Fall 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA1

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Toward Peak Performance


Darla Botkin
Assistant Professor
Department of Family Studies
University of Kentucky-Lexington

Patty Rai Smith
Associate Professor and
Program Development Specialist
Cooperative Extension Service
University of Kentucky-Lexington

Sam Quick
Associate Professor and
Human Development Specialist-Family Relations Specialist
Cooperative Extension Service
University of Kentucky-Lexington

It's tough to compete in today's informal educational marketplace. Tight budgets, keen competition, new technologies, and the changing needs of the public we serve all call for new standards of excellence. Paralleling this demand for excellence has been the timely emergence of a fascinating development - the science of peak performance. This article weaves together some of the most important research findings from this emerging science, thereby creating a cogent, practical model for peak performance.

Peak performance has nothing to do with being a workaholic. It doesn't add stress and tension to our lives. It's not a special or mystical process reserved for the selected few. Rather, peak performance is an enjoyable, fairly easy-to-learn process for doing what's important to us in a more satisfying and effective way than we ordinarily believe possible.

Charles Garfield, the computer scientist, psychologist, and world-class athlete who has been one of the leading figures in the study of high achievement, said he first heard the term "peak performance" from a cancer patient, a nationally known concert pianist who said, "Staying alive these days is my peak performance."1 Eighty years ago, William James, the great American psychologist, wrote: "Most people live...in a very restricted circle of their potential being....Great emergencies and crises show us how much greater our vital resources are than we had supposed."

Thus, it has been in large part from studying ordinary people successfully facing extraordinary personal challenges, such as cancer and heart disease, and those desiring to perform at the furthest reaches of their athletic ability, that a research base on peak performance has been established. The components of the model of peak performance presented here will frequently be supported with findings from these medical and athletic studies.

Peak Performance Matrix

Figure 1, the Peak Performance Matrix, is a conceptual model showing the interrelationship of seven key components we have isolated as critical elements in optimal performance. Each of the seven components overlaps with and feeds into all the other components. It's from the compounded synergy of these elements that peak performance emerges. Bear in mind that performing at peak, or being at our best, is a skill that's applicable to any and all aspects of our professional responsibilities as well as in the domain of personal and family living.

Commitment to Valued Goal

A peak performer is able to set aside nonessentials and focus on what he or she personally believes to be most important. A sense of mission is what Garfield calls it- "an image of a desired state of affairs that inspires action."2 We're all aware of the astonishing energy displayed by a person who's doing something he or she sincerely believes in, be it to come out of a concentration camp alive, to host the best seminar possible, or to fully enjoy a favorite form of recreation.

Commitment to a valued, self-chosen goal provides purpose, direction, motivation, and energy. A clear, inspiring, and personally meaningful mission is an essential first step toward exceptional accomplishment in any undertaking.

Inner Calmness

After years of studying elite athletes at those moments when they were performing extraordinarily well, Garfield concluded that an essential condition of peak performance, and the one most often mentioned by athletes, is "a sense of inner calm." The athletes also reported that along with their sense of energized calmness came physical relaxation and loose muscles.3

The opposite of this alert, relaxed calmness is negative stress, a major contributor to disturbances in one's physical, emotional, social, and family life, not to mention the costly blocks in creativity and personal effectiveness. Researchers at Cornell University Medical College have referred to stress as "the most debilitating medical and social problem in the U.S. today."4 Calmness and the sense of control it breeds are antidotes to stress and panic. Panic, even in its milder forms, takes an enormous toll on our physical and mental health, and is deadly to peak performance.5

Whether on the diving board or at the podium, being at our best means experiencing this sense of inner calm and peace, even though we're engaged in outward activity. Note that in the Peak Performance Matrix, this calmness is the central and critical component that holds all the others together. The deeper and more sustained this element, the more effectively the others can be carried out. Good nutrition, proper rest, hearty exercise, regular habits of skilled relaxation, the ability to let go, and a rich sense of humor are all important in developing inner calmness.

Figure 1

Figure 1. Peak Performance Matrix.

Active Response to Intuition

According to Webster, intuition is the "immediate knowing or learning of something without the conscious use of reasoning - an instantaneous apprehension."6 Intuition is a deep-down "feeling" that informs or guides us. It cuts through complexity and confusion, like a flashlight beam bores into the darkness, allowing us to see what's important. Listening to our intuition and actively following its guidance is absolutely essential to optimal achievement.

A point emphasized by Garfield is that for peak performers, the primary focus of control is internal and intuitive rather than external.7 Trusting and acting on one's intuitive guidance generates poise, confidence, and security even in the face of novel challenges. Be aware, however, that learning to hear and respond to one's intuition is a subtle process that demands patience and involves making mistakes and learning from them.

Creative Optimism

Peak performers, whether in the executive suite, on the assembly line, or working with 4-Hers, have the marvelous ability to look at almost overwhelming problems and see opportunities. Peak performers also have an unassailable belief in the likelihood of their own success. Yes, they have doubts, setbacks, and moods, but they don't allow themselves to be controlled by these conditions.

