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!

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #245

Tip #2: Get a grip (using a ritual)

Back in the days of The Colbert Report, host Stephen Colbert had a distinct backstage ritual before taping the show. He’d ring a bell in the studio bathroom, listen to his producer say “squeeze out some sunshine,” touch the hands of each person who worked backstage (saving the prompter operator for last), chew on a type of discontinued Bic pen, and slap himself in the face twice.

Much less complicated but no less scripted rituals occur in sports of all kinds. Take golf: Tiger Woods has a pre-putting routine that lasts precisely 18 seconds: check alignment, adjust feet, two looks at the ball, and then putt. 

Or basketball: Karl Malone would dribble the ball and mutter under his breath. To this day, no one knows what he said to himself. Whatever it was, it worked: he holds the record for most free throws ever.

Karl Malone would dribble the ball and mutter under his breath. To this day, no one knows what he said to himself.

Colloquially, people sometimes refer to pre-performance routines as being “OCD,” but OCD is different. An OCD ritual (the compulsion) is done in response to an anxiety-provoking thought (the obsession). The purpose of the ritual is to neutralize anxiety. By contrast, the purpose of the pre-performance routine is to regulate physiological arousal, focus concentration, and put the body on autopilot so it can execute a move that would otherwise be hampered by overthinking.

Despite the fact that everyone from Karl Malone to your local high school point guard has a routine, the scientific jury is still out on exactly how rituals work. A meta-analysis of pre-performance routines from sports as diverse as bowling, water polo, gymnastics, and rugby showed that hypotheses and anecdotal evidence abound, but the research has yet to understand precisely what function all this bouncing and muttering and knee-bending and kiss-blowing actually serves. 

Until then, go ahead and try it. At worst, you buy yourself a quiet moment. At best, you’ll reap the benefits of improved concentration and a smooth entry into your next move.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.