Get excited: how to handle performance anxiety in competitive situations

Posted December 6, 2017 by Kayla Prochnow

When you think of the word “anxiety” what comes to mind? Is it speaking in front of a room full of people? Is it sweaty palms, a knotted stomach, and twisted tongue? Everyone has experienced anxiety at some point in their lives, and many people associate these feelings with a negative connotation. Anxiety is frequently linked to vulnerability, nervousness, and failure. It’s the barrier that prevents us from reaching our goals, attaining dreams, and fully honing our talents.

Unfortunately, when we’re facing competitive situations, the anxiety often ratchets up a notch or two, or ten. The stress of the competition brings out the nerves in even the best of us.   

In addition to limiting our full potential and instilling a sense of dread, anxiety also has physical consequences. Pair the above effects with a reddening face, nausea, sweating, difficulty breathing, and trouble sleeping to guarantee an inevitable hindrance to your performance? Anxiety is the bane of good performance, right? Well, luckily for us, science can come to our rescue!

While anxiety can be mentally, emotionally, and even physically debilitating, you can also use it to your advantage. Some recent studies demonstrate that by taking control of your anxiety with specific techniques you can help turn it into a performance booster.

Coaches of all types of teams from sports to academics to business and corporate arenas look desperately for ways to help calm the nerves of their players. But is that really what we should be doing? Rather than trying to calm down and relax, maybe there is a better way to handle our competition anxiety.


Keep Calm and Get Excited!

Most of us have probably heard the World War II era, “Keep Calm and Carry On” slogan or some other variation on the internet. While this mentality of calming one’s self down has been a go-to technique for combating anxiety, Professor Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School has another suggestion. In recent research studies, Brooks noted that, “Compared with reappraising their anxiety as calmness by stating “I am calm,” reappraising anxiety as excitement by stating “I am excited” caused individuals to feel more excited, to speak longer, and to be perceived as more persuasive, competent, confident, and persistent.”

This simple change could have profound effects on how students process their anxiety. Academic coaches may have a simple way to switch performance anxiety from a negative performance buster, into an amazing performance booster! Rather than telling their students to “calm down” or encourage them to remain composed, coaches may want to help team members get excited and say, “This is thrilling. I am excited to present my ideas to a room full of people.” By acknowledging excitement over calmness, according to Brooks, our performance and overall experience improves, especially with scenarios involving public speaking and other high-anxiety situations. The objective is to use the negative emotions associated with anxiety and failure and view them in a positive way.

Suppressing our anxiety by trying to “stay calm” or pretending it doesn’t exist will not have a positive impact, but rather the opposite. Channel your nerves constructively into an academic competition whether it’s by giving an astounding speech, presentation, or debate.

Out of all social fears and competitive stresses, performance anxiety is one of the most commonly reported symptoms. Coaches will need to adopt techniques to guide their students to understand that feeling nervous is normal if they want to help their teams tackle the top levels of competitions. Everyone experiences these feelings—the only difference is the degree in which he or she experiences them and in how we view the anxiety itself.

Not all anxieties are created equal, and for the most part, they change throughout your life. While you were at one time anxious about a monster hiding under your bed, now you find yourself with those same feelings giving an oral presentation. Watch an actor trying to speak after accepting an award or a basketball player taking a foul shot. Despite their experience, you might still see them falter—it’s normal. Once you start speaking in front of an audience or giving your presentation, you’ll notice that these jitters tend to go away after a couple of minutes and rarely impact your overall performance. The audience won’t remember you stumbling over a word or two, but they will remember the determination you put forward and the knowledge you shared with them.

Clearly, the way we process and verbalize our emotions affects how we feel and ultimately perform. Like Brook’s explains, “Although anxiety is unpleasant and aversive, it can have positive effects on behavior.” So the next time you are preparing for the public speaking portion of an academic competition, instead of trying to calm down and squash your anxiety, get excited!