Performance anxiety – suppress or embrace?

The idea of performance anxiety – butterflies, pre-race nerves, fear, dread, however you like to describe it – is aversive for many athletes. Admittedly, there is nothing instantly appealing about excess adrenaline and confidence-busting thoughts as you wait to tee off, take a penalty, toe the start line or walk onto the pitch.

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Indeed, research supports the idea that excess anxiety can be debilitating to both physical and mental performance. So intuitively, the answer seems to be to try and reduce it or change it somehow. In sport psychology, traditional remedies for performance anxiety have focused on psychological skills that aim to do this, such as relaxation, imagery and positive self-talk. These techniques work to reduce anxiety directly (i.e. relaxation), or drown it out through creating positive thoughts and images that induce more positive emotions than negative.

Each of the aforementioned skills has been demonstrated in research to be effective in reducing anxiety, and indeed many an athlete has benefited from them.

BUT the problem is they don’t work for everyone; or they may work in some scenarios but not others. In fact, some people find that trying to change or suppress their performance anxiety results in its persistence or worsening at times. Some might argue that they don’t practise enough, or that maybe they were given some faulty instructions… but in all seriousness when it comes to specific psychological techniques, something that works for one person won’t necessarily work for another, because we are all different. Our minds may work in the same way in some manners, but certainly not all.

So the question is: do we actually have to change performance anxiety itself, or can we change the way we relate to it instead?

A different way of relating to anxiety

A more recent surge of psychological research suggests that it is not always necessary to change the form of or suppress “negative” thoughts or feelings such as anxiety. Instead, we can change the way we experience them, and therefore lessen the effects they have on us.

This idea is central to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a “third-wave” cognitive-behavioural therapy that has emerged from an empirical theory of human language and learning. The ACT framework holds that our internal experiences – such as performance anxiety in this case – become problematic when we engage with them and respond to them as if they are reality; we become fused to them. Negative thoughts are felt as if they are true, and feelings are taken as serious indicators of what is to come.

This certainly resonates with me a lot; when I am overcome by pre-race nerves, the emotion of anxiety can be compelling, in that I tend to believe all the accompanying thoughts, such as “I won’t be able to run that fast”, or “I should just duck out now while I can.” We end up interpreting things like this as unpleasant, for obvious reasons!

As a result, we try to change them in whatever way we can – by battling with them, or simply trying to avoid them, whether that involves distraction or avoiding situations that invoke anxiety altogether. However, it is often these attempts to suppress and avoid internal experiences that increases their salience in our minds, and creates the ensuing frustration and discomfort. As we seek to avoid it, we risk gradually constricting the situations and behaviours available to us, which in turn leads us to sacrifice our goals.

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To give a true example, I used to try and manage my race anxiety by lowering my expectations about my performance and deciding I wouldn’t push too hard, which often meant I didn’t come as close to my goals as I could have done. I have also backed out of races at the last minute too, because I wasn’t prepared to deal with the nerves. These are both examples of how our literal fusion to thoughts/feelings, and our perceived need to avoid them cause us to behave in ways that are inconsistent with our values.

But as I mentioned before, this isn’t necessary. As humans, feelings such as performance anxiety are natural; we are designed to experience emotions, and when we come across a situation in which we care about the result and there is an element of risk, anxiety is inevitable in some ways. I like to see it as a natural cue that we are doing something that is important to us; if it wasn’t important in some way, we wouldn’t be anxious.

So the answer according to ACT can seem a bit counter-intuitive on face value, but having practised it both in my own training and with clients, I’ve found that it can be incredibly impactful.

Embracing versus suppressing

ACT proposes that if we are willing to experience the anxiety, it has less of a hold over us. We can engage with it in a different way through an element of ACT called acceptance.

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NB: acceptance doesn’t mean “resignation” or “just accept it.” Acceptance, or willingness, is being open to experience and consciously choosing to acknowledge your internal experiences. It doesn’t mean you have to “like” the anxiety or want it to be there; it is a specific skill that encourages an open, observer-type attention facilitated by mindfulness.

If you weren’t familiar with the term “mindfulness”, a basic definition would be the practice of taking on the “observer” position and watching/feeling your thoughts/emotions come and go and seeing them for what they are – simply products of the mind.

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But acceptance adds to this in that we make space for the anxiety and openly choose to experience it.

This technique allows us some psychological distance from thoughts and feelings. We no longer have to battle with them or act from within them, because we are gaining some separation from them. In addition, because we are choosing to be open to these experiences, and not struggling to avoid them, they then hold less direct power over our behaviour.

Another component within the ACT framework is cognitive defusion, which changes the way we relate to thoughts and feelings by experientially demonstrating their transient and random nature. You might try re-stating the thoughts you are having, or imagine watching them flow through your mind like water, or acknowledge and watch them with interest. There are many different ways of doing this that would make this article far too long!

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The key here in sports performance is that we can learn to perform alongside anxiety. Strategies such as acceptance and defusion work to reduce the control our “unwanted” thoughts and feelings have over our behaviour, reducing how compelling and believable they are to us.

I like to describe this overall process to my clients as embracing. I do this myself in my own training and performance; I don’t like the physical feelings I get in my legs when I’m in the second half of a race, nor do I like the jittery adrenaline feelings and self-doubts I get on the start line. But when I choose to observe and be open to it, it loses its sting. I’ve even found using cue words or phrases can help here, almost challenging the nerves to do their worst.

Research on ACT is building; more and more studies are being published that support its effectiveness in several psychological disorders, addictions, pain tolerance and behaviour change. Yet as a relatively new framework there is little to none in the field of sport as it stands, which is something I hope to change over the course of my career.

As I said before, this won’t work for everyone, like any psychological technique. But it makes sense that if we can learn to engage with the present moment as the observer and acknowledge our internal experiences for what they are, they suddenly become less compelling and controlling. And in sport, if we don’t need to avoid performance anxiety and we can just allow it to be there, we are winning!

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