Picture yourself getting ready before the big game, but while doing so you find yourself questioning your abilities, worrying about letting the team down, re-aggravating an old injury, and nervous about who is in the stands watching. The next thing you know you are sweating profusely, experiencing a rapid heart rate, can barely breathe, and feel stomach butterflies. As all of this is going on, you then begin to battle negative self-talk, including self-defeating comments around fear and doubt that steal from your focus. The whistle starts the game and the ball comes your way…what happens next? For most athletes stuck in this mindset and paralyzed by performance anxiety, the results are not anything close to what the athlete is capable of achieving.
What is performance anxiety?
Performance anxiety, also known as “stage fright,” can occur when individuals feel overwhelmed by the attention they expect to receive when performing a sport, speech, song, or any activity that threatens the ego. The anxiety just before performing can leave individuals feeling as though they are being attacked, and the body responds accordingly in a “fight or flight” manner. People generally experience varying levels of performance anxiety, with many able to control their anxieties through breathing, self-talk, imagery, and other psychological methods. For those who struggle with performance anxiety, however, the experience can be both frustrating and overwhelming, often redirecting focus away from otherwise successful performances.
For some, performance anxiety is a rather mild experience that the performer expects to experience, and consequently has a pre-game routine ready to help. In these examples performance anxiety is expected, but the performer is ready to respond by going through specific routines and techniques designed to decrease anxiety. A few of the more popular techniques are described below:
- Deep breathing. Performers who use deep breathing exercises allow the body to remain calm and prevent the “fight or flight” mechanism from taking the individual off of his or her game. Deep breathing is a form of reciprical inhibition, meaning it is impossible for people to be both calm from deep breathing and experience debilitating anxiety at the same exact time.
- Imagery. By re-directing thoughts away from anxiety (i.e. worrying about what will happen if you fail) toward images of success (i.e. seeing yourself help your team win) your thoughts, emotions, and actions will align and allow you to perform with minimal distractions.
- Self-talk. What you say to yourself has a direct impact on how you think, feel, and behave. By telling yourself that you are talented and capable you will increase the potential for success much more than telling yourself that you are weak and unable — so choose wisely if your goal is to perform your best.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). Another easy way to relax before a performance is to sequentially tense and relax one muscle group at a time for about 3-5 seconds, working your way through your entire body. As you relax each muscle group, your body will become more comfortable and better prepared for the performance that lies ahead.
As a bonus, by doing any of the techniques above you will not only be applying proven psychological methods to mitigate anxiety, you will also be steering your attention away from worries and self-doubt at the same time, as we cannot hold two different thoughts at the same exact time.
An important reminder
When talking about performance anxiety it is important to note that the end goal is not to perform completely devoid of anxiety. Human arousal is the physiological and psychological state of being awoken, and this often occurs when are faced with life tasks that include public observation and the possibility of failure. Put another way, it is quite normal to feel some nerves before a game, speech, or concert you are about to play — and ironically, some nerves can actually be facilitative toward your chances for success. Unfortunately, there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” test to know exactly where the line is for each individual between healthy and unhealthy arousal, but instead left to each person to know themself enough to get a sense of feel for what is OK, and what is unhealthy.
Yes, performance anxiety is very real, and it can prevent an otherwise talented person from achieving the level of success they are capable of achieving. When we worry about all the negative things that can potentially happen to us, it negatively impacts our mood state and redirects our thinking from what we can and should do, to what we can’t and shouldn’t do. How we develop performance anxiety is unique to each individual, but the good news is there are tools available that can mitigate the chances for performance anxiety happening again in the future.