Whether it’s an important work presentation, an exam or a sports event, do you perform well in practice but become unbearably tense on the day of the big event?
If you experience feelings of anxiety and nervousness showing up at the most inconvenient moment, it could be helpful to learn what’s taking over inside and some strategies to perform at your peak, as you do in practice.
Why does it happen
The co-ordination and movement required of your body to perform becomes very difficult when you are in a ‘tense state’. It can feel like a real battle, leaving you frustrated and confused. Tension happens as a result of the pressure and expectations you and possibly others around you place on your ‘big day’.
The whole body is sent into ‘high alert’ as your nervous system sends a signal to look out for potential threat. These are not real external threats, but threats to our deeper, hidden beliefs about identity and success.
The mind doesn’t know the difference between real and self-made threats and therefore releases cortisol (stress hormone) into your body preparing it for survival, and you keep this state running through the negative narrative and images you create in your mind.
Sometimes we need some of this cortisol because your body is preparing for competition. However, other times it can become unhealthy, unstainable and destructive, not only your performance, but also your health and wellbeing.
When pressure and expectation takes over, it’s time to look inside.
How does it show up for you?
All performance anxiety has one thing in common: a fear of not being good enough, and this can show up in many different ways.
Whilst it may feel challenging to be open to exploring what’s lurking under the surface of performance anxiety, it is also liberating, powerful and transformational if you choose to start by having the courage to see what is hiding in there.
Perhaps you worry about being judged on social media about your performance, or you become highly self-critical following an event.
These feelings are driven by a fear of inadequacy.
Perhaps you are focusing on being perfect in everything you do, which presents itself as an obsession to practice and practice until it’s 100% right.
These feelings are driven by a fear of failure.
Fear is running in all of us at all the time, it’s the perception and grandeur of a specific event that can really turn that volume up on fear. It can be hard to know it’s there as it presents itself in different ways in different people and environments.
All fear is counterproductive to the state you really want to create when you are in performance mode, zapping all the enjoyment and excitement out of your experience. If I asked you to recall a time when you performed at your best, I doubt you’d tell me about the time you felt tense, stressed and nervous, You’d share with me the time you were having fun and relaxed. A time when everything just felt effortless and flowed – a win from within that led to a public victory.
What can you do about it?
Let go of the fear
Athletes accept that whilst internal fear feels very real, it’s also mostly self-made and has the potential to sabotage their performance. They treat fear management like any other part of their training programme.
It’s as important as fitness, nutrition and technical skills training. It’s the mental fitness to be in ‘the’ right state not ‘a’ right state before, during and after the competition.
If you ignore the unhelpful story that is running your show and therefore the feeling it is creating inside you, it will get louder and it will keep coming back, triggering the release of too much cortisol which will drain your adrenal grands, leaving you fatigued and burnt out.
Accept that fear is real for all of us and bring it out into the light.
Get familiar with how fear looks, sounds and feels
Now it’s time to get to know when and how fear shows up for you. Remember, it is just an energy that needs space to pass through us, yet we often try to supress it. We just need to know when fear has arrived and how it shows up for us personally so we can see it and allow it space to pass through. Next time you feel it ask yourself these questions:
Where do you feel it in your body?
Does it move?
If it has a colour what colour would it be?
Does it have a temperature?
What texture is it?
Is there an image you associate with fear?
Create it as an entity like this enables us to separate it from us and the hidden depth of the mind, allowing you to be more objective about what triggers your internal fears and how it impacts your performance. You can begin to look at this fear and notice how your behaviour, mood and energy changes when it shows up.
Who do you become when fear is hanging out with you?
The more you practice fear management, the less power fear has to take hold of you, especially when you want to be at your best. You create the mental space to choose your response to fear.
Fear can’t survive when it is brought out into the light – It becomes powerless.
Pause the time travel - Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
Performance anxiety can only breed when your thoughts travel into the future or the past. The present moment and anxiety cannot co-exist, so practicing breathing techniques, letting go of negative thoughts and focusing on being in the moment is key for enhanced performance. Even a few minutes per day or an extended period of time of practiced relaxation breathing can make a big difference.
Prepare for everything, not anything
Visualisation is a great mind hack. Find a space, take a few deep breathes, allow your eyes to close and see the context in which you want to perform at your best. Visualise yourself doing that behaviour, in the place, with the people around you and the sounds you would hear.
Doing this over time tricks the mind into thinking it has already performed and achieved the goal. Your mind doesn’t know the difference between what’s a memory and what you have actually created, allowing you to focus your attention on what you really want.
Change the story
We create mental freedom by creating new stories about our ability to perform. Through new narrative and images we take up all the space, so there is no room for fear.
So use your wonderful gift of imagination to create what you want to see and hear instead of fear. Notice the language you use to talk to yourself. Notice I said ‘big day’ at the beginning of this article. It makes everything feel bigger and more important, overwhelming almost.
Play around with language until you find the words that you can say without being triggered into a fear response, maybe ‘match day’ or ‘Sunday practice’. It does matter what words you use as long as they allow you to treat it like another day not the most important day. No matter what happens you are still good enough. Failing does not make you a failure and losing does not make you a loser. There is no failure, only feedback. You take the learnings and move forward.
Work out what works for you and then rehearse, rehearse, rehearse until you are executing your fear management routine without even having to think about it.
To experience and enjoy the buzz of the public victory we must first learn how to win from within. We must open our hearts and minds to mastering the private victories, the stuff that no-one sees, yet you intensely feel. This is where the real winning happens.
Kay Woodburn is an award-winning, high-challenge neuro-linguistic programming mindset coach. She works with competitive athletes, leaders and entrepreneurs to master their mindset. This unique method is the practice of coding how people organise their thinking, feelings, language and behaviour to produce the results they really want. It’s a powerful change methodology to model the behaviour you want to achieve the results you want. For more info visit grittypeople.co.uk
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