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How To Overcome Performance Anxiety

4 Techniques to Overcome Performance Anxiety

Dec 23, 2021

Have you ever been about to do something when suddenly, your heart starts to race, your hands and knees begin to tremble, and you feel like the only way out is to run away? Well, chances are you are dealing with performance anxiety.

This form of anxiety can affect anyone and is not limited only to athletes and performers. We all can find ourselves at the mercy of performance anxiety, since after all, life is just one big performance.

 

What is Performance Anxiety?

Being nervous before an event is quite normal. In fact, some nervousness can increase performance because it makes you more alert and focused. However, that is not the case when it comes to performance anxiety. 

When an individual suffers from this social phobia, any activity that can be viewed as a performance by the subconscious can turn into a nightmare.

Performance anxiety can be broken down into three independent factors:

  1. Cognition: the worries experienced in having to perform.
  • Worrying about not being perfect.
  • Fear of making a mistake.
  • Fear of embarrassment.
  • Fear of negative self-evaluation.
  1. Autonomic arousal: the physical symptoms that are felt in an anxious situation.
  2. Behavioral response: the actions that will follow the two previous factors.

The easiest way to explain how these three factors play into the overall experience of performance anxiety is to provide an example.

John is a freshman in college. He is attending an English class where they are taking turns reading out loud from a novel. Upon hearing his name called to be the next reader, John’s mind goes straight to worrisome thoughts.

“I hope my voice doesn’t tremble,” “I don’t want to make a fool of myself,” “What will my classmates think of me if I read poorly?” 

Now, his body begins to respond to his thoughts. John’s stomach churns, his body goes cold, his mind goes blank, and his hands begin to shake. Upon opening his mouth to talk his voice appears shaky, as if he were about to cry. 

Dizziness also takes over, and the page he is staring at begins to move. The only thing John can think about is jumping up and running away, the behavioral response.

Now, the scenario I illustrated above shows what a quick response would look like, which does not really allow for too much of a behavioral response. If John were to have known he would be reading in class that day, a likely reaction would have been to play hooky. 

That shows one of the most common behavioral responses to performance anxiety, avoidance. Here is a list of behavioral responses that appear when an individual is faced with performance anxiety: 

Behavioral Responses:

  • Avoidance
  • Flight, meaning escaping the anxiety-producing situation.
  • Engaging in alcohol or drug use to cope with anxiety.
  • Quitting the activity that causes anxiety.
  • Losing all ambition due to fear of performance anxiety.

Physical Symptoms of Performance Anxiety:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dry mouth
  • Trembling hands and knees
  • Shaky voice
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Light-headedness
  • Feeling of coldness

Having to deal with any of the above symptoms, be they behavioral responses or physical symptoms, is no fun situation to be in. Performance anxiety has the power to turn even the most enjoyable activity into a complete terror. 

That is why it is so important to learn how to deal with it, so you do not keep yourself from achieving all that you are capable of. There are 4 techniques that, if utilized, can be of great service in reclaiming control over your performances, no matter what they may be. 

These include accepting your pre-performance nerves, making sure you’re prepared, using visualization, and letting go of expectations.

 

Learn how to Manage Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety is a feeling of fear that affects athletes in different sports. Athletes often suffer from this condition because they're afraid of failing at something important...their sport.

Using the four techniques outlined in the rest of this article, you can work to overcome performance anxiety in sports.

Technique 1: Accept Pre-Performance Nerves

The first technique involves accepting your pre-performance nerves. Instead of always trying to fight the nervous feelings, just accept their presence. By always trying to convince yourself that the nerves are not there, or by focusing so much on getting rid of them, you will only be adding fuel to the flame.

I know that me telling you to accept your nerves can seem a little contradictory but let me explain why it is so important. The easiest thing to do when faced with something we don’t like about ourselves is to avoid it. 

By pretending it doesn’t exist we only suppress the feeling, allowing it to appear again at inopportune times. What we resist persists, so by constantly pushing against the nerves you are actually causing them to stay.

