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You Need to Meet: Dr. Dana Sinclair, a Performance Psychologist Helping Athletes and Professionals Excel

You need to meet Dr. Dana Sinclair, a registered psychologist who has worked with the best of the best to improve their performance results. Dr. Sinclair serves as a consultant for many organizations and professional sports franchises, including the Toronto Raptors, Toronto Maple Leafs, Olympic teams, and more.

Dr. Sinclair is a Clinical Assistant Professor with the Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia and a member of the American Psychological Association. Dr. Sinclair’s method to improve performance is explored further in her latest book, Dialed In: Do Your Best When It Matters Most, where she shares her key concepts on the true nature of confidence, the difference between good routines and unhelpful superstitions, good communication vs. bad advice, why character beats talent, and more.

What sparked your interest in the field of performance psychology?
While at university I played on the Canadian Field Hockey team and loved competing at the highest levels. I could see how one’s mental approach was important to performing well. Some people were consistently good, while others had difficulty getting to their best. I thought performing under pressure was very interesting so I kept attending school in this area.

How do you define “elite performance,” and what is one piece of advice you would share to help individuals achieve it?
I believe the concept of an elite performer encompasses a variety of interpretations. Initially, it suggests 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.

What is the true nature of confidence?
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 say confidence is overrated. You might want it but you don’t need it. Confidence, after all, is simply one’s belief in their 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 can experience intense anxiety before their events, fretting over an apparent deficiency in confidence.

What is your approach to addressing performance-related issues such as anxiety, self-doubt, or burnout in clients?
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 tension 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. Learning how to self-soothe, to calm oneself quickly, is 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.

What are some challenges you’ve encountered in your career as a performance psychologist, and how have you overcome them?
I have had to navigate some bad behaviour and dismissive attitudes that many of my male colleagues have not had to navigate. But, I have also worked with so many aware men that didn’t get in the way of us all being focused on getting results for our clients or organizations. Whenever I have been vexatiously challenged — by men or women — I listen to stay emotionally grounded, then I can decide whether to push back directly or ignore the nonsense being levelled at me. That way, I can focus on performing my best.

Can you describe a particularly rewarding or impactful moment in your career?
I began working with an Olympic skier after he had suffered a horrific crash during the toughest and most prestigious race on the Skiing World Cup circuit. He had almost died and had a supremely challenging recovery but decided to come back to racing as he did not want the mountain to defeat him. A few years after the crash, we returned to the same race and worked on how he would not only get down the mountain but ski fast, right to the finish. Seeing him get through the section of the course where he had previously been airlifted and cross the finish line was a wonderful day for us both.

Can you discuss the role of technology and digital tools in the practice of performance psychology, and how you leverage them to enhance your work?
Virtual technology has changed the game for me. In-person meetings are great when you first meet a client, but not necessary. So much good work can get done remotely. Whether interviewing draft prospects for professional teams, video chatting with clients at competitions in any city in real-time, or interviewing prospective candidates for medical school admission, I can do thorough work, no matter the logistics.

How do you envision the future of performance psychology evolving, and what opportunities or challenges do you anticipate in the field?
The opportunity to democratize the ‘how to’ of performing under pressure is so important as I feel that learning to get to your best when the moment is meaningful is a stellar way to nourish your mental health. The big challenge currently in the field is to manage the pervasive myths and make sure the space is not dominated by “coaches” who lack appropriate training, especially when it comes to ethics and confidentiality. The psychological protection of the client is paramount.

What excites you about the future?
I want to change people’s minds about what it takes to perform under pressure. Yes, it takes courage to try to be good. Yet, getting results and feeling satisfaction from your performance is more simple and can be done much faster than most people realize. My next project is a children’s book so we can get these tools to young people early in their performance lives!

To keep up with Dr. Sinclair, connect with her on LinkedIn or visit her website.