Thoughts on Performance Anxiety
Once upon a time, in a decade long, long ago, I was a competitive figure skater (OK, it wasn’t that long ago, but it certainly feels that way to me). Even though it has been many years since I laced up my skates and stepped onto the ice, I can still feel the wind on my face and smell the familiar, comforting scent of Zamboni exhaust fumes when I close my eyes (you may find that strange, but, to quote Apocalypse Now, “Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of [Zamboni fumes] in the morning”).
Every year when U.S. Figure Skating’s national championships roll around, I feel a twinge of longing for that bygone period of my life. As I watch some skaters triumph and others flounder, I can’t help but reflect on my own experience. Generally speaking, most skaters (and probably most athletes in other sports as well) fall into one of two categories: those who thrive on the pressure of competition, and those who are crushed by it. I belonged, unquestionably, to the latter camp.
Although I know I was never destined to be a national or Olympic champion, I can’t help but think that what I now recognize as crippling performance anxiety prevented me from realizing my full potential as a skater (whatever that might have been). Every competition, no matter how big or small, filled me with a sense of dread. I was so afraid of falling while not wearing gloves that I insisted every competition dress I wore have long, heavy sleeves—if I did fall, at least I would only cut up my hands and not my arms too, I reasoned. I was unwilling to leave the arena while my competitors performed, even though that meant seeing and hearing the crowd’s reaction to their performances (which coaches generally discourage), because I was terrified I would miss my name being called. As I waited for my turn to take the ice, I felt queasy, my whole body shook, my legs turned to Jell-O, and, without fail, I always cried. Sobbed, really. Hysterically.
The grip of my anxiety was so tight, my body couldn’t find any way other than uncontrollable blubbering to relieve some of the tension. Coaches didn’t know how to handle me, probably because they had never encountered a skater whose nerves manifested the way mine did. Some simply told me to stop crying—not possible when you aren’t in control of your emotions. Another threatened to take elements out of my program if I continued to miss them during practice sessions where judges were watching—an equally ineffective tactic. A cornered, frightened animal typically will opt for one of two courses of action when threatened: give in, or lash out. My twelve-year-old, emotionally volatile self chose the second option, retorting “don’t threaten me!” to the coach’s threat at a volume just a tad too loud to avoid drawing the attention of other nearby skaters and coaches. (Needless to say, that particular coach–skater partnership ended shortly thereafter, as my outburst had embarrassed the coach to a degree from which there could be no recovery or forgiveness.)
It wasn’t the coaches’ fault, though. They weren’t trained to contend with the type of anxiety I had. My parents even took me to see a sports psychologist, but my nervousness persisted. In retrospect, and viewed through the lens of the clinical psychology training I underwent in graduate school, I think I can pretty safely say that a sports psychologist was not the type of psychologist I needed to see to gain control of those nerves.
From what I recall, the sports psychologist’s approach at the time* relied heavily upon visualizations (imagine yourself landing the jump; picture yourself skating a clean program) and positive affirmations (“I am a talented skater,” “No one will remember if I fall”). This method was doomed to fail.
First of all, I struggle with visualization to this day because I am a verbal thinker, not a visual one—my thoughts occur in words and sentences, not in pictures (hence I am writing this story, not drawing it for you…although I do have a diagram further down the page, so stay tuned). Second, positive affirmations do little to change one’s thoughts when asserted blindly and without consideration of any evidence to support them (more on this to come). Finally, the problem wasn’t that I was choking when the pressure was on (think basketball star missing a clutch free throw or a place kicker missing the field goal that would win the game); most of the time, when all was said and done, my performances were decent.
No, the type of psychologist I needed to see was one who could treat social anxiety disorder (of which performance anxiety is a part), as I almost certainly met the criteria for diagnosis (quoted from the DSM-IV, the official diagnostic source at the time; I have removed the irrelevant passages and denoted them with ellipses for clarity):
- “A marked and persistent fear of one or more…performance situations in which the person is exposed to…possibly scrutiny by others.” CHECK—scrutiny by others is the definition of judging, which is how skaters are scored.