Whether in everyday life or in medical settings, sincere belief and/or faith is powerful medicine, as the amazing results of the placebo effect demonstrate.8 Success of almost every type demands a belief in a process, oneself, another person, and/or a higher power. Belief in positive possibilities and a willingness to back that belief up with hard, intelligent work is at the core of creative optimism.

Positive Mental Preparation

Peak performers make a point of mentally saying positive things to themselves. They also know that the pictures we hold in our minds draw us to the very things we're visualizing. So they use their skills of visualization to create positive images. For example, golfer Jack Nicklaus attributes 50% of his success to the mental imagery he uses before he takes each stroke.9 Basketball players can significantly improve their performance by using this practice.10

Drawing from the medical literature, there's the case of Glen, a youngster sent home to die with an inoperable brain tumor. One of the staff at the Mayo Clinic taught Glen to imagine flying around inside his head in a rocket ship, shooting at his tumor. He imagined the cancer as "big, dumb, and gray," and he blasted it regularly. After several months of dedicated, concentrated visualization, he said to his father, "I just took a trip through my head in a rocket ship, and, you know, I can't find the cancer anymore." You guessed it - Glen received a CAT scan and the cancer was gone.11

To enhance peak performance, mentally visualize yourself reaching your goal, performing at peak, being at your best. Let your worries go. It's okay if your mental images aren't clear; that will improve with practice. Throughout the day, take a few seconds to keenly concentrate on your mental picture of success. Occasionally give yourself a longer period for creative visualization. If doubt or negative images start to crowd in, immediately let them go and again focus on your positive imagery.

Love and Support

Support comes in a variety of forms: personal support from co-workers, family, and friends; a positive physical environment; and somewhat surprisingly, obstacles in all shapes and sizes. Obstacles are our friends; they test us and help us develop new capabilities and strengths. Difficulties are prods to higher understanding and achievement. Thus, obstacles, in a very real way, are supportive of peak performance.

Those who perform at peak understand the importance of both giving and receiving personal expressions of love, perhaps something as simple as a cheerful smile or taking the time to listen. On the home front, a study of 10,000 men found that a wife who expresses her love for her husband reduces his chances of heart-related health problems.12 Other statistics indicate that if a wife kisses her husband good-bye in the morning, he has fewer auto accidents and lives five years longer.13 A husband or boyfriend who lovingly expresses his affection no doubt also enhances the well-being of his wife or girlfriend.

Research also points out that a strong and positive social support network significantly enhances mental, social, and physical functioning.14 In terms of on-the-job well-being, the professional literature indicates that team building and team playing are essential to optimal performance.15

Persistent Concentration

Concentration implies the ability to set priorities and then to focus one's attention on the task at hand. Because of the many distractions and obstacles that inevitably arise, persistence - the refusal to give up-is of utmost importance. Athletes, for example, when performing at their peak, repeatedly report being "focused in the present," without unnecessary thoughts or feelings about the past or future.16 Learning to increase our powers of concentration is vital. The greater one's ability to concentrate, the more successful he or she can be in any endeavor.


Peak performance, as presented in this article, is an interrelated set of six essential skills orbiting around the seventh and central skill of maintaining inner calmness. With the emerging advent of the science of peak performance, optimal achievement is no longer the mystical domain of a privileged few. It's a fresh, practical call to excellence and an opportunity for new heights in creative expression, self-satisfaction, and service.


1. Charles Garfield, Peak Performers: The New Heroes of American Business (New York: Morrow and Company, 1986), p. 28.

2. Ibid., p. 77.

3. Charles Garfield, Peak Performance: Mental Training Techniques of the World's Greatest Athletes (Los Angeles, California: Tarcher, 1984), pp. 158-159.

4. Phil Nuernberger, Freedom from Stress: A Holistic Approach (Honesdale, Pennsylvania: Himalayan International Institute, 1981), pp. 3-4.

5. Norman Cousins, The Healing Heart (New York: Avon Books, 1983).

6. Webster's New World Dictionary (New York: World Publishing Company, 1966).

7. Garfield, Peak Performers, p. 29.

8. Steven Locke and Douglas Colligan, The Healer Within: The New Science of Mind and Body (New York: Dutton, 1986), pp. 193-200.

9. Robert Kriegel and Marilyn Kriegel, The C Zone: Peak Performance Under Pressure (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984), p. 100.

10. Ibid.

11. Bernie Siegel, Love, Medicine, and Miracles (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), pp. 154-55.

12. Ibid., p. 183.

13. Ibid.

14. Emrika Padus, Your Emotions and Your Health: New Dimensions in Mind/Body Healing (Emmaus, Pennsylvania: Rodale Press, 1986), pp. 80-86.

15. Garfield, Peak Performers, pp. 169-97.

16. Garfield, Peak Performance, p. 159.