Navigating Performance Anxiety for Students and Athletes

Editor’s Note: This article is a guest post by Dr. Lindsay Shortliffe, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Palo Alto, California.  She works with a wide variety of client concerns, and has specialized experience in work with adolescents and young adults from her work in university counseling centers.  She also specializes in working with anxiety and multicultural concerns.  For more information about her and her practice, please visit:

Do you ever find it difficult to speak up in class, even when you are pretty sure you know the answer?  Maybe you feel overwhelmed when you have to give a presentation – your voice shakes, it seems like your heart is beating out of your chest, and you have trouble remembering what you were planning to say.  Do you find that no matter how hard you study for an exam, when sitting down to take it, you blank out and have difficulty focusing?  Or do you find that when playing a sport you have difficulty performing at your best when the pressure is on?  Although it can sometimes feel like you are all alone in these experiences, this type of performance anxiety is actually quite common among students. 

Many psychologists believe that the problem with anxiety is that it is based in a system that was built to alert us of life threatening situations like woolly mammoths stampeding or saber-toothed tigers attacking.  It is an old response to danger that is not always appropriate for what we perceive as current threats.  The physical responses of an increased heart rate, sweating and quickened breathing, that many people experience when anxious, is our sympathetic nervous system preparing us for “fight or flight.”  This response may have been helpful to early humans who had to defend themselves against physical threats, but seems to have spread to other types of situations where these physical and emotional reactions are no longer useful or appropriate.

The good news is that there are ways to retrain yourself so that the type of stressful situations that you experience at school do not alert either the physical or psychological responses that can interfere with your performance in class or on the field.  Here are some tips to keep in mind when combating anxiety in your life:

  • Avoidance is working against you.  The rush of relief that you experience when you escape another class without having had to speak up or decide to put off looking at the exam materials may feel good.  However, over time this trains you to escape situations that make you nervous, which makes it much harder to face them in the future.  The best way to address this is by pushing yourself to do some of the things that feel scary even though they are uncomfortable.  Exposing yourself to situations where you feel anxiety is getting in the way of your success will actually lead to those feelings of nervousness disappearing over time.  Sometimes joining groups such as a debate team can help you push yourself to do the things that feel scary and get you used to the anxious responses that may come up.
  • Practice makes perfect.  Practicing the things that make you feel anxious repeatedly is another way of reducing anxiety.  If it is an exam or a presentation, you want to practice them in situations where there is some sense of pressure, such as the practice exams offered by Cardinal Education, because it gives you the opportunity to be exposed to and to get used to the feelings of anxiety that are produced.  This way, when it counts, those feelings will not be as likely to get in the way.
  • Learn to relax your body.  Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation (where you tense and release different muscle groups), can reduce some of the physical symptoms of anxiety.  There are many CDs and websites with mp3s for guided relaxation exercises to help you learn these methods of relaxation.

    Think Positive

    Positive thinking can help lead you to success!

  • Skip the caffeine.  Unfortunately, caffeine produces many of the same physical responses as anxiety.  Because you associate these responses with being anxious, your brain often starts going looking for reasons you should be nervous and can end up finding something to be worried about.  Therefore, if you experience anxiety, caffeine is not your friend.
  • Visualize success.  We have a tendency to create what our mind imagines.  Sports psychologists emphasize that repeated visualization of performing well can result in peak performance, where as imagining yourself failing often results in failing to show true capabilities.  This means that imagining yourself missing a field goal or saying something “stupid” in class makes it more likely that you will have difficulty when actually in the situation.  Instead, take time to imagine yourself performing at your best and demonstrating your true abilities.
  • Cut out negative thinking. That voice in your head that criticizes you, tells you you are going to fail, or puts the pressure on is not helping you.  Many students worry that if they do not push themselves in this way they will lose motivation to perform well.  However, visualizing your goals and success can create the same motivation without introducing the kinds of thoughts that tend to increase anxiety and interfere with performance.  If you catch yourself thinking in this way, imagine a big red stop sign and internally say, “Stop!”  Then, try to encourage yourself with more positive self-talk, the way you might encourage a friend.

Many of these suggestions are easier said than done.  If you need additional support in learning to address this kind of normal anxiety, you should consider meeting with a psychologist.  They can help you to develop the kinds of skills that will help you in performance situations throughout your life.

Like what you see here? We are happy to permit you to use our material as long as you link back! Please refer to us as the Cardinal Education Blog.

1 Response to “Navigating Performance Anxiety for Students and Athletes”

  1. 1 Dr. Lindsay Shortliffe: Licensed Clinical Psychologist Trackback on October 15, 2012 at 8:13 AM

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