Mind Games: Performance anxiety & tactics to rein it in


You get up in front of a group. All eyes are on you. You are about to speak and suddenly laughter erupts. You look down and realize you are buck naked. You shriek and run off the stage. 

You just had a common recurring nightmare about humiliation when performing. To take it a step further, some therapists believe this common nightmare is also about guilt and inferiority, according to a piece in HuffPost, “What it Means When You Dream About Being Naked in Public: It’s all about keeping your emotions in check” by Sarah DiGiulio, Feb. 23, 2017. 

What about this scenario? Test fright. You are a good student, did well on the practice exams until it comes time to take the actual test. And then you freeze or “choke,” as Sian Beilock writes in her book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. Is your brain playing mind games with you?

Many of us have choked when we needed to do our best performance. Beilock, President of Barnard College in New York City, defines choking as underperforming in high-stress situations. Choking, she says, occurs when people tend to overprocess about an activity that is usually automatic.  “This is called ‘paralysis by analysis.’” Ironically, writes Beilock, “…as we get better at performing a skill, our conscious memory for how we do it gets worse and worse.” 

Her book examines the science and the brain of human performance, and the ways in which working memory guides human performance, how experience and practice and brain development interact to create our abilities, and how stress affects all these factors.

After our first book, Corporate Bloodlines: The Future of The Family Firm, came out in 1989, our publisher told us we had to go on the road to promote it with TV, radio and book talk appearances. Margaret cringed at the thought and to lessen her performance anxiety, she enrolled in a Dale Carnegie course near her home. The course provided some structure and strategies that she was able to adapt to speaking engagements on radio and television for their soon-to-be released book. It did reduce stress somewhat. However, the butterflies in her gut have never subsided. Barbara always tries to be Margaret’s cheerleader by telling her, in all honesty, that she does fabulously.

For some reason that she’s not sure about, Barbara never remembers being nervous speaking in front of a group. It wasn’t her first love, but she did it without fear. Before appearing on a live segment of the former TV show, Oprah, about remodeling disasters and how to avoid them, Barbara watched several news and entertainment leaders interview guests. Her husband told her to be sure to punch up words in each reply as the best do successfully. The producer who met with Barbara in the “Green Room” before she went on, also advised her to interrupt Oprah and the other main guest, a contractor, frequently to add a liveliness to the back and forth. She did and enjoyed conversing with both. She never felt afraid or “oh, my goodness, will I have enough to say.” 

When she spoke another time before a large National Association of Realtors® meeting in Richmond, VA, her beau was with her. When she expressed anxiety at the large size of the crowd and fact that she was following NAR’s very articulate chief economist, Lawrence Yun, the beau said, “Go up and have a ball. You’ll be great.” She took the stage and did just that and got good kudos for her material presented. 

Many sports figures and celebrities, musicians and business executives experience performance anxiety. To function at the top of their game, some may hire a performance coach. The New York Times newspaper in the sports section (Feb. 7, 2021) addressed this in a piece, “The Brain Within the Brain of a Rising Tennis Queen, by Matthew Futterman. It focuses on teenage Polish tennis pro, Iga Swiatek, who struggled when playing to win a title. However, this past October, she came out of nowhere to win the French Open. How? She had a sports psychologist by her side and “in her head” all the way to victory.

According to the article, the sports psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, a former competitive sailor, had spent much of the past decade “trying to bring mental health and psychology to the fore in sports in Poland.” In the piece, she stresses that “self-confidence and close relationships built on trust were crucial to supporting attributes like motivation, stress management and communication that drive athletic success.” She monitored Swiatek with medical instruments that measured her stress levels through the activity of her heart and brain.

Abramowicz feels that striving to be perfect can sabotage a performance. To mitigate this, she says her goal is to try to “create positive passion, determination and grit. You embrace your potential in pursuit of excellence. You go for the best, but at the end of the day you are human, and you have other aspects to your life, and it doesn’t mean when you lose your match you are less worthy as a human being.”

In addition, Abramowicz worked with Swiatek to improve and deepen relationships with relatives and friends, the people who provide emotional stability — “the human anchors.” These are the people in our lives we seek to provide comfort so we can be our best selves. They are a voice—interested, gentle, familiar; a small, cool hand on the forehead.

