” earrings which they believe have always brought them luck, even though they decided to switch them up that day. It sparked a humorous exchange, but it underscored a critical point: superstitions are essentially our way of coping with the anxiety tied to impending events and their uncertain outcomes. It’s not really about the earrings, tapping the door frame, or taking the same route to an event. These are just manifestations of anxiety creeping in. My aim is to encourage people to adopt more constructive strategies to manage this anxiety, enabling them to perform better. Superstitions? I’d say they’re okay as long as they come at a low cost. A little harmless belief can’t hurt if it helps you feel more at ease.

[Vikas: *laughs* so no energy crystals then!]

[Dana Sinclair]: Having that energy crystal by your side, if it brings you a sense of calm and a feeling of preparedness, that’s perfectly fine by me. The key is ensuring you are indeed prepared. I have no objections to such practices, provided you understand that, in the absence of that energy crystal, the responsibility for your performance still squarely rests on your shoulders. So, let’s ground ourselves in reality and focus on the tangible strategies that will genuinely assist you in the moment.

Q: How we develop the communication skills we need as high performers?

[Dana Sinclair]: … in my experience, the top-performing individuals, organizations, and groups I’ve encountered share one critical, distinguishing trait. Performance, in my eyes, hinges on the consistent delivery of high results by individuals. However, what truly elevates a performance culture beyond mere output is effective communication. A common shortfall in many performance-driven environments is the prevalence of talking without listening, a significant issue. It’s vital for team members to receive feedback on their strengths and to be both encouraged and challenged to improve. Yet, the cornerstone of this dynamic is communication. Many organizations, leaders, and colleagues must pay closer attention to maintaining respect and kindness. A lack of these can lead to defensiveness, creating numerous unnecessary conflicts. People often become too defensive or overly sensitive, which only exacerbates the problem.

Q: What does legacy mean to you?

[Dana Sinclair]: First off, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with a diverse group of individuals and being a part of their performance journeys. Witnessing them harness their skills to not only improve but also gain satisfaction from their accomplishments has been incredibly rewarding for me. What excites me the most is offering something tangible that people can apply immediately to enhance their performance—not something that will start showing results a year down the line. This is the essence of the process I advocate for. There’s a common misconception that improvement is complex and time-consuming. My goal is to change this mindset, guiding people to focus on specific, actionable steps they can take today to see noticeable improvements by the end of the day.

I don’t typically think about legacy. That’s a very interesting question. For me, legacy, I’m very happy to have helped people and leave with them a process that will help them be better more quickly, so I’m very invested in that because I have a good time doing that.

Q: What is the role of vision in high performers?

[Dana Sinclair]: Certainly, having an idea and a direction is important, but as we both recognize, circumstances evolve. I share your viewpoint on the matter, particularly when it comes to goal setting in my practice. I’m not one to dwell on detailed, stringent goal-setting sessions. The individuals I work with have clear aspirations—they aim to excel, to achieve greatness, and to succeed. And that’s enough for me; we acknowledge these ambitions and then swiftly move on to the crux of the matter: how to achieve these goals. How to excel. That, in my opinion, is where the focus should immediately shift. Instead of getting caught up in the specifics of future or the exact path to take, the priority should be on acquiring the necessary skills and pushing forward. It’s about taking action and giving it your best shot, rather than overthinking the journey’s outset.

People often declare their enthusiasm for ambitious goals, like becoming an astronaut, or any other aspiration they might have. However, there’s a tendency to get bogged down by perceptions of what they should be aiming for, rather than focusing on the actionable aspect of their goals. “What steps do I need to take to achieve this?” is the question that should guide them, but instead, they become overwhelmed by distractions and the fear of failure. This fear prevents them from taking the first crucial steps towards their dreams. The reality is, success requires action. You must be willing to try, to fail, and then to learn and adjust based on those experiences. Without taking that initial leap, progress is impossible.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.