Slashing performance anxiety
By Steven H. Kiges
Performance anxiety is an issue that many of us struggle with, whether in sports, public speaking or performance of any kind.
From my personal experience being a musician, speaker and low handicap golfer, I have certainly had my challenges with performance anxiety, ranging from mild to terrifying. I have also had the fortune, as the co-founder and director of The Coach Training Academy, to train a number of sports performance coaches to help them support their clients - both amateur and professionals - to reach higher levels of success.
There is something about that moment when the clock strikes “go time” and we need to perform well in front of others, that takes us out of our comfort zone. All of a sudden, those 20 baskets in a row that we made so effortlessly during practice now gives us hand of clay. While coaching performance anxiety is a complex subject with volumes of research and strategies, I want to bring up some basic but critical issues that can aid in reducing performance anxiety.
You can’t eliminate performance anxiety and generally the harder you try the worse it gets
My first and most important tip is actually contained in the title of this article. That is, these tips are meant to help reduce performance anxiety, not remove or eliminate it. Why? Because one of the biggest lies and destructive beliefs that actually creates more anxiety and stress is that performance anxiety can be eliminated and that there is some magic thought or exercise that would remove those nerves and stressful feelings.
Holding this belief often creates what we call a meta neurological process. That is, a pyramid of further stress caused by beliefs such as; what’s wrong with me? I am not smart because I get nervous, I am not talented enough, I am going to fail, I can’t do this, I am going to disappoint others, I am not as good as others, etc.
Here is a bit of Neuroscience to understand how our brains work: We start with a thought about an observation, “I have butterflies in my stomach, I am so nervous.” We then often go on to apply meaning to what that thought means, and then what the next thought might mean, and so on. I am nervous, what’s wrong with me, why did they let me on the team, I`m not good enough, etc.
Unfortunately, as mentioned above, often these applied new meanings bring on even more stress and discomfort. They take us down a rabbit hole of negative beliefs. If you think about it what a perfect strategy to create more stress!
So, it is critical to understand that performance anxiety is a normal function of all human beings when challenging themselves to perform at a high level in front of others. Please keep in mind, when I say high level, it’s based on that person’s definition of high level. This could be a 6-year-old playing T-Ball, a high school student at a swim meet, or a seasoned professional baseball player in a championship game. It is all relative to our age, plus perceived and real pressures.
From my own experience, I was a talented musician in high school who went on to study at Juilliard and have a professional performing career for 20 years. In the practice room I was invincible! I could play anything and was a superstar! However, take me out onto the stage in front of hundreds or thousands of people and that superstar often felt like a super dud. Tremendous anxiety, fear and doubt. Same thing as a low handicap golfer. Put me on the putting green and I am sinking everything like I am a magician. Put me in a tournament and wow, what happened to the magic?
Encourage curiosity and normalcy regarding performance anxiety
Have the student athlete talk to others, especially older and more successful people in the field. Do they get nervous before big games/events and then what do they do about it? Students find out that even professional superstar performers get nervous! However, the big difference is, rarely will they allow themselves to go down that rabbit hole of further negative meta thoughts. They accept that with performance comes nerves and discomfort. But also, the need to focus on what they can do and how they want to perform.
One of my classmates at Juilliard was the famous Grammy award winning trumpet player Wynton Marsalis. We had a particularly difficult concert one evening. To put it in context, the piece we had to perform was like performing a high wire act on a piece of dental floss. Everyone was extremely nervous. I asked Wynton how he was doing and he replied “I hope I get on stage before I get sick.” We chatted about it and I shared some thoughts. It calmed us both as we started to focus on what a great opportunity it was, how exciting it was, we had an opportunity we had dreamed about, and what a great personal challenge we had. We also had a chat about the reality of the situation. What would determine an acceptable performance or a great performance? If things didn’t go perfectly, our lives were not over, we would rebound and have another day in our careers. What was so important was that we focused on the here and now, what we were capable of and why we wanted it. We eliminated the negative inner chatter that would have most definitely increased the stress.
Ask yourself and others helpful questions
Our natural tendency when experiencing nerves is to focus on the negative side. However, know that when we ask ourselves poor questions, we will get poor answers. Questions and thoughts like, What’s wrong with me? Maybe I’m not good enough? Why am I the only one feeling like this? I will disappoint my teammates, friends, family, etc., are guaranteed to escalate our stress.
We want to ask helpful, powerful questions such as: Why am I here? What is one personal goal for me today or in today’s game/performance? What does doing my best mean to me? If you do your best, no matter the outcome, how do you want to feel about yourself? If your teammate does their best how will you feel about them?
A question one of my coaches asked me once when I was particularly nervous was: “If one of the rules to be a great performer is that you will have butterflies, worries and concerns are you willing to accept that, focus and perform your best even with those butterflies, worries and concerns? It's about accepting reality and asking powerful questions of our higher selves. Is this worth it and am I willing to pay this price?
The universal rule is that with performance often comes a level of anxiety and stress. Performance challenges are opportunities for us to grow as individuals and to learn and adapt. No matter what happens in the next game, life will go on and young athletes will always have another opportunity to step up to the plate.
Steven H. Kiges is a speaker, author, entrepreneur, coach trainer, Certified Master Life Coach and co-founder and director of The Coach Training Academy. He is an accomplished Juilliard-trained musician. At Juilliard he had the opportunity to work and learn from some of the top performers in the world, which taught him about the inner workings of motivation, dedication and focus.
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