Few of us can afford a professional performance anxiety coach, so we rely on our friends, our family, perhaps a psychotherapist and, most important, ourselves for support and control. Here are some strategies that we came up with to help each of us get a grip on performance anxiety by trying to redirect negative thoughts, slow a racing pulse, calm trembling hands, lips and upset stomach, control a headache, and warm cold sweaty hands and feet. 

  • Practice before the big day in low to moderate stress situations, but don’t overprocess. There’s no such thing as perfection. Good enough is fine, and it’s critical that you enjoy what you’re doing. Do time yourself to stick to the allotted minutes and leave time for questions and answers.
  • Use tools. It’s okay to have the security blanket of your computer, graphs, research data, PowerPoint, earpiece with someone cheering you on or whatever to guide you and boost your confidence in any performance endeavor. Wear a good luck tie or scarf, whatever. Barbara has a bracelet with colorful dice she usually wears.
  • Look great. Having your hair the way you love, putting on your makeup well, dressing in something chic, low key and fitting for the time of day will all help you feel your best.
  • Shift the focus of the talk or performance to make it about the audience, not about you saying something stupid or making a mistake. It’s about bringing pleasure or information to your audience. Know your material, anticipate some questions, have the answers, and you’ll be a star. Barbara likes to start her talk with a personal anecdote related to the subject matter.
  • Use meditation and breathing techniques if you feel an imminent panic coming on. Yoga training is good for this. So is learning the Lamaze breathing techniques that we learned to use during childbirth.
  • Get moving. Before you perform or speak or take a standardized test, take a walk or a jog or move around to calm down, clear your mind. Listen to some relaxing music.
  • Figure out your first few sentences or initial sports tactic or test-taking strategy or whatever to calm down and to connect with the audience or to the task at hand. For example, if taking a test to earn your certification in massage therapy, work up a strategy about how to approach it in advance. Perhaps before you begin, you read all the questions before answering them. Then answer the ones you know immediately, sort of like when doing a crossword puzzle. The rest might fall into place as you start to gain confidence and relax.
  • Before any performance, think of the worst-case scenario: What would happen if….so you mess up, stutter, forget what you’re about to say. Use humor. This can diffuse any situation. We know that’s difficult in the moment. Perhaps, have a couple of good one-liners available in your back pocket about messing up. If you’re using a Power Point and something happens with the slides, be prepared for that by joking, “Well, we now know I’m not a tech genius.”
  • Also, once you get into the meaty part of your talk or performance, know that the anxiety may subside. It’s like hitting your stride. But if not, try not to beat yourself up over it. Don’t give up; try again. This is when talking to a psychotherapist, learning meditation or yoga might be healthy for future talks.
  • Don’t forget to smile. Look the part of a star, so you appear to be having fun. Being a good actor or actress is critical. 
  • If you’re talking before an audience with a partner, practice together. Margaret and Barbara have often given talks together and know when to interrupt each other and when to let the other finish. They’ve developed a natural rhythm. And speaking with another person often makes the experience more fun and takes away a lot of pressure.
  • Finally, watch others take the stage or spotlight. There are so many TED talks to watch to see what you like about a person’s talk. There’s no one formula that works. Watch those who are serious and handle very important issues such as Dr. Fauci and his sessions about the coronavirus, as well as those who deal with serious but more entertaining matters such as Oprah’s recent interview of Harry and Meghan about palace and California life. Watch the Queen—yes, that one—deliver her annual speech to her countrymen and women. Last year’s was especially touching considering the pandemic.

    And then there are gifted political orators you can study, stars at the different award ceremonies, the young poet at President Biden’s inauguration who hit it out of the park. In contrast, there are those we’ve heard who say too many “um, um” and “you know,” including some who are quite famous and smart. This is just not their forte. And that doesn’t make them “bad” people, just not great performers.                                     

If you experience anxiety or stage fright, having someone—a mentor, coach, therapist, teacher, or tutor in your corner cheering for you can turn around your state of mind. Perform, hit that tennis ball, take that test, deliver a talk and then give yourself a big hand and high five for doing the best that you can do. That’s all anybody can expect of you, including you, probably your toughest critic.   


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1 comment

  • Rena

    Nice advice.
    Once, while working at Plaza Frontenac, a group of shopping center developers, with ICSC, (International Council of Shopping Centers) visited from all over the world came for a tour of Plaza Frontenac. I decided to welcome so many diverse languages, I started my “welcome” comments by saying “Good Morning” in 17 languages! I had the greetings written down, while making eye contact with whomever, and was able to include everyone, and made them feel at home! They all clapped when I was finished!

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