Performance Anxiety

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The year is 1994. The location is The Rose Bowl, California. The occasion is the shoot-out of the FIFA World Cup Final between Italy and Brazil, and Roberto Baggio is stood in position, waiting to take the most important penalty kick of his life.

All the pressure now on Roberto Baggio, who has to score…the man who really has brought Italy to the final, now has to save them.

– Barry Davies (TV commentator)

Seconds later, it was all over. Baggio had shot over the cross bar to hand victory to the Brazilians. Despite enjoying an outstanding World Cup campaign, scoring five goals, and arguably being Italy’s greatest player of all time, he was unable to hit the target, let alone score, when it mattered most. With the world watching this singular and defining moment, and the expectations of his country and himself placed upon him, he suffered, from what psychologists term, performance anxiety

And he’s not alone. The history of sport is littered with examples of great players, and teams, who have suffered unexpected defeat when being on the verge of victory….Jean van de Velde (The Open, 1999), Newcastle United (Premier League, 1995/96), Lewis Hamilton (F1 World Championship, 2007), South Africa (Cricket World Cup, 1999), Jana Novotna (Wimbledon Final, 1993), Atlanta Falcons (Super Bowl LI, 2017) are a few casualties amongst countless others.

Of course, performance anxiety doesn’t just affect great athletes competing in global sporting events. It can affect us all, at any time, at any level, and at any sport. In fact, it goes beyond sport, transcending all performance situations, such as music, theatre, education, politics, business, public speaking and so on.

What is performance anxiety?

Performance anxiety, which is often described within sporting contexts as choking, is when an individual or team experiences a significant decrease in performance resulting from too much internal worry.

Control Model of Competitive State Anxiety (Jones, 1995)
Control Model of Competitive State Anxiety (Jones, 1995)

State and trait anxiety

Psychologists class performance anxiety as state anxiety, as opposed to trait anxiety. Trait anxiety is when we have anxiety over a long period of time, and is a characteristic of our personality. State anxiety, on the other hand, is our response to a specific situation, and is a temporary feeling.

Pre-game nerves or performance anxiety?

It’s important to recognise the difference between performance anxiety and experiencing pre-competition nerves. All of us experience some nerves, to varying degrees, before a game. This sense of excitement, readiness and anticipation is helpful for performance because it improves our focus, and normally disappears soon after we start performing or competing.

However, if we’re tense, tight, and have a fear of failure, and these feelings persist during play, these factors indicate that we’re suffering from performance anxiety. This will hinder our focus, which consequently will harm our performance. 

Cause and effect

Performance anxiety always starts in our mind, with thoughts centred around a fear of failure. Common fears include…

    • Fear of embarrassment
    • Fear of letting others down
    • Fear of working hard but still failing 
    • Fear of not getting approval from someone

Unless we don’t care about what we’re doing, all of us have some concern of failure. Yet if we allow this concern to become excessive, we lose trust in our skills, and focus too much attention on not making mistakes.

These thought processes subsequently produce negative somatic (physical) responses such as trembling, distorted vision, muscle tightness, rapid heart rate, excessive sweating, and so on.

As a result, we exchange instinct and fluidity for stiffness and indecision, trying to over-control our movements which then become mechanical rather than natural. Should we remain in this state, our chances of producing optimum performance are slim to say the least.

Ten tips for controlling performance anxiety

#1 Identify the source

The first step is to uncover and understand what our real source of fear is.

With performance anxiety, it’s never about missing the shot, dropping the catch, or losing the race. Rather, it’s about the consequences and outcomes that are associated with missing the shot, dropping the catch, or losing the race.

What if I embarrass myself?

What if I let the others down?

What if I don’t impress them?

What if my hard work isn’t rewarded?

#2 Look through a different lens

Once we know what our real fear is, we can then reframe it.

For an illustration of how our perspectives can change, take a look at the sentence below, which has had the spaces between the words removed…


Depending on our perspective, some of us will interpret this differently – scroll down to the bottom of the article to see how this sentence can be reframed. 

Reframing can also be applied to when we compete. For example, if we’re about to play in an important match, it’s easy for us to think something like…

Today is the most important game of my life!” 

Yet this perspective has the potential for increasing our anxiety because we’re building up the event in our mind. Therefore, to counter this, we can reframe this thought to… 

Today is just another game, and I’m really looking forward to it!

