You should feel on top of the world. Everyone is expecting great things from you. All that hard work and practice is going to pay off as you show them how good you are. Instead, you feel short of breath, sweaty and a bit tired. You try to refocus, but panic is bubbling up. And the more you try to get back on track the worse things go for you. Anxiety interferes with your thoughts interrupting your split-second timing even though you’ve been practising for months.
It’s not just you. Tennis star Emma Raducanu withdrew from Wimbledon earlier in the year. Despite having made it to the final sixteen she pulled out amidst reports of breathing difficulties. Was she affected by performance anxiety?
What is performance anxiety?
Performance anxiety is related to your ability to perform a specific task. In many ways, it is similar to Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) in that the worry about the activity starts well in advance and the expectations around failure are all negative. The individual perceives that they will be rejected or humiliated for their failure.
The symptoms are very similar to SAD and include sweating, trembling, an increased heart rate and rapid breathing. You’ll also find that your muscles tense up as if preparing for danger.
None of these symptoms is a great recipe for performance success. You’ve probably experienced something like it yourself. Perhaps when you took your driving test and your sweaty palms made it hard to grip the steering wheel? Or during a presentation or job interview? You wanted to show off your abilities but it was hard to concentrate on the task at hand with the distraction of physical symptoms.
The problem with performance anxiety is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. You doubt your ability to carry out the task the way you need to. So you begin to tense up and develop anxiety symptoms. But because of your symptoms, you can’t make the speedy decisions you need to perform well.
It’s similar to imposter syndrome. When you’re treated as if you are an expert the doubts come bubbling up and you begin to question your right be there.
So what’s the answer? Playing tennis, driving a car or finding the right words aren’t going to be any easier with the symptoms of anxiety. Let’s take inspiration from Emma who just a few short months after Wimbledon has gone on to win the US Open.
Escaping the emotionally debilitating spiral of anxiety isn’t about putting on a brave face. It’s about finding and maintaining a different mindset. After all, it’s not that you can’t do the thing. You’ve done it in practise loads. It’s when you start to fear failure and judgement that the anxiety begins.
Working with a coach is the way to learn the skills and techniques that will help you to overcome your issues in a supportive environment. They help you to find a way to refocus the negative thought patterns that tense you up and prepare you to fail.
Ways to relax
In the same way that you practice a skill ready to perform you need to increase your skill in feeling relaxed and confident. You can do this by working on goal setting and visualisation. Breathing exercises and guided relaxations are good techniques to ensure that your body is as familiar with the relaxed state as a tense one.
The show doesn’t have to go on
There’s a view of sports and entertainment professionals as stoic and having a ‘show must go on’ mentality. It turns up in the workplace too as we try to show our employers that we are committed to our jobs. It’s encouraging from a mental health point of view to see personalities such as Simone Biles opening up about their emotional wellbeing. However, it’s also an indication of how much pressure there is to perform well and it isn’t restricted to sports.
Has performance anxiety affected you? How did you overcome it? We’re always interested to read your comments on how you’re being good to yourself.