You work hard to learn the skills that will get you to the end goal. You work on building strength, power, endurance, and flexibility to ensure your body can keep up with the demands you place on it. You practice moving in specific patterns and at precise speeds for top performance. Yet, sometimes, when performance anxiety kicks in, all your hard work and preparation counts for nothing and your performance suffers. Are you doomed or is there some sport psychology you can learn to give you the best shot at regrouping and finishing strong?
Dealing with Performance Anxiety
Performance anxiety can make you feel vulnerable and out of control. Your body can feel off and it’s as if you lose the ability to listen to direction. For those tasks that require a narrow focus (e.g. focal point in yoga), your attentional field broadens and your eyes and mind cannot stay focused and quiet. For tasks that require a broad focus (e.g. scanning for obstacles while trail running), you can get tunnel vision. Your thoughts become consumed with worry, and you become overly self-conscious, which can lead to errors in judgment. Instead of trusting yourself, you make rash decisions that lead to one mistake, then another, and so on. Performance anxiety can also make your muscles tense, which can interfere with overall coordination, creating even more mistakes.
Taken together, cognitive (i.e. thought) and somatic (i.e. physical) performance anxiety can make us question the effectiveness of our training, performance strategies, and overall goals. So, what do you do then? You try harder! You do your best to muscle through it! You may even change up your plan of action to something not proven and not practiced. Unfortunately, this may only make things worse. The benefits that often accompany high levels of effort are often outweighed by the consequences of performance anxiety. Even more mistakes are made and the downward spiral continues leading to more frustration, anger, worry, fear, muscle tension, and overall performance deterioration.
No one wants to make mistakes, but letting your performance anxiety take over and trying to override it by muscling through and with unjustified changes in strategies can make things even worse. Instead, at the onset of performance anxiety, try taking the following steps to give yourself the best shot at positive performance:
Making mistakes and experiencing performance anxiety is inevitable. It is my humble, yet professional opinion that those who best recover come out on top. Understand that it happens. Expect it to happen to you. In other words, strive for perfection, but never demand it of yourself. Only then, can you really be prepared for step #2.
There are many techniques to help relax your muscles and refocus your mind so that you can quickly recover and continue with your activity. Belly breathing, positive self-talk, visualization, etc. can help to regain control, calm you down, and make space for your body to perform as it knows how.
Maintain your strategy by focusing on a very short-term goal that will get you back on target
You cannot change the past and you do not yet have control over the future. All you can control is what happens right now. Maintain control over your mind and body by directing their attention on something you can accomplish immediately. Perceived attainable goal-setting is one of the best ways to cope. It will bring your mind back to a state of motivation, confidence, and concentration. It will also tell your body to start producing positive performance.
Again, no one wants to make mistakes, but when it happens, follow the three-step plan above so that you can not only support good performance, but also finish with confidence from knowing you can handle adversity!
Weinberg, R.S. & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology (5th Ed.) Chapter 4.