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Understanding what drives performance is crucial for achieving your full potential. Performance is often misunderstood and oversimplified, with many focusing solely on outcomes rather than the processes that lead to success. 

This article will demystify performance by presenting three comprehensive models. These models will explore how the brain functions, the impact of stress and arousal levels on performance, and the foundational role of physiology in shaping actions and behaviors. By examining these factors, you will learn a holistic approach to achieving and sustaining peak performance.

So, what exactly is "performance," and what drives it?

Imagine it like this:

Performance = Potential (What You Can Do) - Interference (What Gets in the Way)

Simply put, performance is all about reaching your full potential while minimizing anything that holds you back.[i] The first fundamental model of neuroscience and performance, below, lets us take a closer look at how our brain works as a whole, enabling us to understand the big picture of what types of influences and interactions affect how well we can do things. It also lets us think about how different factors impact our brain functioning and influence everything driving our performance.[ii]


In this model, we see a complex interplay of psychological (top-down processes), biological (bottom-up processes), and environmental (outside-in) factors, all communicating with each other and shaping our perception of our environment and also our overall performance and brain health. Each of these areas has its potential for improvement and sources of interference, sometimes in the form of hidden stressors. 

Consider the impact of an environmental (outside-in) factor on bottom up (biological) responses. Research shows that human loneliness and social isolation can significantly affect brain health, similar to the harmful effects of smoking. Loneliness has been found to be as detrimental to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, twice as harmful as obesity and alcoholism, and even more harmful than physical inactivity.[iii] This creates interference that reduces the total resources available to achieve goals and meet objectives.  On the flip side, strong social connections offer numerous health benefits, including reduced risks of heart disease, improved immune function, and better stress management.[iv]  This is why strong connections are often an effective tool for health, wellness and overall performance in individuals and teams. 

Whatever the objective or goal you place in the middle of this model, to truly maximize performance and enhance output, you need to consider all of these systems holistically.

Another consideration that we need to also focus on is that: 


“Human performance is the ultimate execution of your goals to meet an objective. It is an output, not an outcome. This is not just for sport but for any and every aspect of your life. To perform in a way that is sustainable over time, you have to think critically about the decisions and factors that influence your output. “ - Ben Sporer

It's crucial to shift our focus from outcome to output when evaluating performance. True performance isn't solely about achieving specific goals or outcomes but rather about how effectively we can execute the necessary actions to reach those goals sustainably — in other words, what we can consistently do to generate the desired output.[v]

The first place to start then is to determine: 

What is the required output that needs to be produced to give the desired outcome?


One effective way to understand how to answer this question and consistently deliver peak performance is through Peter Nixon's Human Function Curve.[vi]

This second model for performance illustrates the relationship between stress levels and human performance. At the optimal point on this curve, individuals experience peak performance, characterized by heightened neuroplasticity - the speed at which we learn or unlearn things - enhanced attention, and improved decision-making abilities. However, excessive stress beyond this point can lead to decreased performance and adverse health effects over time.

So, how does stress impact our actions and behaviors, and consequently, our output in driving performance?


Here's where our third model of Performance can help us understand where the underlying drivers of our actions and behaviors come into play. At its foundation lies our Physiology—which consists of our nervous system, ranging from states of stress to calm, and the various inputs it receives from the body such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, etc. These inputs influence the state of our nervous system and shape our perception of the world around us, therefore influencing our behaviors and actions. 

Physiology not only affects our physical responses but also shapes our emotions. Emotions, essentially energy in motion, arise from physiological reactions and influence our feelings, which guide our thoughts and actions.

Our thoughts drive our behavior. However, controlling thoughts alone may not improve performance because thoughts are influenced by feelings, which are rooted in emotions. To change behavior, you must change the emotion, which alters the feeling, and then the thinking. Ultimately, this process hinges on our physiology which drives the quality of which thought emerges. To achieve higher levels of performance and be on your game every day, it's essential to go beyond behavior and focus on our physiological state.

To enhance control and elevate output, it's crucial to cultivate awareness of our physiological states and accurately recognize and label our emotions. By understanding these internal cues, we empower ourselves to navigate our internal landscape effectively, maintaining peak performance and consistent behaviors that drive our best output externally.

In summary, driving performance requires:

- Embracing a holistic approach that acknowledges the interconnectedness of mind, body, and the external world.

- Shifting focus from outcomes to output, prioritizing consistent action over specific results.

- Recognizing the intricate relationship between stress, physiology, our internal landscape, and the resulting behaviors that influence desired output.

- Tapping into our internal world and fostering a relationship with it to cultivate greater awareness, thereby gaining greater control over our output.


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[i]Whitmore, John. Coaching for Performance : Growing Human Potential and Purpose. 2009.

[ii]Bear, Mark, et al. Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain, Enhanced Edition. 2020.

[iii] Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227-237.

[iv]Xia N, Li H. Loneliness, Social Isolation, and Cardiovascular Health. Antioxid Redox Signal. 2018 Mar 20;28(9):837-851. doi: 10.1089/ars.2017.7312. Epub 2017 Oct 23. PMID: 28903579; PMCID: PMC5831910.

[v]Sporer, Ben. Output: Optimizing Your Performance with Lessons Learned from Sport. 2023.

[vi] Nixon PG. The human function curve - a paradigm for our times. Act Nerv Super (Praha). 1982;Suppl 3(Pt 1):130-3. PMID: 7183056.


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