Understanding and Overcoming Performance Anxiety

Anyone who has participated in a competitive sport at any level has likely experienced performance anxiety at one point or another.  We also know that it is not unique to sports.  It also occurs in such activities as public speaking, and even performing in a school play.  The setting may be different, but the principles are the same.  Anxiety is a complex topic, and it will be covered across several posts.  If you follow along and read all of them, in the end you will have some tools to overcome performance anxiety in any situation, and to help your child athlete do the same.

Anxiety is a physiological response

Simply speaking, anxiety is a physiological response; a complex interaction between our body and our brain.  When our mind interprets some situation as threatening, it produces a cascade of events in our body that is designed to protect us in times of danger.  When we are really in danger or in a situation with the potential for danger, this response is very useful and helps us to survive.  However, when we are playing a sport and trying to execute some complex series of movements, it can impair performance.

Focusing on something other than the task

Psychologically speaking, performance anxiety occurs when we focus on something other than the motor task at hand.  We become anxious when instead of focusing on the present, we worry about some aspect of the result.  I discussed some of this in a prior post Focus on What You Can Control.  In reality, playing a practice round of golf is no different than playing the same course in a high school championship match.  Giving a speech or performing in a play in an empty auditorium is essentially the same task as performing in front of a packed house.  It is the meaning that we attribute to the latter situations that makes them feel different to us and produce anxiety.

Anxiety consumes resources

Anxiety consumes mental resources.  Instead of having 100% of your focus (and thus mental resources) on execution of the task at hand, some percentage is allocated to what will happen if you don’t perform as you intend, including what your teammates or coach will think, how the crowd will react, etc.  Contrary to what some overzealous coaches may have told you about giving 110% or even 150%, the reality is that we only have 100% to offer to any situation.

Supply and Demand

So what determines whether your performance will suffer as a result of anxiety, and the extent of diminished performance?  It really comes down to simple math.  It depends on both the percentage of mental resources required to perform the task and the percentage of resources eaten up by anxiety.  So for example if the task requires 75% of your mental energy, and you are so anxious that 50% of your energy is consumed worrying, the demands exceed your resources and your performance will suffer.  On the other hand, if it is a fairly easy task (say a one-foot putt in golf) that only requires 25% of your focus and you have that same 50% load from anxiety, you will likely still be able to sink that putt.

How to beat performance anxiety

It follows, then that to overcome performance anxiety you need to do one of two things: either reduce the amount of anxiety you are experiencing to a manageable level, and/or reduce the cognitive load of the particular sports task you are trying to perform.  I will discuss techniques to address both of these factors in future posts coming soon!