Picture this, you’re standing in the curtain wings, the judges are waiting patiently for the next competitor, and your number is about to get called. Nearly a year’s worth of work comes down to this moment. Though you can’t see them from the wings, you know your loved ones, your teammates, and your friends are in the audience waiting for you to make your entrance. During every practice, through all your training, you’ve been a rock star, someone who people look up to, but today the stakes feel too high, the pressure is mounting and your hands are starting to sweat. You feel your heart pounding and eventually it feels like it’s drowning out every other sound. It’s getting harder and harder to focus and what feels like hours has only been seconds. You take your first step on the stage, the music plays and you stumble, your start is less than stellar. Your confidence hits the floor and the rest of your routine, your performance, seems like a repeat of your first step, stumbles.
Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? Where the pressure and the nerves derailed your ability to perform at your best? Optimal performance becomes impossible under these circumstances and leads to even greater anxiety and fear. Why is it that for some, they seem to effortlessly transition to performing without paralyzing anxiety?
As a certified mental performance consultant, I have learned how to help my clients overcome obstacles like performance anxiety through the use of psychological interventions and techniques. While there’s a tremendous amount of information in the world of sports and performance psychology that can benefit a performer, I have found the best place to start is with awareness. As I’ve heard from colleagues, podcasts, and my own work in the field, “You can’t grow if you don’t know.”
Why Awareness Is Key
If we consciously follow our thought process, it often is triggered by noticing something, becoming aware of it, thinking about it, and then choosing to act. When one is aware, they can make a choice regarding their action versus falling prey to unconscious or negative patterns.
On the flip side, when we’re distracted, our ability to think critically and accurately address movement and performance from a mental standpoint is impeded. The absence of awareness keeps us from attending to the inner experiences that are impacting our ability to perform. Without awareness, it becomes nearly impossible to implement the techniques and mental skills that could be helpful because we don’t know what we need. Awareness is the foundation.
When we look at the physical aspect, we have the ability to see and re-watch our movements through film. The visuals provide immediate feedback and we’re able to gain an outer awareness in retrospect. There’s a more tangible system to use to look back and to see a physical mistake or fault, or what we’ve done well and how to keep doing it. It’s visible. But the mental side requires introspective work.
It’s lack of visibility requires us to get to know ourselves in a deeper way, to recognize our tendencies in performance moments. By paying attention to our thoughts and feelings, we can identify patterns and correlations in which to continue or alter. With that data, we can start to piece together the unique ingredients that lead to one’s personal optimal performance. Once that road map is developed, we work towards replicating it until it is mastered.
A key component to not only building awareness is accepting awareness. By first acknowledging and accepting where you are in your skill level, it becomes easier to honor the process and make a more solid commitment to reaching your goals. Think of it this way, when you walk up to a map whether it’s a ski map, hiking trail map, or even the GPS on your phone, what is the first thing you do? Most likely, you look for where you are on the map! The same idea applies here, seeing where you are in your skills and then zooming out a bit to get a clear picture of where you want to go and the steps that will be necessary to get you there.
As we dive deeper into awareness, there are pieces to it that I’ll touch on that also foster enjoyment of being, of movement, and of performance. Movement is a broad term, and I’m keeping it that way purposefully because this applies to everyone in the movement and performance world.
Consider how much time in a day your thoughts are focused on the task at hand or simply just present to the moment. Studies have shown that our minds wander roughly 47% of the time. Meaning half the time our brains are floating around in la la land instead of focusing on what’s right in front of us!
During these times, in particular, mental floating may be heightened for a lot of us. On top of the way our brains have been trained to function, this new normal we’re in due to COVID has most likely impacted how you relate to movement practices in ways you may never have previously.
For example, we now have additional things to be aware of like masks, gloves, minding proximity, fear of getting sick, or bringing the sickness to others. This state of worry and caution activates heightened awareness. It takes us away from the present and creates distractions that can hinder our abilities, experiences of joy, the ability to be creative, and our performances.
We’re also more likely to get injured when operating from a fear-based mindset due to heightened tension. It’s not about having an absence of thoughts that take us out of awareness. It’s more of having a transformed relationship with the thoughts and seeing them as they are.