Battling Performance Anxiety

Whether it’s about performing, relationships, academics, or for countless other reasons, many of us experience anxiety in some form or another from time to time. Feeling anxiety could be helpful in certain situations. For example, feeling anxious about a test may lead you to study. Feeling nervous about a big game might make you train and prepare more. After all, the key to confidence is preparation. Other times, anxiety could be crippling, with several mental and physical ramifications. Let’s talk about what’s happening when someone experiences anxiety, how it hinders performance, and what we can do about it.

As outlined in My Mental Playbook, whether it’s academics, athletics, social situations, personal issues, etc., anxiety is likely to occur under these circumstances:

1) When the outcome is perceived to be important. (Ex: Big games, conversations with certain people, job interviews)

2) When the situation is new. (Ex: Taking on a new role, playing an away game)

3) When there is unpredictability. (Ex: You don’t know what’s going to happen. Remember, the key to confidence is preparation. So if you can’t prepare, you won’t be confident.)

4) When you feel like you have no control over the outcome. (Ex: When you’ve done all you can do, and now you’re waiting for the result. Something is out of your hands.)

5) When you are dealing with other life stressors at the same time. (Ex: Studying for a test becomes more stressful when you’re also having issues with your significant other.)

Common physical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Elevated heart rate and blood pressure

  • Difficulty maintaining focus

  • Increased muscle tension and reduced flexibility

  • Inability to stay in the present moment

Does this seem like someone ready to perform at a high level?

As a Performance Coach, I work with athletes on battling performance anxiety using breathing and mindfulness techniques. The book illustrates different types of breathing you can practice to help calm your nervous system down, control your heart rate and blood pressure, and to bring your awareness to the present moment. We also discuss compartmentalizing — the ability to focus and put all of your attention on one thing at a time, and not letting other areas of your life bleed into performance. So if you’re at practice, your full attention is at practice. If you’re in the classroom, all of your effort is on your academics, etc.

How to Properly Set Goals

When we set goals, we want them to be challenging but attainable. We want to be motivated to accomplish them, without being consumed by them. It should be important and difficult, but possible. Each goal should have big picture implications that move us towards the athlete, coach, or person we want to be.

There are two types of goals: Process Goals, and Outcome Goals. Several process goals need to be met in order to achieve an outcome goal. For example, a team’s outcome goal might be winning a state championship. The process goals they have to get there might be: 1) Having a winning record; 2) Winning the conference; 3) Winning a playoff game.

Goals that we set, whether they’re process or outcome oriented, should follow the acronym S.M.A.R.T.

Specific - The goal should be rigidly defined. Instead of “I want to improve,” what specifically are you working on? A specific process-oriented goal could be “I want to improve my speed.”

Measurable - A goal must be able to be measured so you know how you’re doing. Always consider how you’re going to track your progress. If the specific goal was "I want to improve my speed,” then maybe the measure of that would be to shave seconds off your 40-yard dash time. The 40 yard dash becomes the measurement tool for the specific goal.

Attainable - We want to make a goal that is within our control to achieve. An example of a goal that’s not entirely in our power is, “I want to be the fastest person on the team.” We can’t control what others do. The goal you set should also be challenging enough that you have to work hard and push yourself to accomplish it, but not so challenging that you feel that you can’t obtain it, and will therefore have lapses in motivation.

Relevant - Your process goal should be related to an outcome goal. A goal you have in your life might be to drive slower or to read more, but in this context we’re looking for a sport-specific process goal that is working towards achieving an overall outcome goal, whether that’s a championship, winning a game, getting a starting position, earning playing time, etc. For example, improving your speed will make you a better athlete, so it’s a relevant goal to your athletics.

Time-Oriented - Your goal must have a specific time that you must accomplish it by. If you want to improve your speed, how much time (Specific) do you want to cut off your 40 yard dash (Measured), and by when? If you don’t have a time in which you have to accomplish something by, there’s no motivation to get going.

Original goal: I want to be a better athlete.

SMART goal: I want to improve my speed. I’ll measure my progress using my 40 yard dash time. I’m going to lift weights, run, and practice until I shave 0.2 seconds off the time. If I get faster, then I’ll be able to compete at a higher level and make the starting lineup. I want to accomplish this goal in the next 8 weeks.