As an athlete, performance anxiety doesn’t only come from what others may or may not think of your performance, but your own expectations of yourself.
It’s therefore a mental game more than anything else: a you vs you scenario in which how well you perform is determined by your mindset.
Anxiety affects the best of us, it has to be said. But when it comes to coming first and beating PRs, there’s nothing worse than missing the mark due to nerves caused by overthinking.
Breaking the cycle, though, boils down to a combination of preparation and self-belief. This guide breaks it down in 6 must-know tips so that you can realize your full potential – starting today.
What Is Performance Anxiety?
To tackle performance anxiety, it’s worth running through what performance anxiety is like and why it happens. It can strike in different ways, as well as stem from different factors.
Defined, performance anxiety is the thought or feeling of failing or underperforming – whether that’s regarding your own desired outcome or the expectations of others.
It can manifest in various symptoms, such as ectopic heartbeats, a pounding heart or increased heart rate, trembling, and, in more extreme cases, panic attacks and bouts of depression.
The worst thing about performance anxiety is that it can feed itself – past experiences of performance anxiety before a race or event can lead to the expectation of experiencing it again, greatly hindering your mental and physical performance.
The good thing about performance anxiety, however, is that it’s overcomable.
How To Break The Cycle Of Performance Anxiety
Mentioned above, performance anxiety can feed itself – a vicious cycle that causes it to manifest again and again, even to the point that you may start to believe it to be a personal trait.
This couldn’t be far from the case, however.
Performance anxiety is beatable by developing the right mindset. As an athlete, training your mind is just as important as training your body, and through this it’s more than possible to break the vicious cycle over time.
1. Focus on Successes, Not Failures
We view our failures through a microscope and our successes through binoculars! Too often we fixate on what went wrong rather than what went right – a common form of self-sabotage that fuels performance anxiety.
This makes it important to analyze what went wrong in past attempts… then move on. In fact, knowing what went wrong and, as a result, taking the steps to improve can be enough to quash self-doubt and reduce performance anxiety overall.
Still, it’s also important to build yourself up through your successes: past PRs, fears that were overcome, and continuous improvement. Don’t just recall these; write a visual list to draw confidence from!
2. Project Confidence
Some say you have to fake it to make it. This essentially translates to projecting confidence, which can work to rewire the way you think almost instantly.
Before races and important events—and even in general—projecting confidence can positively impact your mood, which includes reducing the chance of performance anxiety creeping in at the starting line.
On the big day, you might do this by smiling, walking with a confident gait, or even providing words of encouragement to other participants!
3. Stop Caring What Other People Think
Most of us underperform—or even refuse to try altogether—by giving too much attention to what others think, be it high expectations or simply the unnerving feeling of being watched and judged.
The fact is, the judgment of strangers is not what we think – or even non-existent. We often believe they’re thinking the worst, when really they’re thinking something else or not paying attention at all.
There is liberation in not worrying about what other people think. Sure, not caring is easier said than done, but it’s a mental edge that can be developed through building self-esteem and self-worth.
4. Act More, Think Less
It’s apparent that when we are most physically inactive, we are most mentally active. A prime example of this is getting into bed at night, only to lie wide awake reeling off every past mistake or future possibility that could go wrong.
The key to preventing this is to keep yourself busy at times when anxiety comes knocking. Before a big race, this can include stretching or even having a casual conversation – anything that’s not sitting still and letting unwanted thoughts take over!
What physical activity does is provide purpose in the moment – a sense of being present that distracts you from overthinking the past or future. Yep, yogis and Buddhists preach about it, but it actually works.
5. Face (and Address) Your Fears
Skydiving for the fifteenth time is going to be less scary than the first time. We become more comfortable with our fears the more we face them, which makes getting used to “diving in at the deep end” more beneficial than most people think.
Your fear might be large spectator crowds or maybe even a physical weakness that could trip you up on race day. The key is to address these fears by tackling them head on so that, with time, they lose their fear factor.
It might require doing more public events or taking on specific training to improve a weak area. Either way, it’s not only important to address fears but to face them repeatedly to put an end to performance anxiety altogether.
6. Realize That Self-Doubt is Imaginary
Last but not least, self-doubt – arguably the main contributor to performance anxiety. The problem with self-doubt is that it encourages ideas and scenarios that might happen, causing us to expect the worst before it’s come to fruition.
This makes it vital to realize that self-doubt is merely the imagination at work. And due to that, self-doubt is ultimately pointless.
What makes better sense is to focus on things that have happened, which includes past successes and everything you have achieved so far – which takes us right back to the first point.
Performance anxiety is overcomeable for athletes – that’s the main takeaway. It’s not a permanent trait, but a vicious cycle that can feed itself and return if not properly addressed. This means training your mindset just as much as your body!
Whether you’re running, cycling, or swimming—perhaps all three if you’re doing a triathlon—breaking the cycle of performance anxiety boils down to building confidence and self-belief. Use the above tips to do that as well as maximize your performance when it matters most.