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 #3: Give yourself the nod. Literally!

From a study in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology comes a subtle yet powerful move.

The researchers asked 150 CrossFit members to participate in a study, ostensibly about the use of headphones while working out.

The researchers divided the participants into two groups. One group was asked to write and audiorecord three positive statements about their current physical fitness—things like “I’m in really good physical condition” or “I have trained very hard every day”—or three negative statements, such as “I get injured way too often” or “I feel more tired than usual.” 

Next, each participant listened to their own recorded statements through a set of headphones and were told the headphones were being tested for factors like comfort and fit.

To test this, they were asked to move their heads up and down—nodding in agreement without actually being told to nod—or to shake their heads side to side, essentially shaking their heads in disagreement.

Then each participant was asked to do a vertical jump, 30 squats, and four deadlifts. What happened? The participants who nodded yes along to their positive statements turbocharged their athletic performance, jumping, squatting, and deadlifting the best of all the participants. Those who nodded along to their negative statements deflated their performance, performing the worst. And those who disagreed with the positive or negative? The effects of their statements were neutralized.  

Secretly, the researchers wanted to know if the physical movements of affirmation or refutation can amplify whatever we’re telling ourselves. The conclusion? Yes they can. 

So, when you tell yourself “I've got this,” or even better, “I’m excited,” nod along. Your body is paying attention.

To wrap it all up, go with the flow of your physiology and tell yourself you’re excited, which creates opportunity. Ground yourself with a ritual, which creates focus. And nod along as you talk yourself through, which creates affirmation. In a world where some will win, some will lose, and some were born to sing the blues, you’ll be sure to pull off a great performance right when it matters most.


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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.