I can’t take credit for this saying, but I really like it. It captures the idea that performance anxiety doesn’t have to be a bad thing if you learn to manage it. You can even use it to your advantage! The butterflies or nerves will be there for big events. It’s not about getting rid of them. It’s a combination of accepting their presence (knowing they’re normal and even have some benefits) and consciously shifting your focus to your purpose and to the action that fulfills this purpose. In this blog we’ll discuss the power of identifying your purpose and other practical tools for overcoming performance anxiety!
The ‘Noise cancelling headphones’ of PURPOSE
The single biggest antidote to performance anxiety is to clearly identify your why. Changing your mindset to focus on your purpose is essential for shifting your focus off of what can go wrong and onto the opportunity that this performance presents. The key is reframing your “performance” as an opportunity to play, inspire, advocate, express a part of yourself that is longing to be expressed, or let go and let the hours and hours of preparation you’ve spent flow out of you. Ironically, this involves not viewing it as a performance!
Focusing on your internal motivation for what you’re doing (your why) as opposed to the external motivators – praise, accolades etc. – reduces performance anxiety dramatically because it refocuses your energy onto what your excited about, the reason you’re doing this thing in the first place! More accurately, it decreases the amount of focus you’re putting on your performance anxiety – think turning down the volume on the distracting/negative noise – allowing you to have more energy to focus on the execution of action.
The fears usually creep in around the external factors – “who’s watching, what if I screw up, they think I’m a fraud, that guy is better than me, how did I get myself into this?!” The word perform means to “carry into effect, fulfill, or discharge.” Do you hear the action in this words? Fulfill implies meaning and purpose, discharge is a release of energy through action, ‘carry into effect’ speaks to taking something from concept into action. The word perform seems to imply that the purpose of the activity is for the audience (entertainment) when actually the opposite is true if you want to enjoy and find meaning in the activity. The audience serves an important role of being an observer and a part of the experience, but it need not be the focus.
Identifying and then focusing on your purpose shifts your experience from being about the audience (external) and onto what you’re excited to offer or express (internal). This purpose does not have to be grand – eg. healing the world. Expressing an assertive and powerful part of yourself that you’ve been training to let out, creating something beautiful and bigger than yourself with your team, letting your body engage in the deeply satisfying action of the perfect swing, or inspiring a group of people about something you’re deeply passionate about. These are all potential purposes.
Practice, practice, practice! (Physical and mental)
If purpose is the ‘noise cancelling headphones’ that allows you to shift your focus away from your performance anxiety, practice (both physical and mental training) is the rehearsal that allows you be in the moment, fully engaged in action without having to think. Sound nice? Of course it does! This is where all the work and preparation come int. When you see an Olympic gymnast complete a near perfect floor routine, you marvel at their physical ability – as well you should! But you can also marvel at their mental preparation for that moment. It would not serve a gymnast to have to think about how many times they have to flip in the middle of their tumbling pass. They rely on the muscle memory created and reinforced by countless hours of physical training and mental practice. They can just let their bodies do what they practiced to do.
The prefrontal cortex, which kicks into gear when you’re nervous about an upcoming event, is quieter when you’re practicing a well-rehearsed activity. The circuits in your brain that are involved in movement (motor cortex, cerebellum) are allowed to operate freely when the prefrontal cortex is not getting the way. This comes with practicing and preparing to a point where the movement becomes so patterned that you don’t have to ‘think’ about it. A pianist who has practiced and practiced for a recital may be nervous beforehand, but as they start playing their muscle memory takes over and they can play without having to think about what they are doing. Preparation, practice, and rehearsing – both physically (practicing free throws over and over) and mentally.
Visualization, or mental practice, is a well-known tool for improving performance…or at least the word is well known. In my experience, most people don’t really know how it works. There are several important things to keep in mind.
- Bring in as many senses as possible into your visualization – sight, sound, touch (eg. temperature), taste, smell. The more vivid the scene you create, the more your brain will interpret it as a ‘memory’ you’re creating and the more power it will have.
- Don’t just practice things going well. It’s great to picture the ball going through the net, but it’s also helpful to picture how you’ll respond when you double fault. A good guideline is to picture the ideal scenario 70% of the time and practice visualizing responding to a challenge 30% of the time.
Similar to changing a habit, visualizing what you want to happen is like forging a new path in mind. Our brains are full of the ‘well-worn paths’ of our thought and behavior patterns. Forging a new path takes sustained effort and visualizing is one tool (like a mental machete) to help bushwack this new path. The more consistently your practice it and the more vivid your visualization (which comes with practice), the more well-worn this new path will become!
Tools to Stay in the Action (and out of your head)
Ok – so you have identified your purpose and you’ve practiced for the big moment. What if you still get derailed during your performance? Good question and likely to happen at some point. It’s helpful to have a tools in your back pocket to get you back on track. There are several variations of tools that I use with clients to help bring their focus back onto the action that they are doing (and away from any worries, fears). Identifying (beforehand) a physical anchor, verbal reminder (mantra) or visual cue can be very helpful. Here’s an example.
You know that when you get nervous you stop moving your feet. This is a common one for athletes. To counteract this, you move your feet back and forth as you prepare to return your opponent’s serve. Despite this practice, in big moments you sometimes get flat footed and forget to move. You need a visual cue that doesn’t rely on your remembering – because when your nervous, you’re not thinking straight! You put a bright green shock absorber on your racket that you look at before each return. You’ve practice thinking ‘Green means go!’ every time you look at that shock absorber so that in the big points, when your nervous and apt to be flat footed, you have a built in reminder to move! There are many other examples of verbal and physical anchors you can use in similar ways. The key with all of these is to choose things that work for you and try them out beforehand to make sure they are effective.
Mindfulness is a practice that involves noticing your thoughts, sensations, or emotions without getting too caught up with them. Sounds so simple! This is an ongoing practice not a destination. There are many ways to practice this in order to retrain your brain into doing this more easily. Mindfulness is a powerful ally to combat performance anxiety. As I mentioned earlier in the blog – it’s not as effective to try to make negative thoughts go away. It’s more effective to use a mindfulness approach – notice the negative thoughts (noise), acknowledge them compassionately (key part of mindfulness), and gently bring your attention back to the action at hand.
- Identify your purpose and focus on that to ‘turn down the noise’ of your performance anxiety
- Practice, practice, practice – including mental practice (visualization)
- Identify visual, verbal or physical reminders to help get you back on track during your performance
The 3rd and final blog in this three part series will tell the stories of several top performers (athletes, musicians, business professionals) and how they overcame their performance anxiety to realize their dreams!
Please feel free to let me know if you have questions or comments!
Andrew Bednarzik, Owner of Riverbank Counseling in Asheville, NC