Its the week of the big game, exam or even a job interview, you start to feel ‘butterflies’ in your stomach, you start to think “I’m Nervous” or “Something’s not right” you ‘freak out’ and you eventually under-perform or freeze under the spotlight. Well the good news is… everyone, whether athletic or not will have experienced anxiety, or the feeling of ‘nerves’ at one time or another. That feeling of general uneasiness, a sense of apprehension and feelings of tension is something that happens in many aspects of our day-to-day lives, not just during sporting performance. We are performing everyday!

Anxiety appears in two distinct forms:

  1. A nervousness that occurs as a temporary experience in certain specific situations known as ‘state anxiety’
  2.  A nervousness that reflects a long standing part of our personality, or a personality characteristic known as ‘trait anxiety’ where there is a tendency to view situations as threatening, thus resulting in ‘state anxiety’.

Much of the scientific previous research on anxiety in sport has been based on Martens et al. (1990) multidimensional approach to anxiety. Suggesting that anxiety consists of two components:

  1. A cognitive component (Our Thoughts) associated with worry; and
  2. A somatic component (Physical Responses to a situation) associated with nervousness or tension.

Anxiety is an emotional experience  and a component of  biological (physical e.g. sweating), psychological (our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors), and social factors (socio-economical, socio-environmental, and cultural), and all play a significant role in human functioning.  Cognitive anxiety, somatic anxiety and biological responses affect behaviours.  For example, biting your fingernails prior to performing is a behavioural response to anxiety.

The cognitive element (thoughts, fears, beliefs, emotions) can fluctuate during our performance, and these thoughts can be directly related to the mistakes made during performance.

If I’m anxious is that bad for my performance?

The issue of whether anxiety is facilitative (helpful) or debilitative (hinderance) to performance has generated debate among researchers (See research by Jones & Swain, 1992, 95) and applied practitioners, where it is believed that some athletes may interpret their anxiety symptoms as helpful to performance whilst others may interpret them as a hindrance.

The perceived control individuals believe they have over themselves and their environment is key to positive outcomes.

  • Those athletes who evaluate that they have sufficient resources to meet the task demands will evaluate positively or see the situation as a challenge, this can be facilitative and lead to higher levels of performance.
  • Those who feel they can use feelings of anxiety to perform will problem solve more efficiently  (facilitators), whereas those who perceived feelings of anxiety as negative (debilitators) are limited in their ability to cope with anxious thoughts and feelings.

Joe Montana (former Quarterback with San Francisco 49ers)  is commonly referred to as a ‘Clutch’ athlete, meaning he performed in moments when others might experience high anxiety and ‘choke’. Montana, who had 31 career fourth-quarter comeback wins was cool, calm and collected and had a right arm that remained true to the task in pressure situations. ‘Choking’ on the other hand occurs when the individual perceives the situation as a threat. As a result they overthink; they feel that the demands may be too great for their resources; and they think about what might go wrong, which will likely result in a poor performance.

Joe Montana (San Francisco 49ers) remains calm under pressure from on-rushing defensive linemen


So how do I begin to deal with performance anxiety?

The analysis of any difficult situation should focus not so much on the situation we are facing per-se but on how we each experience particular situation. An athletes ability to cope are centered around performance related experiences. We as humans will look upon the nature of past, ongoing or potential relationships with our environment. This may lead to performance related anxiety and a disrupted person-environment relationship, where task demands (e.g. penalty kick, interview questions) are perceived as either too taxing, exceeding the persons resources or reflections of negative past performance. Therefore, our ability to cope involves constantly changing cognitive and behavioral efforts to be aware of and manage our thoughts, beliefs or feelings about tasks that may be challenging physically and/or mentally.

We cannot always change the situations we face. However, it is possible to alter our individual perceptions of the situation at hand. We can begin by understanding which level of arousal works for each individual by being attentive to our thoughts, understanding our bodies reactions to pressure situations and developing strategies and self-regulatory processes to foster peak performances. Post performance reflection is one method of understanding our beliefs and challenging our thinking towards improving performances (e.g. Gibbs, 1998, reflective cycle, as seen below)

Gibbs (1998), Reflective Cycle


Rituals are key!!

There are many methods of improving our thoughts, beliefs and feelings about any given situation. It is firstly important to understand all elements of your performance and your lifestyle before you go charging into methods of changing your behaviours. However, having consistent rituals that give you control over your preparation to perform will enhance confidence (see 4 steps below). You may already be doing the right things and it can be a physical, tactical or technical, mental or lifestyle element you need to work on to improve confidence or a combination of the same.

 4 Steps to improving performance confidence

One simple practical method towards increasing confidence to perform under pressure is to use a combination of reflection and positive psychology.  This involves reflecting on situations where anxiety or nervousness were present, to understand the internal chatter and how it contributed to how you performed or behaved? The next phase is to  move towards working on self confidence through understanding what success looks like to you, what common components led to your best performances and then apply a focus on those in the lead up to the game, interview, presentation etc.

1. What do you want to get out of the game/situation? What does success look like to you?

2. Reflect on past positive performances/events. Some questions to reflect on…

  • Where was it?
  • Who were you facing ? i.e Opposition/What exam subject/Interview panel
  • What went well?
  • How were you mentally and emotionally? (Confident, focused, relaxed…?)
  • How did you prepare?  (visualized performance, rehearsed the game plan, slept well)
  • What is your action plan for the next performance?

3. Work on your confidence by knowing knowing your strengths

  • What were your 2-3 strongest performances to date?
  • What three or four common things made those your best performances?
    • e.g. Sport –  communicated well, 3 dispossession’s, complete role clarity
    • e.g. Exam, appropriate sleep hours, ability to bullet point 3 main topics, held group discussions on subject matter
  • Focus on those strengths in the 5-7 days leading up to the event
    • Important to work on your strengths leading up to the performance as it will improve confidence to meet the demands of the task(s).

4. Practice positive Self-Talk

  • Be aware of any internal dialogue or ‘mental chatter’ leading up to performances
  • Eliminate negative internal chatter
  • Make Positive statements about the desired goal/outcome
    • e.g. Penalty taking “I am putting the ball in the bottom left corner”, “I have done this before,  I can  do it again”

The overall aim of having rituals as part of your weekly performance planning is to increase performance confidence. To increase sustainability of performance confidence you must firstly inject any ritual into your routine towards making it consistent, thus ingraining confidence and positivity into your performance DNA.