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3 Secrets to Beat Performance Anxiety

Performance anxiety makes us second-guess everything from how to shoot a free throw to what to say next in an interview. Here are three ways to bring it under pressure!

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #245
Athlete throwing a basketball

IN THIS ARTICLE YOU'LL DISCOVER

  • How the language you use can help to eleviate performance anxiety
  • The case for pre-performance rituals
  • A movement hack that can give your affirmations more impact  

Listener Adeel from England wrote in to ask how he can perform better under pressure. Adeel has spoken English as a second language for many years and has excellent communication skills. But he notes that in high-pressure situations, he sometimes gets anxious and the words don’t come, plus his accent becomes more pronounced. What can he do to remedy this?

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Performance Anxiety Is Universal

Anyone who’s ever been in a similar situation—and that’s all of us—can empathize. Even with tasks we've done a million times—like speaking a second language, walking up stairs, or navigating the grocery store—under pressure or observation, we get psyched out. We lose the most basic skills. A friend told me that once, during a lunch interview, she overthought how to swallow and had to sit for a few moments with a mouth full of iced tea before she could collect herself and figure it out.

It’s universal: pressure, whether it’s pushing down on me or pressing down on you, makes us second-guess how to hold the putter, work the laser pointer, or pronounce niche (is it “neesh?” Or “nitch?”), even though we usually do it without a thought.

It’s universal: pressure, whether it’s pushing down on me or pressing down on you, makes us second-guess ourselves.

So what can you do in the moment? Whether you’re trying to ace an audition, nail a presentation, shoot a free throw, or spell “koinonia” for the win at the National Spelling Bee, how can you pull out all the stops without losing your cool?

This week, let’s get it done with these three tips.

Tip #1: Get excited

The researchers behind a hilarious but solid study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology made participants sing the opening lines of Journey’s "Don’t Stop Believin'." 

But right before the small town girl took that midnight train, each participant was assigned to say a statement at random, and—importantly—to try their best to believe it. They were assigned: “I am anxious,” “I am excited,” “I am calm,” “I am angry,” “I am sad,” or no statement at all.

Next, voice recognition software scored each performance on volume, pitch, and note duration. 

Which group performed worst? You guessed it: the group that said “I am anxious.” That makes sense.

But who performed the best? You might think it was the group that stated “I am calm,” which is what we often try to tell ourselves before a big moment. But instead, it was the group that said “I am excited” before belting about that city boy born and raised in south Detroit. 

Why is this? Before a big moment, we get physiologically activated. All bodily systems are go, and it's hard to slow a racing heart and jangling nerves, even when we tell ourselves to calm down.

So rather than trying to change our physiology, we can change our mindset by saying “I am excited.” This changes our view of the task from a threat to an opportunity. Threats result in anxiety, but opportunities make us enthusiastic. Seeing the task as something we get to do rather than something we have to do subsequently improves our performance. After all, everybody wants a thrill.

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