- “Exposure to the feared social situation almost invariably provokes anxiety, which may…in children…be expressed by crying, tantrums, freezing…” CHECK—see my description above.
- “The feared…performance situations…are endured with intense anxiety or distress.” CHECK—trust me on this one; that’s how I felt.
- “The…distress in the feared…performance situation(s) interferes significantly with the person’s…occupational functioning…or there is marked distress about having the phobia.” CHECK—I think it’s safe to consider skating my occupation at the time; my life revolved around it. I seriously entertained the idea of quitting the sport altogether because performing made me so nervous.
This realization came to me years later, as I was seated at a small table in the conference room of my mentor’s basement lab in the psychology building, discussing Thought Records with the five or six fellow graduate students in my Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) class. The Thought Record exercise, most notably popularized in Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky’s book Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think, involves identifying the negative thoughts that automatically pop into our heads in a particular situation, then examining the evidence we have that both supports and refutes these thoughts (this is a simplified explanation, but you get the gist). This exercise is predicated on a core tenet of CBT, illustrated in this lovely diagram I created (which was once scrawled on a whiteboard somewhere by a professor I had who was a disciple of the venerable Aaron T. Beck who developed the underlying theory and who tossed the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built—OK, maybe not that last part, but I was on a roll):
In essence, the idea here is that in any given situation (say, a figure skating competition), we experience an interplay of thoughts (“Falling means I’m a failure”), feelings (nervousness, anxiety), behavior (staying in the arena while competitors perform),** and physiology (sweating, heart palpitations, nausea). Some of these things are a lot easier to target for change than others—physiology is pretty difficult to alter without medication, and I challenge you not to feel angry when someone cuts you off in traffic or hurt when someone says something nasty about you (more power to you if you find it easy to switch your emotional response like that; most people can’t)—but changes in any one of these domains can cause changes to the others.
Truth be told, the CBT approach probably would have really helped me reduce my anxiety about performing. My mind was full of negative thoughts begging to be challenged with evidence and revised into more reasonable assertions. What if I fall?*** Everyone will see it, I won’t place well, and I’ll be a failure. Wait a minute! Some people will see it, but they probably won’t remember—the last time I fell during a performance, most people were so taken with my interpretation of the music they barely noticed the fall. I might not place well, but I’m only in control of my own performance and others might fall too; there are more competitions, and the results of this one don’t define me—I have placed high at some events and lower at others; all I can do is the best I can. Even if I fall on one jump, I can still succeed at all the rest—one isolated fall has no bearing on the rest of my program unless I let it.
The hardest part of this exercise is, undoubtedly, identifying the evidence that does not support our negative thoughts. Most people get stuck on the confirmatory examples and can’t move forward. Without the evidence to back them up, though, those anxiety-relieving restructured thoughts revert to the type of useless affirmations I mentioned earlier. So, if you think this technique could help you relieve some stress in your own life, I urge you to stick it out; find some support and push past the easy stopping point until you can find the evidence you need to counteract the negative thoughts. If you do, you just might get some of the peace of mind I wish I’d had as a little girl, twenty years ago, standing alone at center ice with all eyes cast down upon me, praying for the pins-and-needles sensation to leave my legs and waiting for the music to begin.
*I have no idea what the current best practices are for sports psychologists.
**Some people argue that crying belongs in the behavior category, but I tend to disagree. For me, crying was an uncontrollable physiological response to stress; I couldn’t stop it, no matter how badly I wanted to, which puts it squarely in the physiology camp to me.
***This type of “what if” question counts as a negative automatic thought because it’s rhetorical, and a whole slew of answers in the form of statements are hiding underneath.
Diagnostic And Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders : DSM-IV. Washington, DC :American Psychiatric Association, 1994.