Performance Anxiety and Stress

Stress, or rather, an individual’s ability to manage and even harness the power of stress is a key aspect in performance management. Selye (1936) defined stress as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”. Stress comes from the outside, and demands a response from the inside. Think about any stress you feel, even if you think it’s coming from inside, what is the absolute cause? Being hard on yourself for an exam score or a performance review? That’s external. Want to win a soccer game or gymnastic meet? All external at the beginning. These external factors, or stressors, are the events that can evoke anxiety (Spielberger & Sarason, 1985), which in turn have a factor on performance.

Performance anxiety, like any other anxiety can point primarily to being hereditary. This can be shown through but the research of Clément, Calatayud, & Belzung, (2002) and also the observable fact that not everyone is impacted by anxiety, whether based on performance or another type of anxiety. It can also be shown that through the experiences of Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldo and his anxiety at the 2008 World Cup (Ronaldo, n.d.), and Welsh musical maestro James Dean Bradfield who has talked of his own anxiety before performing (James Dean Bradfield, 2007).

No matter how much practice an individual has put in, or how much recognition an individual receives for being at the pinnacle of their field, there is no immunity from anxiety. Although there are methods of managing performance anxiety, such as making decisions to be excited and turning the nervous energy into excitement, or practicing to the point that the individual becomes unconsciously competent of the activity they are expected to perform, there is no cure for performance anxiety.

An umbrella view of the research on performance anxiety would suggest this is a problem caused by a specific event, and is only drawn out through anxieties that are dormant within an individual in a specific situation or environment. Based on the research of Clément, Calatayud, & Belzung, (2002), it can be seen that individuals may only become aware of their anxiety through being in a situation where performance, or having a specific goal to meet is at stake. This means that individuals will have a predisposition towards anxiety that is not known until a situation where performance or goal related activities are introduced, and there is a belief that failure is a potential outcome.

Is it therefore possible to overcome performance anxiety? Many people report that their anxiety disappears or reduces once they have begun their activity. There are some areas a person can work on in order to help overcome, or at least prevent too much of an impact of performance anxiety.

Here are the three take aways for today:

1 – Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong, and then practice more. It may sound cheesy, but practice is the key to comfort. Remember when you first rode your bike without training wheels, or drove a car on your own? Still nervous about it? No, because you have experience and practice.

2 – Set the right goals. Too often we set our goals to what we think is the pinnacle, plan for what happens next. See my article here for more: Are You Setting The Right Goals?

3 – More often than not, performance anxiety is based on the question of what happens if the performance isn’t high enough. Well, what does happen? It is very, very rare that a career is defined by one mistake or lapse in concentration. And really, in the greater scheme of things the only people who should be worried about the levels of perfection most people are concerned with are in fields such as being a neurosurgeon or rocket scientist.

None of these things will fix performance anxiety, but they will help to keep things in perspective.

Ultimately the important thing is to learn to accept mistakes, even the big ones, as part of life. They happen and they are rarely terminal to a reputation or career. Zinedine Zidane arguably lost the World Cup for France when he head butted an opponent. He is now a well-respected coach who continues to win honours and has won the European Champions League twice as coach of Real Madrid.

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Clément, Y., Calatayud, F., & Belzung, C. (2002). Genetic basis of anxiety-like behaviour: a critical review. Brain Research Bulletin, 57(Behavioral Neurogenetics), 57-71.

James Dean Bradfield – Nervous On Stage? (2007, October 18). Retrieved June 17, 2015, from

Ronaldo: I Cracked Under Pressure; Panic attack floored samba star.. (n.d.) >The Free Library. (2014).

Selye, H. (1936). A syndrome produced by diverse nocuous agents. Nature, 138, 32.

Spielberger, C., & Sarason, I. (1985). Stress and anxiety (P. Defares, Ed.). Washington D.C.: Hemisphere Pub.



Categories: Mental Toughness, Performance, Sport

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