Performance anxiety can occur in a variety of situations, such as in your first high school practice, a road race, and in game situations. Sometimes, it might be more commonly referred to as stage fright, meaning you are performing in front of others or an audience. The size of the crowd or audience does not necessarily dictate the level of anxiety. It is more about the importance we mentally assign to those who will be watching us (and evaluating us!). Many athletes will experience performance anxiety at some point in their career and know how to manage the level of intensity is critical in order to perform your best.
Handling Performance Anxiety Before the Event
Fortunately, there are some things you can do prior to an event or match in order to be calmer and manage performance anxiety. Here are some of the best techniques:
- First, acknowledge that you have anxiety. Attempting to push down or to try to NOT have an emotion is not as helpful as admitting and being honest that you have it. This is one of the most important things you can do. No one is immune from feeling nervous before an important event. You are not the only one struggling with this. Acknowledge and normalize performance anxiety.
- Second, after you acknowledge and admit you have nerves and you want to manage the anxiety consider utilizing a few simple tools:
- a. A short meditation might be very helpful. Have one on your iPod if you can use this. It might be especially helpful to have some short, guided breathing practice that you can listen to for a few minutes.
- b. Next, consider what warm-up routine is needed and outline this and have it so you can see it. A basic warm-up routine is a good way to manage focus. If you see your drills and engage in them, it can help you relax a bit.
- c. You might consider doing some mental rehearsal or imagery exercises. Mentally rehearse how the event is going to go with you succeeding. Close your eyes and imagine yourself crossing that finish line or making a good shot on goal. See yourself perform the action in a successful way. Before you enter the event, make sure you have an overall image of how you want it to go. This type of positive mental rehearsal can truly make wonders for your performance anxiety.
- d. Use “can do”self-talk, and engage in a dialogue with yourself about what you control and what you can do. Review and talk with yourself about small goals and along with above mentioned tool, mentally see yourself carry out the goal. When you find yourself questioning if you are good enough or ready, just acknowledge you have doubts (as mentioned above in a) and bring your mind back to can do self-talk.
Mental preparation before the event is extremely important. It will put things into perspective and help you arrive prepared and fearless at the event.
Overcome Performance Anxiety During the Event
Now that you have prepared for the event you have to attend, it is time to be in the practice or the competition. The good news is there are some things that can help you during the event as well. All you have to do is to remember to apply them.
- Focus on what you have to do in the moment and not on the result. This is a common mistake that causes people to suffer from performance anxiety. This means rather than worrying about the end result, such as winning, or time, take care of what you control at the moment. This might include a certain physical motion, like a swimmer correctly kicking off the wall. This is under the control of the swimmer and is a much better focus for managing anxiety than thinking how it can all end badly in front of an audience. The best thing for you to do during the event is to live in the moment. Don’t think about the finish line, think about giving your best.
- Give your everything and enjoy yourself. Maybe one of the most common mistakes that athletes make is to get so engrossed in the outcome of an event that they forget that they’re also supposed to have fun while doing it. Or worse, they forget how much they like what they do. If you always expect the worst, then the worst will come. Remember, this event is only part of the whole of you and having enjoyment can help relax you and make you compete better.
- Try to smile even if it’s hard. We know that when you are coping with stress or intense situations, that smiling might be the last thing on your mind. But smiling on purpose has been associated with decreased stress and lowering heart rate. A smile on purpose might be an easy tool to use if you feel your performance anxiety ratcheting up.
Overcome Performance Anxiety After the Event
You might wonder why you still need to overcome performance anxiety once the event is over? Well, that is because other events will follow, and it is good to know what to expect and to improve your reactions to performance anxiety. Here are some things you can do after the event:
- Make a small review of the entire event. Replay in your mind the highlights of the event that just completed. The reason for this is to help you acknowledge, and focus on, those things you liked about yourself, your performance, and how you managed your performance anxiety. Recall and write down 3 things that went well. Moreover, review the techniques you used to help you with performance anxiety. Were they useful? What can you do to improve on them? Put this information in an online journal so you can easily refer to it in the future.
- Write what you might change or do differently for a future practice or event. Acknowledge if some of your worries even came true. Can you have some good lessons about maybe focus or our thoughts that were negative and did not help? Just be careful to not linger on them and be made. That is not the point. The main take away is to learn what helps.
- Design your own training program to help you prepare for the next event. Prepare a practice for an event that mimics as closely as possible the conditions of real events you have to attend. You can also ask for help from coaches or join groups and practice with them. A close simulation is a great context for practicing some of the performance anxiety tools you want to use in the future.
Putting It All Together
Performance anxiety happens to the best of us, and there is no need to feel ashamed about it. It is important to realize that so much of our anxiety is related to our thoughts and worries about things that may, or may not, occur. The good news is there are tools to you can use to manage anxiety, pre-event, during an event, and even following an event. Elite athletes make plans for such setbacks so make a plan and practice the tools that work for you so that if you need them, you know what to do.