By taking this view, we’re increasing our chances of maintaining emotional control, whilst also enjoying the occasion. 

#3 Prepare like a champion

It may be a cliche, but when it comes to sporting performance, the old adage, “failing to prepare is preparing to fail”, is both relevant and true. When we enter a sporting arena, it helps us to subdue any performance anxiety by knowing that we’ve done everything we can to give us the best chance of success.

Being well prepared can be split into pre-game day, where we focus on things like technical competence, fitness capabilities, lifestyle habits, etc., and game-day, which is all about getting ourselves into an optimum performance state. For example, some prefer to arrive early so that they can have some quiet time, whereas others don’t like hanging around as it encourages them to overanalyse things. Neither way is better than the other, but what is important is that we find a pre-game routine that works for us.

#4 Focus on breathing

Using the correct breathing technique increases the level of oxygen in our blood, which facilitates muscle relaxation, in addition to reducing the feeling of ‘butterflies’.

When we become anxious, there is a tendency for us to breathe shallowly from the chest, but it’s much more efficacious to belly breathe, by taking the breath further down into our abdomen.

An effective breathing exercise to promote belly breathing is to place one hand on our abdomen, and feel it rise and fall with each breath, by inhaling deeply through the nose, followed by a long, full exhalation.

#5 Mentally rehearse 

Mental rehearsal, sometimes referred to as visualisation, is continually running through an activity in our mind so that when we try it for real, it comes more naturally.

Through practising in our mind first, the reality will be less stressful because we have already faced our fear.

It’s essential to bear in mind two points when mentally rehearsing…

  1. Focus on things that can be controlled
  2. Only visualise the successful execution of skills

#6 Embrace nervous energy

It’s normal to experience nerves at the start of a game because it means we care. Be mindful, however, not to misinterpret these nerves as fear – these are natural feelings, which form part of your body’s organic preparation for competition.

It’s not fear. It’s adrenalin. That’s your body pumping blood round to get you ready for a great performance!

– Dr. Dave Alred MBE

So harness this powerful source of energy by getting those butterflies to fly in formation!

#7 Flip negative self-talk into a positive inner voice

Every action that we make is preceded by a thought, whether we’re aware of it or not, and this thought will affect the action either negatively or positively.

Therefore, if you catch yourself partaking in negative self-talk, make a conscious effort to reframe this with a more positive slant. Here are a few examples…

Negative: “What if I embarrass myself?”

Positive slant: “Everyone makes mistakes, but I can be proud of myself when I bounce back from my mistakes.”

Negative: “What if I let the others down?”

Positive slant: “I won’t let anyone down by giving my best effort.”

Negative: “What if I don’t impress them?”

Positive slant: “I will gain respect by always trying to get better…my time will come.”

Negative: “What if my hard effort isn’t rewarded?”

Positive slant: “Failing today is only a temporary setback. If I keep going, success will come.”

#8 Stay in the moment 

When we keep our focus in the present moment, our chances of producing a better result is significantly increased. Dwelling on what’s already happened, or worrying about what may or may not happen, uses valuable mental energy on things we cannot influence.

The past is history, the future is a mystery, but right now is a gift, and that’s why we call it the present.

Concentrating on what we can control, rather than what we can’t, is a key strategy for controlling performance anxiety.

#9 Smile 🙂

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well that’s because it is. 

When we’re struggling with negative thoughts, smiling for a few seconds, even if forced, can shift our attitude from negative to positive in a split second…after all, it’s very difficult to smile and feel negative at the same time!

#10 Forget about the result

Most people connected with sport, such as players, coaches, spectators etc., are fixated on the outcome, so it seems counterintuitive for us to forget about the result.

Yet if we find ourselves worrying about results, it becomes virtually impossible for us to perform at our peak, which then increases the likelihood of us not getting the result we desire.

In these circumstances it’s imperative to focus on the process i.e. the tasks that we need to complete in order to get the job done. 

Do all the right things, and the score will take care of itself.

– Bill Walsh

And we should always remember the reason for why we started playing sport in the first place, and the reason why we should continue to play…because it’s fun.

So treat it as just another day, and play like you don’t care about the result. Enjoy the occasion for what it is…another game to be enjoyed, come win, lose or draw. 

But onto the most important part of this piece. Did you read the sentence as…




Please do let me know!

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