Have you ever experienced performance anxiety? Do your nerves tend to overtake you before any big sporting event or other public performance?

Many people are challenged with debilitating performance anxiety, and one of our listeners recently wrote in to ask that we cover a special episode on the topic. So, today we’ll be discussing some powerful tools to help you rid yourself of the nerves and bring your performance to a whole new level!

Now, for those of you who may be thinking that a sports discussion really isn’t for you, hold tight—the tools we use to combat performance anxiety can also be used for combatting difficulties with things like public speaking and voicing your opinions effectively at work.

No matter what anxiety issues you may be experiencing in public, you will probably benefit from this discussion.

So, what’s the big deal about “game day” anyway? Why do we let ourselves get so worked up about it? Instinctively, we understand what it is that makes us so nervous, but it can be hard to put it into words. As a teenager, I remember dreading game day: events were scheduled during the day, as opposed to the evenings when we practiced, which felt awkward to me physically; and the coaches and other players would get so worked up that they’d be yelling at each other (and me) aggressively, which felt awful to me mentally and emotionally. When we take an objective glance at this scenario, it’s not hard to grasp what would cause it to be anxiety-inducing for most people.

All of the obstacles above ultimately point to one thing: approval anxiety.

Think about it—why would it be upsetting for me to have to play at a different time of day? Because midday is much hotter than evening, and I don’t play well in heat, so I was worried that I would upset my team by playing beneath my abilities. Why would I care about the shouting and teammate-focused aggression? Because it made me feel as though my teammates were disappointed in me, which made me nervous that I’d mess up and that they’d hate me as a result.

Performance anxiety is really based in the fear of being judged by others—your team, the coaches, your parents, the fans, the cute girl in the stands . . . everyone.

Some of you might be thinking that you’re just competitive and that your anxiety is really based in needing to win. For those people, I have one question: what happens if you lose? Do you just shrug and go home without having anyone to face the next day? No. When you lose, you experience feelings of failure—you have to interact with people who were rooting so hard for you to win just moments before. Whether you care to admit it or not, all performance anxiety is at least partly based in fearing judgment.

The problem here is that you can never achieve satisfaction by seeking it through the approval of others.

If you truly want to find lasting happiness and satisfaction with your work, you must find ways to feel pride and confidence in your abilities from within.

As athletes, we always want to make sure that we are functioning in a peak state so that we can consistently experience our abilities at their best on a daily basis and begin to build that steady belief in ourselves.

The best way for us to do this when dealing with any physical activity is to activate the energy in our minds and bodies.

There are probably many ways to accomplish this, and each person will be affected differently by varying activities. I find that what works best for me is to put on a song that makes me feel powerful and start moving—I jump around the room, I get into the music, and I let my arms and fists pump into the air. I talk out loud with passionate energy and let my words excite my mind.

Once you’ve boosted your physiology, you must next focus on exactly what it is that you want to achieve and begin to reinforce your determination with any mantras or positive phrases you like: 

                                    I’m the man (or woman!). I got this!

                                    There is nothing standing in my way.

                                    I am more powerful than I have ever been.

                                    I am a badass, and I am up to whatever challenges come my way.

                                    The other guys have got nothing on me.

Whatever wording works for you . . . go for it! Stay positive and get cocky.

If you’re sitting there thinking, This sounds too ridiculous—I don’t think I could do it, take a moment and consider what you see when you watch NFL football players before a game or boxers before they enter the ring. They’re not just standing there sipping Gatorade—they’re engaging in this exact practice . . . unabashedly . . . on national television.

If you still find this too intimidating, however, you should consider taking my course, Confidence Unleashed. In it, we spend a great deal of time working on ways to activate our energy so that we can function at a peak state. This is a life skill that will greatly enhance your confidence in just about every area of your life, so I highly recommend that you begin the practice in any capacity that you can.

Another great performance enhancement tool is visualization (this one you’ve probably heard of before). Since we’re probably all familiar with this—or can extrapolate the idea from the name—I’d like to offer a twist to this tool: reverse visualization.

There is an old Daoist saying that goes,

“A person often meets his destiny on the path he took to avoid it.”

All this means is that we actually bring about the things we most want to avoid by putting all of our energy into trying to avoid them.

This might be one reason that samurai warriors used to practice the concept of “dying before going into battle.” They knew that by accepting death as a possible outcome, they would be able to go into battle without fearing it, thereby giving themselves to the battle fully.

Reverse visualization is the modern (and less extreme) equivalent of that practice. To engage in it, we actually picture the worstwe picture the thing we’re most afraid of.

Since I’m a soccer player, I’ll use that as an example. My worst fear as a competitor was that I’d be slow, miss goals, frustrate my teammates and disappoint the people in the stands. If I were to practice reverse visualization, I’d get comfortable, close my eyes and begin to picture these events unfolding in the third person, as though I were a bystander.

This point is important: if you can remain objective about the situation, you are more likely to reach a place of peace about the possibility of a negative outcome.

This is why it’s best to visualize it happening as though you were watching from the outside.

What you’ll begin to notice as you practice reverse visualization for the first time is that it can be quite uncomfortable. You might even feel the same emotions you would if you were really experiencing it: fear, embarrassment, shame, disappointment.

What you will also notice, however, is that these feelings will begin to dissipate after a few minutes. They may grow in intensity for the first five to ten minutes, but after that, your system will begin to acclimate, and your mind will begin to let go of the fear that has been holding you back from pushing toward your goals full throttle.

By engaging in reverse visualization, we look the beast right in the eyes.

We unmask the monster in the closet and see that it was nothing more than a teddy bear the whole time.

Only then can we accept the truth: to experience the worst might be uncomfortable and difficult, but it will not kill you. You will survive it, and to do so won’t be that bad.

At the end of the day, your worth as a human being is not tied to your performance. Reverse visualization simply helps you to gain that perspective. And, of course, after having reached a place of comfort with the possibility of failure, you can go back to engaging in traditional visualization, picturing yourself scoring the goals and winning the big game from a place of power instead of desperation!

Again, we’ve been discussing mostly sports in this episode, but this is an incredibly powerful tool for anyone experiencing anxiety in just about any public situation. You can learn to let go of the need for perfection. You don’t have to see these moments as performances.

What if there were no stakes at all? What if none of it really mattered?

Even if everyone you know (including yourself) is telling you that this is the most important event of your life, the truth is that it is not. Sure, it might be important to you in that moment, but in the grand scheme of life, it is a speck on the map. Even the Super Bowl is something that can be lost without causing massive trauma to anyone involved, and that’s considered to be the most important and widely-televised American sporting event of the year.

This stuff comes and goes. It fades in our memories and loses significance over time. Why waste one minute of our lives agonizing over the outcome of a sporting event when we could be enjoying the things and people we love? If you can reach the point at which you are able to say, “It’s just a game,” you will begin to experience a peace and a freedom you couldn’t have imagined was possible.

As always, I appreciate your attention and interest in this material, and I encourage you to “like” or subscribe using the available links and to share your thoughts in the comments below. What performance strategies work best for you? How has reverse visualization changed your perspective? Keep sharing your stories so that we can all connect with each other and continue to learn together. Until we speak again, may you have the courage to be who you are and to know on a deep level that you’re awesome. I’ll talk to you soon.

Dr. Aziz