A Surprising Solution For Pre-performance Anxiety

Pre-performance anxiety

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 wordsparticipants 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! 



  1. “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
  2. above, p1152
  3. above, p1152-1153
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Post-Competition Reflections 2018

Our first competition season of the year is done and dusted! We had the National Championships in March, and the National School Games in April. What a ride. We had such an intense period of preparation, but so worth it! I am so incredibly proud of all my gymnasts (#clichedbuttrue). Some of them won medals and some did not, but ALL of them grew in strength, mental and physical, and character compared to this time last year.

Competition: National Championships Level 1 Team Champions
Congratulations to our Level 1 Team Champions!
Competition: National Championships 2018
National Championships – Clockwise (L-R): Congratulations to Danielle for her 1st place in Stage 2 Uneven Bars; Two good friends happy after awaiting their Floor score; Level 1 and Stage 2 girls
National School Games Competition
National School Games – Marymount Convent School

After every competition season I like to reflect on my observations, so that I can use them to improve training going forward. Here are my Top 5 Takeaways from this year’s first competition season:

1. Process goals are more effective than Outcome goals

I’ve said this before, but it is so important I will say it again.

Those who kept thinking about the outcome of the competition did not perform as well as those who focused on what they needed to do during competition (“I need to keep tight”, “I need to straighten my knees” etc.). I honestly don’t know why it works this way, but I can say with conviction that it does. Perhaps it is because outcomes are partly beyond our control, so thinking about outcomes induces helplessness, which distracts from focus and effort. As a coach, it’s been my experience that when I emphasize effort and openness to failure, my gymnasts produce better results at competition.

2. There is NO substitute for preparation.

No amount of talent, intelligence, natural confidence etc. can substitute for preparation. There is no shortcut. I have now seen more than a few gymnasts with above average natural talent perform worse at competition than those with less talent, because they prepared less. They missed practice more often, or did not put in full effort during practice. Even resilience takes practice – the more times you fall, the more opportunities you have to practice getting back on your feet.

Make no mistake, when a gymnast performs during competition, it’s muscle memory she relies on the most. Confidence in the competition arena comes from repetition in the practice gym.

3. Play the long game. 

When I first started coaching, I was so impatient. I thought of the progress that I wanted in terms of weeks and months, not years. When I didn’t see it, I thought that there must be more efficient ways of training that I was missing. But my more experienced colleague basically laughed in my face and told me that it just hadn’t been long enough, and that constantly changing training techniques would actually be counterproductive to progress.

Most of the gymnasts I took to competition this year have been training with me for about 2 years. Looking back, I can see that progress is something of an exponential process. You have to put in a lot of effort at the beginning to lay the proper foundations, and you are unlikely to get good results at first. But, if you patiently persist, your effort pays off exponentially later on.  Take it from someone more experienced than I:

“Dealing with the temporary frustration of not making progress is an integral part of the path towards excellence. In fact, it is essential and something that every single elite athlete has had to learn to deal with. If the pursuit of excellence was easy, everyone would do it. In fact, this impatience in dealing with frustration is the primary reason that most people fail to achieve their goals. Unreasonable expectations time-wise, resulting in unnecessary frustration, due to a perceived feeling of failure. Achieving the extraordinary is not a linear process.”

Christopher Sommer (former USA men’s gymnastics national team coach)

4. When dealing with young athletes, speak their language. 

After the National Championships, I was leaving the competition arena when I saw one of my 7-year-old gymnasts bawling so hard, I thought she’d hurt herself. It turns out that she was upset because she had just realised that the post-competition party I had promised them was not immediately after the competition but a few weeks later!

We all know that children and adults find different things important. To me, the competition was the main event and the party merely an afterthought. But to my young athletes, the party is such a big thing. Even the older girls look forward to it. Planning a party for the girls is not really part of my job description, but it’s one of the small things I can do to strengthen my connection with my young athletes. 

Children are motivated by fun, so I try to find ways to make tough training simultaneously fun. When I show them that what matters to them matters to me, it pays dividends in training. 

5. It’s about so much more than gymnastics.

No gymnast remains a gymnast forever. Even if they reach elite levels, they will at some point retire. What then is the point of pushing them so hard when they are young? Because they learn so much of what they need to thrive in life through gymnastics. They learn that hard work is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success, that you don’t have to be the best to be happy, and that there is joy and meaning in the uphill climb. They practice failing and moving on, succeeding and remaining humble, lifting others up and cheering them on. These are the true lifelong benefits of gymnastics. 

And so, armed with these insights, we move onward to the next competition season!

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