When I think of performance anxiety, I remember watching golfing sensation Rory McIlroy in his first appearance at the Masters Tournament in 2009 — and then seeing his fourth-round game disintegrate, taking him down from a four-stroke lead to a tied-for-15th finish.
In a post-tournament interview, McIlroy remarked on the weakness of his mental game and the difficulty he had experienced handling the pressure at the storied tournament in Augusta.
We’ve all seen it, and many of us have also experienced it: a situation where the perceived PRESSURE feels much greater than the ability to manage it. Y’know — heart pounding, shallow breathing, sweaty palms, and uncontrollable tightening of the muscles. Without even knowing what’s happening, your game spirals out of focus and off the mark. That’s called performance anxiety.
Find comfort knowing you’re in good company. Many professional — even Olympic — athletes struggle with the same thing. In fact, research suggests that performance anxiety is the #1 reason athletes seek the services of sport psychology professionals. In my own Naples practice, I see that research validated every day.
Here’s the good news: you can use several strategies to help overcome performance jitters, though peak performance does require some amount of anxiety to stay sharp. The simple “P-R-E-S-S-U-R-E” mnemonic device can help prevent anxiety from reaching detrimental levels and inhibiting performance.
- Prepare. Get a good night’s sleep and eat a nutritious meal prior to competition. Pack your bag and make your checklist. Know where your competition is and how you’ll get there on time. Hydrate.
- Routines — develop ‘em! Pre-competition routines, pre-shot routines, between-point routines. Routines help athletes stay focused, because they’re not worrying about the “what-ifs” (which leads to anxiety). Bonus: Routines discourage focusing on the past, so your mind stays in the present!
- Establish a growth mindset. Fear of failure often results in performance anxiety. Shift your mindset to view failure as a learning opportunity.
- Stay present, stay focused. Avoid the trap of focusing on the win or winning the point. Focusing on the outcome takes you out of the game and lets anxiety creep in.
- Stay Positive!
- Use visualization: Days — even weeks — ahead of competition, begin visualizing performing flawlessly. Use as many of your five senses as possible in your visualization. In your imagination, recall the euphoric feeling that accompanies peak performance. The more vivid the image, the better — it can only build confidence!
- Relaxation, breathing, and focused-breathing. Become masters of them. Practice these daily to maximize your ability to use them in competition.
- Evaluate the importance of the competition in the broader scheme of life to take the pressure off. Remind yourself that no one is going to die today due to the outcome of this competition.
Remember, practice makes perfect, and most of these tips require a daily commitment before stepping foot on the court or start line as well as during competition, depending on your sport of choice. For instance, a tennis player might develop a pre-serve and between-point routine to maintain focus and reduce anxiety. A cyclist might write an affirmation on a shoe, towel, or hand as a reminder to stay positive. Some sports, such as track, with a lot of time between events, can wreak havoc on an anxious athlete, so visualization and focused-breathing routines might be the key to staying focused yet relaxed between events.
Begin practicing your PRESSURE strategies now and you will overcome performance anxiety—just ask Rory McIlroy!