Emma Raducanu, the incredible 18-year-old wild-card from south London, retired from her fourth-round Wimbledon match citing chest pains. While Raducanu and her team haven’t said anything further yet, it’s been suggested that the importance of the match and her status as the final Brit standing in the tournament contributed to something akin to a panic attack. Who wouldn’t experience some kind of physical anxiety given that sort of pressure?
Few of us will ever know the intense pressure to perform that players like Raducanu have had to live with, but performance anxiety is something athletes of every level can experience from time-to-time. Perhaps you’ve felt sick on the morning of a 10km race, or you’ve lost sleep over how you’ll do in the pool or at the gym.
“With the hopes of a nation of Emma’s young shoulders – exacerbated by social media – I can’t imagine how the sudden wave of attention made her feel,” says Tess Leigh-Phillips, counsellor at The Mind Map. “Was she suffering from performance anxiety? Possibly. It seems likely but we can’t know for sure.”
So, we asked the experts to explain what performance anxiety really is and how we can best go about beating, treating or working with it to our advantage.
What is performance anxiety?
“Performance anxiety is an acute feeling of fear or threat in a situation where performance is expected, triggering the sympathetic nervous system and impacting on both our psychology and physiology,” explains psychologist Lee Chambers. That means that it can result in both mental anguish and very real, physical symptoms.
Dr Josephine Perry, sports psychologist and author of Performing Under Pressure says that those chest pains or cramps come from our “threat system” becoming “over-activated.” We start to produce too many threat-response chemicals that circulate the body, and as a result, become “unable to focus in the way that is needed to perform at our best.”
Imagine for a moment that you’ve signed up to your first parkrun. You completed the Couch to 5K programme back in lockdown one, so you know that you can do the distance but it’s been a while since you ran it and you’ve never run with other people. As the morning dawns, you start to feel a little sick, a bit light headed. Perhaps you start to sweat uncontrollably or find yourself rushing to the loo more times than would otherwise seem normal. You may not actively be thinking ‘I can’t do this’, but somewhere in your brain, you’re unsure that your legs can actually carry you over the 5km mark. Those symptoms that feel a bit like the beginnings of a heart attack are your adrenal glands going into overdrive.
Dr Perry explains that when we feel under threat (whether that’s attack from a bear or Strava), our amygdala in our brain sends adrenalin and cortisol around the body. “These are the chemicals that get us ready for fight, flight or freeze, so we can handle the scary thing that we are facing.” Those chemicals make our hearts pump faster, increasing our breathing rate. They’re also responsible for that queasy feeling in your belly.
“All of these feelings can make it hard to perform well as an athlete,” she says.
Anxiety or normal nerves?
Nerves, for the most part, are normal and Dr Perry stresses that a few nerves are good for competition – they help to switch us on, ready for action. The problems kick in when those nerves turn into full-blown panic and being able to quell the spiral before it spins out of control is key.
Chambers, director of Wellbeing Lancashire, tells Stylist that for many of us, competing is “both anxiety-inducing and exciting”. “Both are high arousal states with similar physiological responses.” That’s why it can be difficult some times differentiating between panic and every day stresses.
How to beat performance panic
Dr Perry recommends the following breathing exercise for slowing down your breath. When we panic, we can have up to 22 breaths a minute, compared to the 12-15 we normally breathe a minute. This technique, she claims, can take you down to just five which “tells your brain that the threat is subsiding.”
- Pick two colours that you love.
- Breathe the first colour in for a count of four through the nose.
- Hold for two seconds.
- Breathe out the second colour through the mouth for a count of six.
- Repeat until you actively start to feel more calm.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be “a powerful tool for combating performance anxiety,” says Leigh-Phillips, because it helps you to understand how your thoughts contribute to stress. “This evidence-based treatment can help you to reframe negative perceptions about performing in front of an audience, too.”
Experiment and prepare
Chambers suggests experimenting to find what works in reducing anxiety pre-race. This may mean thinking about the food and supplements that you’re taking “as stimulants can heighten the sensation”, and learning to visualise the excitement of finishing.
“Focus on the positives: the audience watching, running free and smoothly. Dress to look good and feel comfortable, try to smile, launch and interact with those who watch or are competing with you. Try to be yourself, acting natural and becoming grounded.”
Try this six-point plan
Dr Andy Lane is a chartered psychologist and director of research excellence at the University of Wolverhampton. He offers this six point plan for beating performance anxiety:
Learn to recognise how anxious you feel. Do you need to reduce the level of anxiety? If yes, what strategies are available to you?
Change the situation. Get yourself away from the factors that are causing the anxiety (e.g. go for a walk or a stretch away from the start line).
Modify the situation. Put on some headphones as you warm up or stick on your best playlist for the race/event itself.
Try to think about anxiety differently. “This is harder to do but over time, it’s possible to see anxiety as normal. You can start to reframe it as being a signal that the event is important and that it’s time to perform as well as you’re able.”
Engage with psychological skills to enhance confidence. Dr Lane encourages people to learn skills like self-talk and imagery to build confidence and rehearse ahead of events. If you can get used to envisioning how you’ll run a certain race or step into a gym, then you might feel better equipped when the time comes.
Hone relaxation skills. Relaxation skills can help to get concentration back under control, reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety and make you better equipped to perform. He suggests Progressive Muscle Relaxation which is where you focus on certain muscle groups as you breathe. If you’re running, you might want to start by focusing on the quads, for example. Breathe in and tense the quads for up to 10 seconds. Breathe out and suddenly and completely relax those muscles. Relax for 10-20 seconds before moving onto the glutes and notice the difference between how the muscles feel when relaxed or tense.