Mindset as a Skill Set

USC Marshall institute teaches students the science behind performance

October 23, 2018

What do you get when a business scholar/entrepreneur sits down with a professional football coach?

The Performance Science Institute at USC Marshall School of Business. For years, co-founders David Belasco, Executive Director of the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, and Pete Carroll, Seattle Seahawks head coach, shared a vision of creating a hub for researching and teaching high-performance mindset to college students. Launched in the in the fall of 2017, PSI is the manifestation of their vision, an applied research program introducing students to the art, science and practice of a performance mindset.

“There’s a process to developing a skilled mind,” explained Glenn Fox, Head of Design, Strategy and Outreach for the Performance Science Institute. “We’re showing students the process and teaching them the science behind performance. It’s a real-life, tangible approach, with an emphasis on learning to identify key variables and ask, ‘What can I control?’ We’re training the next generation of performers, leaders, and entrepreneurs to think like scientists in order to achieve high performance.”

“Los Angeles is a perfect setting for studying high performance. We have tech and innovation, entertainment, professional sports and urban resources. LA is experiencing a renaissance, and USC is at the center of it.” -- Glenn Fox, Head of Design, Strategy and Outreach, Performance Science Institute

The First

Outside of athletics, the study and teaching of performance science has been slow to reach the United States. Among the first programs in the world was the Royal College of Music in London, which launched the Centre for Performance Science in 2000 with a focus on the arts. But according to Fox, “To our knowledge, we are among the first in academia to develop the field in a business and entrepreneurial context and to offer a minor degree program in Performance Science.”

The PSI curriculum includes two core courses, Belasco’s “The Entrepreneurial Mindset” and “The Science of Peak Performance,” taught by Fox. Together they are among the largest electives in the Marshall School, with combined enrollments of nearly 400 students each spring semester. 

Within the Performance Science minor, students are required to select from courses in psychology, biology and business—informally labeled “Mind, Body, Business”—as well as a set of electives.  These include “Management of New Enterprises” and “Fundamentals of Entrepreneurship,” as well as courses such as “Stress Management for Healthy Living” and “The Biology of the Brain.”

The curriculum is centered around the science behind the practices, beliefs, and habits that support and create a high performance mindset: purpose, optimism, gratitude, grit, understanding fear, mindfulness, regulating emotion, and viewing failure as necessary to greater success. 

Fox and his colleagues believe these tenets of mind-training are an ideal complement to courses in business skills. “It’s hard to train these aspects of the mind and inspire long-term behaviors,” Fox said, “but, when successfully practiced, it can provide a substantial competitive advantage in careers and lives.”

To support students in gaining the competitive edge, PSI is launching an MBA High Performance Club this year, and the institute worked with the USC Provost’s office to establish the Ray Irani College for Performance Science, a residence hall in USC’s new University Village. “We’re hoping to build a culture around performance and wellness,” said Fox.

Toward that end, PSI also has partnered with Arianna Huffington’s Thrive Global, a digital resource dedicated to offering companies and individuals sustainable, science-based solutions to enhance well-being, performance, and purpose. Huffington introduced Thrive to the USC community when she spoke as a guest in the PSI speaker series.  Brené Brown, author of Dare to Lead and Research Professor of Social Work at the University of Houston, was the inaugural speaker, followed by basketball player Kobe Bryant, Huffington, and free-solo rock climber Alex Honnold.

“Los Angeles is a perfect setting for studying high performance,” said Fox. “We have tech and innovation, entertainment, professional sports and urban resources. LA is experiencing a renaissance, and USC is at the center of it.”

Your Life is a Laboratory

The unique blend of opportunity Los Angeles offers students also provides fertile ground for conducting and accessing research in performance science. Fox said rigorously tested methods for improving performance in any domain are in development, and scholars are beginning to quantify the physiological states that are associated with performance.

For his part, Fox and his colleagues in USC’s Center for Body Computing published a study last year looking at intrinsic motivation in health behavior. Appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine’s online publication Catalyst, the research explored why people stick with or abandon wearable health devices such as Fitbits.

But PSI researchers are largely focused on measuring the effectiveness of interventions that aim to improve an individual’s mindset. They are using pre- and post-class self-reporting to measure the impact of their classes on students, and working with organizations to measure the effectiveness of wellness programs implemented to strengthen mind and body.

“All organizations would like high performance from their employees, but approaches to improving performance are often based on non-supported claims rather than data-based approaches to measuring the effectiveness of interventions,” said Fox. “We’re teaching approaches that have been tested and measuring their impact. We know the way to thrive in a shifting landscape is the mindset to adapt. That’s the key to being your best where ever you are.”


The Performance Science Institute and Thrive Global