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Major Event Anxiety - Tips for Talented People

6/5/2013 8:00:00 AM
Written By:
Deidre Connelly, Ph.D., CC-AASP

As a sport psychology consultant, I often meet athletes or other talented performers who are disappointed and frustrated by a seeming inability to perform as well as they feel they can when it counts the most. Underperforming or "choking" in pressure situations can happen to the most highly-trained or talented performer. The underperforming tends to happen in situations that have emotional importance to the performer. While some people seem to thrive under pressure, others seem to implode or sabotage their performance. The cause is usually a combination of increased anxiety, internal distractions, and loss of emotional control.

Pressure is for lazy people!

Pressure is just part of competition, right? Not necessarily. Unless you really do perform better under pressure, and that pressure really does bring out the best in you, it is time to learn to prepare and perform without added pressure. Most competitive or high stakes situations (job interviews, recitals, class presentations, try-outs, auditions) have built in pressure because the outcome matters, the environment can be challenging, and the performer really wants to do well. So why add more tension by declaring that this needs to be your "best performance ever", or "everything hinges on this", or noting who will be in the audience judging you? These are natural thoughts to have, but smart competitors and performers know that they get in the way of quality performance. Pressure works best for lazy people who may not work hard enough in preparation without reminders of the importance of the event, or people who need extra incentive to live up to expectations. Most goal-oriented people simply don't respond well to added tension when it comes time to show their skills. Having to have an excellent outcome usually insures that it won't happen. Instead, sport psychologists encourage using the event as an opportunity to show what you've got by controlling your stress leading up to it.

Controlling Pre-Competitive Anxiety

Many people assume that pressure is part of competition, when actually pressure is our own response to the situation. While wanting so much to achieve a goal, some people experience "evaluation apprehension", a strong concern over how they will be evaluated or judged by others. Others fear the disappointment of possibly not measuring up to the task. This apprehension can actually impair performance. Instead of preparing to do well, the focus shifts to thoughts of what can go wrong, and rumination about the consequences of not doing well. Normal pre-event anxiety often becomes exaggerated and more distracting prior to a big event. It can cause you to doubt your training or preparation, your ability to put it all together when it counts, and your chances of doing well. The closer it gets, the more we naturally start to entertain doubts about how we will perform! But why trust your doubts when you are trying to stay motivated and achieve your goals? Its normal, but it needs to be brought under control in order to get the most out of the opportunity. Recognize when it is happening and turn the focus back to your training and preparation. The concept we use in sport psychology is: "control yourself in order to control performance." Consider the following reminders to help keep perspective:

REMEMBER: more is lost by not trying than by not succeeding. Failing to prepare mentally = not trying. Confront and reduce your signs of anxiety. Know your tendencies in competitive or evaluative situations, and actively work to acquire skills to control the stress. Even if you don't have your best performance, you will get closer to competing to your potential.

REMEMBER: you have worked a long time for the opportunity to compete (audition, interview, etc.). It is your chance to demonstrate your capabilities. It can be scary because it is important, but it's what you've trained for. It is a step, not a wall or hurdle.

REMEMBER: know what you know! Examine the effort you have put in to get to where you are now. Review all the positive aspects of your preparation and all the adversity you have worked through to get here. You have this chance because you are good - you've earned it.

REMEMBER: stay present-focused. Forget the past, and resist future (outcome) thinking. When it is time to go (perform), be in the moment. Athletes use the phrase "RIGHT HERE/RIGHT NOW" as a cue to stay centered and focused on the effort needed for the task at hand.

REMEMBER: this is a tennis match (exam, interview, speech, etc.) and you do this VERY, VERY WELL. That's why you're here. TRUST!

REMEMBER: own your performance. Effort and persistence are everything. Work hard to be the best you can be on this particular day so you can be satisfied with your level of effort regardless of outcome.

Be your own best coach

Make sure self -talk is rational, that is, neither overly negative (it is not helpful to pile it on when you are already anxious or down) nor overly positive ("you are the best", "you can do this, no problem", "I am the greatest") because that won't work either. Rather, acknowledge that performance under pressure is hard and you have a lot invested in doing this, but go back to "it is what it is" - no more, no less. If it is not motivating to consider how big the task is or what the consequences might be, don't keep focusing on those things. The athletic skill is the same at the championship as it is in practice, it is the outside meaning attached to it that gives it "the power to be scary." Use rational talk to tame the "scary."

Managing the rest - a few other strategies for when you are under pressure:

Breathing: Simple and it works! "In through the nose, out through the mouth";" lift ribcage out, sink ribcage in"; "shoulders down - breath low and slow"... however you want to cue it, do it. We suggest that our athletes practice intentional breathing every hour on the hour for just 30-60 seconds. The more often you use it, the more natural it will become and the more effective under pressure. Try it using the phrase, "Breathe energy in; breathe tension out."

Centering: Being in the moment! Along with the breathing suggested above, bring your awareness to the present. Use simple phrases that suggest gathering in and settling down despite the stuff going on around you. While breathing, try cues such as, "Stop, let it go." "Be still - be here", "It is what it is"… Let your shoulders drop and raise your head slightly while you breathe.

Regular relaxation: It may be hard to find time, but all competitors and performers should practice relaxation skills. Breathing, stretching, centering, and walking are all good ways to reduce anxiety and tension. The activity should be calming, distracting, or mildly strenuous. Incorporate relaxation training even if you don't have time. A little bit goes a long way in helping manage tension and staying present-focused.

To prevent jitters: Reduce caffeine to the absolute minimum needed for alertness - more caffeine mimics anxiety symptoms and/or jump starts panic. If this is difficult, switch to half-caffeine and be sure to reduce gradually. Check your nutrition and sleep habits. While it is not necessary to eat really well or sleep lots, you should try to adequately cover the basics. We cope (and perform) better when we are rested, well-nourished, and hydrated.

Cue words are essential: Find simple, effective cue words such as: "steady", "centered", "willing & able", "doing my best", "staying with this" and so on. Yes, there probably is a lot going on in your life, but put it outside the arena when it is time to perform. The cues should direct your efforts toward what you are trying to do, which is to stay task-focused vs. emotion-focused. Use your mantra to help you be on a mission to stay in control.

The general concept is to keep overall stress/anxiety as low as possible during the days leading up to competition or performance, giving you a better chance to respond well to event-specific stressors. During preparation for a big event, elite achievers look for anything that works - it might mean staying in and keeping a low profile, or spending time mentally reviewing performance, or other low key preparations for the event. Once the training and preparation are complete, resist obsessing about the upcoming event!

Finally, remember that each occasion that requires dealing with "major event anxiety" provides an opportunity to add to your experience bank. Regardless of the outcome, if you can resist adding additional pressure, and try strategies to keep perspective in important situations, you will improve your chances of being able to perform to potential over time.

Suggested reading: Sian Beilock's book, "Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to." (2010 - Free Press) is a great resource, containing the latest research and suggestions on the mental aspects of performing under pressure.

Another good resource: "Mind Gym. An Athlete's Guide to Inner Excellence" by Gary Mack (2001 - McGraw Hill).

Deidre Connelly is the Sport Psychology Consultant and Life Skills Coordinator for the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics at the College of William and Mary.  She is also a member of the College's Counseling Center staff.  She is a former high school and collegiate coach.  She holds a doctorate in Sport Psychology from the University of Virginia and is a Certified Consultant of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.

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