3 Ways to Get Over Performance Anxiety and Build Mental Toughness

One of the biggest hurdles holding back an individual’s potential in life is performance anxiety especially in the most important situations. The sick anxious feeling due to the fear of failing is very real. In my 40 years as a martial arts competitor and coach I’ve seen many talented individuals fall flat when it came time to execute in front of an audience. Almost all these individuals thrived in a practice environment easily dispatching their practice partners, but for some reason they can never get over their inner turmoil.

There can be many reasons for this, one can be upbringing. Perhaps they grew up with an unsupportive or unloving parents who were constantly critical of them. This performance anxiety is not only limited to big stage events but also within the confines of the competitive sports arena or their very own workplace, even sometimes around people they are comfortable with. For many, the fear of rejection, looking like a fool, or failure is all too much handle.

To avoid this feeling, many choose to sidestep individuals or events that would challenge their perceived self-worth. Instead opting to take on easier opponents or refusing to train with teammates who would push them beyond their comfort zone.

When I see a student in the martial arts do this, I feel extremely disappointed. Most of all they don’t even realize they are letting themselves down. As humans, we have an average lifespan of 80 years give or take a few years. It’s a shame most humans on this earth live out their lives without maximizing their full potential.

Just take one moment to think about this for a second. Every one of us have dreams. When you speak to a child he or she will always say someday I want to do this, be this, or have this. Our fascination for exploring this world and all it has to offer, is at its peak during these years. However, someone or some event caused us to bury those dreams deep within our soul. A few of us rediscover this in adult life while the remainder suppress it for fear of people ridiculing us, or believing we are ridiculous for believing we can be special enough to stand along the rest of the most talented individuals. It is this limiting belief that keeps us small, preventing athletes or our careers from truly thriving.

The sad part of this whole scenario is many will feel the sting of regret when they are on their death bed, old and reflecting on what could have been. Wishing they had accomplished more, done more, loved more to make their life worth remembering, instead of doing things which others expected them to do.

If this describes you than it’s time to change how you view competition and challenges. Here are three ways to improve your mental toughness to overcome performance anxiety:

1. Embrace the Journey of Personal Improvement

Forget about the material things that you gain or could receive from your end goal such as trophies, medals, awards, money, or fame. Instead focus on the journey of steady personal growth and improvement. All the material things can be taken away but no one can ever take away what you have become.

Students always ask me how come I’m always laughing and clowning around during rolling (sparring) sessions. Don’t I ever feel pressure as a black belt to perform knowing every lower rank belt is looking to beat me? My answer to that is no because I come to train everyday to work on things that I am weak at. Perhaps it can be a new technique, my conditioning or flexibility. I might get tapped out by a lower belt while doing so but I am not training for short term gratification. I simply enjoy the process of challenging myself today to find out what it will do for the long term. What happens today is not the end result if I continue to…

  1. Take note of the challenge / problem
  2. Formulate a new possibilities (Study other high performers, research, ask questions)
  3. Test those possibles under stressful conditions against the best performers
  4. disregard what is not working
  5. Implement what is working
  6. Rinse and repeat the process

2. Change Your Perspective

Recently, I had a student tell me how they are always scared to roll during training. My response was, “Why? What is the worst thing that can happen to you if you get tapped out? Come on it’s not like you are going to be grappled to death!” When I made that statement he realized it was his pride and ego that was hindering his progression.

My favorite is when a student tells me they had a horrible week and life is horrible. Well, I can just turn on the TV to see the many refugees who are running through the snow with baby in hand to cross the Canada US border to avoid being sent back to Syria. It’s time to get serious, we live in a great country and have been spoiled to what we view as problems. When you see people fleeing war it’s hard listen to excuses of people who live in a country free of persecution.

In the end, sport is just a game, screwing up a is not the end of the world. You will live, no one will banish you to hell for it. All you need to do is learn, hit the reset button, and do it better the next time. To do it better you must confront that mistake by setting aside your pride and ego, constantly subjecting yourself daily to correct that weakness until it becomes a strength.

3. Practice Mindfulness

Clearing your mind of mental clutter before your big event or even to live a life of calm in a busy world, the practice of mindfulness can be a key ally in building mental toughness. When we encounter performance anxiety, negative thoughts begin to roam freely. As we sit and think about all the things that could go wrong we begin to self-doubt our abilities, leading to a less than ideal outcome.

Yoga, deep breathing, visualization, and meditation are all great exercises to partake in helping one ground themselves in the moment. Many sports teams and corporations have adopted these practices into their daily routines to enhance performance.

Although I enjoy these exercises, the one I found most beneficial is qigong. Used for centuries first by Buddhist monks and later by martial artists to cultivate internal power known as qi (chi). Often referred to as moving meditation, it’s a series of simple but effective slow graceful wave like movements. Studies by Harvard Medical school have studied and documented the effectiveness of tai chi movements in relieving stress, improving circulation and mental well-being.

When people hear the word mental toughness, images such as limping football players staying in the game despite pain come to mind. However, it goes way beyond that, mental toughness is the mindset of how we do things day in day out. These principles don’t just apply to athletes but in every area of your life; work, relationships, happiness, or emotions. Spend an equal amount of time mastering your inner game and your physical game. You will begin to see more success while reducing your anxiety. Have fun with the process!

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photo credit: 143d Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) Grit. Guts. Glory: 143rd ESC Soldiers support Tough Mudder Challenge via photopin (license)

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