Acceptance is the first step towards creating change. There is no way for you to overcome performance anxiety until you acknowledge its existence. And the best way to do that is through the acceptance of pre-performance nerves, since that is where the anxiety often shows itself the most. 

I promise it will be incredibly scary. However, if you truly want to gain control over the anxiety, this is a necessary step.

By accepting that the nerves are there, you are in essence saying to them, “I recognize you are here, but I will not let you keep me from doing what I want to do.” 

In taking this step, you can now begin to work on other techniques that will build confidence in your abilities. It will be easier said than done. However, just stick with it and every time you feel yourself getting nervous from now on, stop and think, I accept my nerves and allow them to be present

 

Technique 2: Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

The second technique to overcome performance anxiety is preparation. When you have the tendency to be nervous and anxious before an event, the worst thing you can do is be unprepared. 

Not being familiar with an activity makes having confidence very difficult. By being prepared, you are doing all that you can, both physically and mentally, to be ready.

Preparation doesn’t mean practicing the day before an event either. As many hours as it takes to make the activity second nature is required to help curb performance anxiety. 

This will differ from person to person, depending on your skill set and depth of your anxiety. But by being prepared, you take away a level of worry, since you’ve ingrained the act into muscle memory.

I utilized preparation a lot while playing baseball. For me it was a matter of making sure all my mechanics were working correctly and I felt comfortable, whether it was my swing, fielding, or pitching. 

Being prepared allowed me to be fully present in what I was doing. As an athlete, one of the easiest ways to hinder performance is by focusing on mechanics.

There were times when my swing didn’t feel the best, and I found myself standing in the batter’s box, eyeing down the pitcher, and all I could think about was whether my hands were in the right spot. 

With my mind being focused on that, you can say goodbye to any chance I had of hitting a 90-mph fastball.

The same concept holds true for giving presentations. I have always dreaded public speaking. In college, whenever I heard we would be giving a presentation or speech in class, my stomach would immediately drop. 

So, I knew I needed to prepare more than others, to ensure that I would know what I needed to say by heart. This allowed me to feel confident, because my presentation had become second nature to me.

I remember this one time in a business law class where we would start each day by someone reading out of a business book our professor had. Luckily, we knew the class before who would be reading the next day. So, the day before it was my turn to read, I brought the book back to my dorm with me.

I would say I read that passage out loud about 50 times or so that night. But guess what, it was well worth it. The next day, I stood up in class and recited the passage with full confidence. 

Had I not been able to prepare, I can promise you my voice would have been shaking and my reading would not have been smooth.

These two examples just go to show the importance of preparation. While preparation alone may not completely get rid of your performance anxiety, it will do wonders for your confidence. Especially for those people who don’t prepare as much as they should, this could be a game changer.

Okay, but you may be thinking, “What if I already prepare as much as I can, but I still deal with performance anxiety?” Trust me, I’ve been there. That is why there are two more techniques you can employ to go along with acceptance and preparation.

 

"Not being familiar with an activity makes having confidence very difficult. By being prepared, you are doing all that you can, both physically and mentally, to be ready."

 

Technique 3: Visualization

If you’ve ever come across the term visualization, you may have thought it was some positive thinking hocus pocus. But I’m here to tell you just how powerful it can be. 

When dealing with performance anxiety, there are two areas that need to be focused on: relaxation and building confidence. Visualization is incredible at doing both.

Relaxation

Let’s first look at relaxation. To get you thinking in the right way about this, have you ever heard someone use the phrase “go to your happy place?” Well, that is essentially what I am referring to when talking about visualization helping you to relax. 

Could you imagine if before a big game, or a sales presentation that you were so relaxed you’d believe you were actually sitting on a beach sipping a cocktail? The beautiful thing is you can be, in your mind.

Here’s what you do. Think of a time that you felt your most relaxed. What comes to mind? For me, it’s always walking on the beach. I just love feeling the sand beneath my feet, wind blowing on my face, and the gentle crash of the waves as they come ashore.

Now take that image, close your eyes, and imagine yourself actually there. Feel and hear as if you are truly experiencing it. If there is food involved, taste it. If, like me, there is sound then really listen for all the noises.

