Most of us have faced pre-performance anxiety before. Think back to the last time you felt anxious before a speech or presentation, a job interview, a competition, or a test or exam. Did you struggle to think clearly? Worry incessantly? Feel less confident? Take fewer risks?
Pre-performance anxiety can negatively affect how we perform under pressure. It can disrupt our thought processes, lower our self-confidence, fill our heads with potential negative outcomes, and make us more risk-averse. In our anxiety, we spend more energy worrying rather than focusing, and we may make poorer choices.1
Most people think that calming down is the best way to deal with pre-performance anxiety. But if you’ve tried it, you’ll know that it doesn’t really work. Well, there’s a reason for that, and a better way to deal with pre-performance anxiety.
Get Excited Instead
Yup, you read that right. Instead of trying to calm down, get excited. According to a series of studies conducted by Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School, getting excited is the more effective way of turning pre-performance anxiety around, and it can be done quite simply.
In these studies, participants who stated “I am excited” before an anxiety-inducing task (such as singing, giving a speech or taking a math test) performed better at the task than participants who stated “I am calm” or “I am anxious”. The same was true of participants who were instructed to “get excited” — they performed better than participants who were instructed to “remain calm”.
By simply stating their excitement or receiving instructions to get excited, participants successfully turned (the technical term is ‘reappraised’) their anxiety into excitement and as a result, sang better, gave more persuasive speeches and scored more correct answers on a math test.
Why It Works
Brooks suggests that the reason getting excited is more effective than trying to calm down, is because excitement is physiologically more similar to anxiety than calmness is. This makes it easier for us to turn anxiety into excitement, as compared to calmness.
Because we experience similar symptoms when excited as when anxious, like heightened senses and increased heart rate, we only need to change the way our minds interpret what our body is experiencing — from a negative interpretation (anxious) to a positive one (excited).
In contrast, anxiety and calmness are different physiological experiences. For example, when we are anxious our hearts beat faster, but when we are calm, our heartbeat is slow and steady. This means that to calm down, we not only have to change our mental outlook, we also have to change the physical symptoms we experience. Brooks found that “[o]nce activated, an aroused state was difficult to control. Even with explicit instructions to try to calm down, heart rate remained high across all conditions leading up to and throughout the math task.”2
Brooks also found that getting excited primes an opportunity mind-set and thereby improves performance3. In other words, participants who got excited did better because getting excited helped them to view the anxiety-inducing task as an opportunity, rather than a threat.
The Gymnastics Context
Even before I found out about this research, I had observed that my students who went into competition excited and optimistic tended to perform better at competition. Those who were anxious tended to worry about making mistakes, and performed at a standard below what they were capable of in training. I mostly attributed their excitement/anxiety to their personalities and natural optimism/pessimism.
But this research shows that small changes in the way we think and talk about our feelings before anxiety-inducing tasks can influence whether we feel anxious or excited, which can in turn affect how well we perform under pressure. So, parents and coaches, we need to be mindful that the way we talk to our gymnasts about their feelings before competition can affect how they perform. Just as we can teach them to be optimistic, we can also teach them to feel excited before competition and to view competition as an opportunity rather than a threat.
So next time they feel nervous before competition, don’t ask them to calm down. Encourage them to get excited instead!
- “Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement”, Alison Wood Brooks (Harvard Business School), Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 2014, Vol. 143, No. 3, 1144–1146
- above, p1152
- above, p1152-1153