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Performance Anxiety

Performance Anxiety

I am amazed to watch college football every fall.  I'm always excited to see who is going to win from week to week.  Surprise upsets are common, where an underdog team beats a powerhouse team full of talent.  

The great college football coaches somehow get the majority of their players to play at an optimal level.  In the example of the upset, the powerhouse team somehow underperforms and can’t capitalize on their superior talent level.  While studying psychology I heard about research that was done that can partially explain this phenomenon.  

The Yerkes-Dodson Law is based on research that shows that arousal and anxiety effect performance.  As arousal increases, performance on complex tasks, such as playing college football, will increase.  But it also says that it peaks at a certain level and then as arousal turns to anxiety, performance will decrease.  

Take another example to demonstrate this.  Imagine that someone gives a speech to their best friend.  They are likely not very nervous.  Now imagine they give that speech to a small group.  They will likely have an increase in nerves which will likely increase their performance.  Now image they are giving a speech to a huge auditorium.  They may get so nervous that they can barely speak and they forget what they want to say. 

The chart below shows that as arousal/anxiety increases, the performance will increase.  It will do this as long as it doesn’t get to high levels where it will then cause a decrease in performance.  

Somehow the great college football coaches get their players to play within this optimal level.  They are able to consistently compete at this high level and utilize their talent.  While most people tend to jump from little arousal to high anxiety and bypass the optimal level, great coaches get their players to play in the middle range.  

What are some ways to increase arousal, interest, and anxiety etc. to improve performance in someone that just can’t seem to get excited about an activity?  I always think of underperforming sales people.  How can you get them to care enough to put the effort in to be successful?  There are several ways including: holding them accountable, having punishments and repercussions, offering rewards and positive reinforcement, giving them a vested interest in the success of the company, providing a social/peer pressure element, or through competition.  

Some of these ways might help to increase arousal/anxiety (such as punishments) but they will also likely take the person from low arousal to high anxiety and completely pass the optimal level!  That is why there has been so much research validating positive reinforcement instead of punishments.  

If it is possible to increase arousal and anxiety to improve performance, how can you reduce arousal or anxiety in order to avoid the high anxiety, low performance level?

Several ways have been used by coaches, managers, teachers etc. that prove that it is possible to decrease anxiety in order to increase performance.  Examples include: practice, training, preparedness, having a neutral outcome (not dependent on their performance), avoidance, positive self talk, encouragement, and reassurance.  

In may be helpful to tell a nervous sales person that they will earn the same amount of money whether or not they make the sale but this is probably not the best solution.  A better solution would be to have them practice and increase their sales skills.  Toastmasters International uses this approach to improve public speaking skills.  Through systematic practice and encouragement, individuals are able to decrease their stress about speaking in front of groups and therefore increase performance.

In order to perform optimally on a consistent basis, develop systems that help you control anxiety.  Learn to notice when your anxiety is increasing and understand the level when it starts to hurt your performance.  The best college football coaches get their players prepared and ready to perform at a high level.  Take a cue from them and learn how to practice, train, utilize positive self talk, etc. to control your anxiety so that you can consistently perform at a high level and reach your potential!