Practice this over and over, until you can immediately close your eyes and go to that space. Then, you have a powerful tool that you can use any time you feel anxiety begin to creep up. Just close your eyes, venturing off to your happy place, and watch the anxiety melt away.

Confidence

The second way visualization can be utilized in overcoming performance anxiety is by increasing self-confidence, specifically in the task at hand. Your mind does not know the difference between what is real and imagined. So, when you mentally rehearse what it is you are doing, your brain believes you’ve already done it.

When it comes to any type of activity this can be incredibly powerful. As you successfully accomplish the task in your mind, confidence will begin to build gradually, until when the performance comes, your mind feels like it’s done this a thousand times.

Mental rehearsal really was helpful to me in baseball. I developed a routine, where I would lay down the night before a game and go through my at bats and fielding. I would see myself successfully hitting all the different types of pitches I would face, along with seeing myself making plays. 

During the games, I would use the visualization in the on-deck circle, and before each pitch was thrown while I was in the field. Then, when I began pitching, I found it equally as helpful.

Since pitching was new to me, I felt like I didn’t have as much confidence in areas like control. So, I really focused my visualization on the catcher setting up a target and me hitting it perfectly. By repeatedly rehearsing this in my mind, I was able to completely let go while pitching. 

I would just pick up the catcher’s location and then throw. There were no worries about missing my spot, because after all, I had already accomplished it in my mind.

 

"Your mind does not know the difference between what is real and imagined. So, when you mentally rehearse what it is you are doing, your brain believes you’ve already done it."

 

Technique 4: Let Go of Expectations

The fourth technique in overcoming performance anxiety is all about where you put your focus. Before any anxiety inducing event, our minds are often inundated with thoughts about how we want it to go. 

But there are so many different factors that could play into the outcome, that it is a losing battle to try and control.

Expectations are the ideas that we have about how something should be, or how an event should go. While this may seem like a positive way of thinking, it actually holds you back from peak performance, and causes more anxiety. 

These feelings keep you out of the moment and take you away from your flow.

To let go of expectations is extremely difficult due to our constant desire for success. In order to achieve something, it’s common to become so focused and consumed on the end result. 

However, by learning to let that go and become process oriented, your performances will become much more natural and effortless.

A phrase that really resonates with me when thinking about letting go of expectations is, “Set it and forget it.”  

This is referring to when you set the intention for what it is you’d like to accomplish. Because remember, letting go of expectations does not mean having no goals. In fact, I advocate for setting goals in every single area of your life.

Once you set a goal, however, you must now forget about the outcome. At this point, it’s time to focus on the process that will get you there. 

If you have a solid plan in place that you trust, well then you need not worry about whether you will get the outcome you desire. Just trust the process and enjoy the ride.

As a baseball player, the game is saturated with outcome-oriented thinking. We are judged on stats, and that can take a toll on an individual’s psyche. I would find myself becoming so wrapped up in what my batting average was, that during my at bat I was terrified of getting out. 

Being this focused on the outcome took me out of the moment. Rather than trusting in my abilities and all the work I had put in; I chose to doubt myself.

Once I began to let go of expectations, I saw a drastic improvement in my play, and consequently my stats went up. To accomplish this, I started by not looking at my average. Then, during the games I would focus on what was in my control. 

This included my approach, my focus, and my attitude. By enjoying the game more, both the ups and downs, I played quite naturally. When you find yourself in the moment, free from all expectations, it is honestly a beautiful experience.

 

Final Thoughts 

Accepting pre-performance nerves, preparing, visualizing, and letting go of expectations are all powerful techniques to overcome performance anxiety. 

Individually, these techniques will be of great help to you. But combined, they are truly remarkable. I highly recommend you start implementing them into your life if you are currently struggling with performance anxiety.

I hope you found this article helpful and informative. I would love to hear about your thoughts and experiences regarding performance anxiety, so please feel free to leave a comment below.

I wish you all the success moving forward in your life, and do not hesitate to reach out if you have any questions about mental performance or performance psychology.

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