Performance Anxiety - Is It Really a Syndrome?

Coach Dave Weiss Health Guide
  • Working in the health industry, I find myself reading frequently about an assortment of diseases. Thanks to my neurotic tendencies, I have achieved an all too great aptitude at convincing myself that I actually have more than a few unpalatable conditions. At times, my faux self-diagnoses have been borderline ridiculous. Thank goodness for the far greater sensibility of the rowers of my former high school team who, on many an occasion, found creative ways to dispel my irrational fears: "Dave, if you really have the Bubonic Plague, I'm not practicing today or ever again."

    Indeed, when left to wander, our minds can convince us that our genetics contain codes for every condition and disease known to man. One of my current rowers told me a couple of months ago, "Coach, I went to see the doctor this afternoon, and he told me that I have performance anxiety syndrome. I just wanted to let you know." "Bill," I responded [heavily edited for graphic content], "if you're not anxious and nervous before these workouts, either you don't have a pulse, or you need to find yourself a new sport."
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    The fact is that almost all athletes experience performance anxiety to a certain degree. It's not only unrealistic to expect athletes to be able to rid performance anxiety from their mental processes, it's potentially detrimental: performance anxiety, i.e. nerves, can provide a positive race-day boost if an athlete learns to channel his anxiety into better performance. Would Dumbo's flight without the magic feather have been possible if he hadn't quickly turned the anxiety resulting from Timothy Q. Mouse's revelation into death-defying flight? Surely not.

    OK, so maybe the Dumbo analogy is a bit of a stretch, but I'm sure that our favorite flying, talking elephant would agree that we only stygmatize performance anxiety because it tends to manifest itself initially in the form of poorer performance. What isn't acknowledged nearly often enough, however, is that an athlete who confronts and embraces his performance anxiety can, with determination, focus and repetition, channel his nerves into optimal performance. An all too common mistake that athletes make is avoiding the competitive side of a sport altogether after an initial overwhelming confrontation with performance anxiety. Such an experience is only traumatizing if an athlete allows it to remain so by not rationalizing his anxiety and preparing for his next bout with it. Just as an athlete prepares for the customary physical and mental rigors of a sport, so must he prepare for the inevitable advent of anxiety borne of competition.

    The universe of athletes, both elite and recreational, who experience performance anxiety is a large one. Sports lore is rife with stories of elite athletes who are able to channel acute anxiety into top-level performance. San Francisco 49ers' quarterback Joe Montana's game-winning drive in Super Bowl XXII against the Cincinnati Bengals is perhaps the quintessential example of an elite athlete converting anxiety into positive energy. In a 2000 interview with Sports Illustrated, Montana conceded, "Nerves are good. I wanted to be nervous. If you don't care, I hope you're on the other side." Similarly, several of the most anxiety-riddled rowers whom I've coached have also proven to be some of the best racers. One former athlete, whose anonymity I will protect (for my own safety), and who had an almost unparallelled ability to work herself into cyclonic hysterics before important races and tests on the rowing machine, was also a superbly aggressive and tough racer. No pre-race gaffe, including putting her oar into the oarlock backwards before a championship race, or even relieving herself at the starting line of another race (you can't make this stuff up), could deter her steadfast singular focus on the race.

  • So, if you experience performance anxiety before competitions, take courage in the experiences of a flying elephant who became the star of the circus, a quarterback who won four Super Bowls and a scholastic rower who, well, learned to take an extra trip to the restroom before getting in the boat for a race - and has won a few medals along the way.
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Published On: April 06, 2006