I just did a Google search for “First Round Jitters”, “Butterflies” and other names for performance anxiety. We have all experienced this at some time or another so you’ll be happy to know that there are thousands of web sites with all sorts of tips on how to handle performance anxiety in every conceivable setting. Even to include such tried and true remedies as self induced acupuncture, sucking your thumb and making sure you always have your special coffee cup or teddy bear close by. But much of the good advice was pretty consistent and included amongst other things:
- Think about the moment at hand, not the outcome.
- Control your breathing.
- Replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
- Visualize success.
- Repeat positive affirmations to yourself.
We only feel performance anxiety when we have time to. Often, the more time we have to anticipate everything that can go wrong the worse it gets. I’ve felt it most often sitting in an airplane waiting to exit during a skydiving competition.
On the other hand, we don’t experience performance anxiety in situations when we are caught off guard. In those moments we are forced to respond instinctively without having time to think, analyze, or worry about it. When we trust our instincts we almost always make good decisions and perform at out best.
Even though I completely agree with all the tips listed above, and have tried to use them myself, that negative voice in my head was sometimes too loud to drown out. In defense I would revert to focusing only on my breathing and try not to think at all. While no thoughts were far better than negative thoughts, this method didn’t put me in the ready, eager, confident, primed at the starting gate mindset I wanted to be in. I needed to find a stronger positive affirmation, one so strong it would trigger the mindset I was aiming for that would instinctively put me in the moment. Something primal, that came from the core, not something analytical that came from my head.
Performance anxiety is just an adult term for fear. So I thought back to when, as a kid, I was the most terrified. Besides being the smallest kid in school I was never much of a fighter. When I would get picked on by bullies or conflicts occurred (as they always do with kids) I’d do everything I could to avoid getting in a fight. I remember one time I tried to walk away but the kid kept coming. I tried to talk my way out of it. I apologized and took all the blame for the conflict but he just wouldn’t let up. Everything I did was reactive. I was letting him decide what was going to happen. My actions made me feel scared and helpless, a victim of circumstance.
It became obvious that the fight was going to happen. I was about to get beat up and it seemed there was nothing I could do to stop this inevitability. I was still backing off, apologizing and whimpering when he hit me. I didn’t even hit back. I got up and ran but I wasn’t that fast and he caught me and beat me up, just like I knew he would.
It wasn’t too long before I found myself in a similar situation. I did all I could to avoid it but again it got to the point where I knew the fight was inevitable. But this time I thought “If there’s no getting out of it I may as well hit him first. If I throw the first punch I’ll probably have a chance to throw the second and third.”
That was it! “Throw the first punch” was the trigger I was looking for.
That thought alone gave me a huge and immediate boost of adrenalin and confidence! It felt great. I was in charge now. I was thinking completely in the moment. I was deciding what was going to happen.
I hit him. I hit him again, and again. Then I ran like hell! But this time between the adrenalin and a good head start I got away. I may have been the one who ran away scared, but as I saw it I won the fight. I hit him, he didn’t hit me, I win!
When I remembered this I started using it as my positive affirmation of choice. It was short, to the point, and no matter what negative thoughts made it into my head, reminding myself to “throw the first punch” would trigger the right emotion and attitude and easily turn the fears into determination. It may sound a bit barbaric or possibly like a caveman approach but it worked perfectly for me. It also worked pretty darn well for “Airkix” and “Storm”, the last two Women’s World Champion teams I coached. And they are hardly cavemen.
You know the situations when you are going to feel performance anxiety. Don’t wait to see how things go. You decide. Make the first move. Start the conversation. Break the ice. Introduce yourself. Take charge. Step up to the plate. Throw the first punch.
Give it a try and let me know if it works for you.