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Understanding Performance Anxiety- And the Top 11 Strategies to Manage It

I think all performers know the feeling of performance anxiety. Perhaps it is during a big game or race, or when you have to speak in front of a room, or have an important test to do well on. It would be characterized as an intense feeling of fear or worry about accomplishing something specific, or the consequences that could happen if we are not able to do that. I remember in college feeling lots of anxiety before big soccer games, although I didn’t put the term “anxiety” to it yet. I remember my whole body would be tight, my thoughts would be negative and it would be hard to focus. All I could think about was hoping I didn’t screw up or what it would look like if I did. This anxiety had a tremendous impact on how I played.

People have performance anxiety for lots of reasons but underneath most anxiety is a fear of not doing well. Many people with performance anxiety have had an intense past experience with failure, which intensifies the perceived risk of it happening again. They could fear judgment from others or are afraid of disappointing them. They could have low confidence in themselves in general, not sure if they have what it takes to be successful.

Our mind has a funny way of jumping into the future and imagining what could go wrong. It does that to keep us safe, but it usually triggers quite a response. If we don’t manage that response well, it is nearly certain that we will underperform. When I work with clients, I really want them to break down their anxiety into the 4 different areas they experience it. This creates self-awareness so that they can do something about it when it becomes counterproductive.

We can break anxiety down into the following four categories:

Physical- where in their body do they feel it? (Ex. heart racing, breathing heavy, chest is tight, sweating, etc…)

Emotional- what emotion do they feel? (Ex. stressed, tense, irritable, frustrated, scared, doubt)

Cognitive- what is happening with their thoughts? (Ex. Do they become negative, focused on their fears, scattered, distracted, frozen, in their head)

Behavioral - what are their actions? (Ex. Pace around, become quiet and hide, act aggressively) 


A little bit of anxiety is ok. It actually helps us perform better and can be a trigger to achieving flow states where we perform at our best, but we must manage that anxiety before it gets to be too much and has the opposite effect for us. 


How to manage performance anxiety?

There are lots of ways in which someone can manage performance anxiety. Below is a list of the top things people do to gain control and find confidence in their performance again.

Slow down breathing

There is not a more scientific way to manage the emotion of anxiety then slowing down our breathing. Think about it- for most people anxiety makes us breathe faster and speeds up our heart rate. The action of slowing it down tells our brain that we are safe. Breathing in a rhythm is especially powerful. Check out my prior blog to learn more about the mental skill of breathing:



This mental skill helps us to manage our thinking and let go of unwanted thoughts. It helps you to create a gap in your anxiety so that you can reframe your upcoming performance. Check out my prior blog to learn more about the mental skill of mindfulness: 



Seeing yourself being successful in your performance helps to raise confidence and gives you the sense that you have done this before. It focuses you on what you need to accomplish rather than the things you hope don’t happen. Check out my prior blog to learn more about how to visualize:


Reframe failure 

Reframing is the process of changing how you think about something. Although not easy to do, if we can change how we view failure, we may not be as scared of it. Failure is something that happens to everyone. It helps us learn and be better in the future. We have all failed many times in the past and will fail again in the future. No use being scared of it.    

Check out my prior blog to learn more about how to manage failure:


Reframe anxiety

As soon as we notice our anxiety, it becomes a good time to change our mindset. Try reframing our anxiety as excitement. Or thanking the bit of nerves for preparing your body for battle. Or as a cue to focus on your strengths and what you do well.


The right kind of music is important. Notice what music makes you feel calmer. Odds are that the music being played before a contest is fast and heavy. Try listening to slower music or music that you listened to as a younger child. Create a playlist for anxious moments!

Create a process statement, and stick to it. 

A process statement is a short little saying of a few different things that you have control of in your contest. Many people get bogged down by outcomes like scoring goals, winning games, finishing times, or final scores. Those are all uncontrollables and can cause anxiety. Try coming up with a few different process actions that you can always come back to: be relentless, run hard, play tight, swing hard, have fun, keep talking, keep moving, elbow in/follow through.  

Act the part!

Yes, our emotional state dictates our behaviors; but our behaviors can also control our emotions. If someone is feeling anxious, I want them to show me what confident behaviors look like in their sport. Act them out, even it feels off at first. Get your head up, shoulders high, back straight, go for a quick sprint, or a quick move relevant to your sport, or dance a bit. All of these are confident behaviors that can help turn that anxiety around. 

Practice with pressure

Raise the stakes in a practice setting so you can feel a bit of that pressure. Its hard to perform in a competitive environment if you only see it come game day. 

Social Connection

Most people tend to isolate themselves when they feel anxious. That said, talking to a teammate, friend, or family member for a few minutes has the potential to calm down the anxious brain. Never underestimate the power of social connection.

Label it

Sometimes all it takes is some simple awareness that you are feeling anxious and labeling it so that we create an explanation for what we are feeling. When you are feeling anxious, just utilize your self-talk and say, "its ok, Im just feeling anxious. I'll be ok."  For some, it really is that simple.


Remember that you could also always meet with a mental performance coach or sport psychologist!

I mean... this is what we do! Help people manage these unpleasant feelings so that they can more confidently and consistently achieve at their peak potential. If you would like help from me on this topic, or have any questions, you can reach me here: https://positivelyelite.com/contact-us/

I do thank you for reading this blog. Hope you found it useful.


Powell Cucchiella, LMHC


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