Combatting Performance Anxiety and Nervousness | Q&A with Coach Rebecca

Today’s Topic: Combatting Performance Anxiety and Nervousness

For those of you who don’t know, this gets turned into a podcast, it’s called the Perform Happy podcast. Ashley just came on and gave her two cents on a question from a mom. I got literally three of the exact same question, back to back, in the last 48 hours, so I was like, “Yeah, of course this what we’re gonna talk about today.” We’re going to be talking about performance anxiety and nervousness.

Update on a New Team Member: Ashley

Ashley, I love what you had to say. You guys, I don’t know if she tooted her own horn, but Ashley is a former elite gymnast, she was on the USA gymnastics national team. She then went on to compete collegiate soccer at a D1 university, and then that wasn’t enough, so she went on to play professional soccer. Now she is a four time, almost five time, Boston marathoner, and an Iron Man triathlete. In case you guys were wondering, Ashley knows what’s up. She did so great, that was her first Facebook Live.

You guys know, you’re used to hearing me every week, but all of these coaches, I’m putting them through the wringer with their own performance anxiety; not that she gets nervous. I’m having them all come on live so you can get a little taste of everybody who you have to learn from now. They’re gonna come on and give their expertise, it’s gonna expand what we can all learn here, on the live videos and on the podcast.

Performance Anxiety

Here’s my two cents on performance anxiety. I mean, this is such a huge topic. I’ve got a couple questions we’re gonna dive into. Okay, so here’s the first one. Mom is about to melt down, needs help. Her daughter had a three year mental block, and then we helped her work through it, and they were so happy, so confident. Her mom was thrilled, and her first meet is November 11th. And she has all her skills, but then she starts to feel insecure and has these kind of psychosomatic injuries, which, that was totally my jam. It was like, “My back hurts,” or, “I need ice,” or, “My ankles, I need to go wrap my ankles.”

I was always nursing an injury when it got scary, and this isn’t because I was lazy, and I guarantee you that your daughter is not lazy, she’s not trying to avoid consciously, but her brain is in fight or flight mode. And this fight or flight is what came up in another one of the questions I got from one of the members. Your brain’s in fight or flight, and it’s like, “Get me the heck out of here, quick, something else to get me out of this situation. Oh, this hurts. Ah, you have to address.” So it’s not something that’s conscious, okay? It’s performance anxiety and nervousness.

Fight or Flight

And then she also said that last night her daughter exploded, and then again this afternoon. She says she’s not ready, and basically willing herself not to do it. She’s totally irrational, saying things like”I’m making her do the meet.” Then mom says, “Okay, I’ll take you out of the meet.” Then the kid screams, “No!” She’s been dealing with this for so long, she’s exhausted. Sick of spending money, and time, and you guys know the drill, and her daughter is hysterical. Her daughter is in fight or flight mode, and I’m gonna read a couple other questions before I get into answering it, but first, this is fight or flight, you guys, that’s what happens when your brain identifies a threat.

There’s either a threat to your physical safety, or your emotional safety. Physical safety would be, you might get hurt; emotional safety is, you might fail, you might let somebody down, you might disappoint somebody. What causes that, typically, is negative thinking; expectations of failure, like, “I’m gonna screw this up, I’m gonna fail, I’m gonna fall.”

A negative idea of what’s happening to your body when you get anxious. If people are really confident, then their heart starts pounding, and they get butterflies in their stomach, and they’re like, “Whooo, let’s do this.” But if you have low self confidence, and you start to feel that way, then you go, “Oh no, I’m gonna screw this up, this is not good, this is not a good feeling.” So typically it’s those four things: negative thinking, expecting to fail, low self confidence, and thinking that those feelings are bad, very, very bad for your performance anxiety and nervousness.

Not Wanting to Go to Practice

This is from a swim mom who said that Saturday morning, as it came close to her son’s swim meet, he hid under the covers, said he didn’t wanna go, she asked why. Now, this mom has been doing so great at trying to kinda back off and let her kid take on his own swimming, and she asked why he was afraid. He said, “Well, the worst that could happen is I could drown,” they joked, and she was like, “Well, that’s why they have life guards.” She explained kind of the rational and emotional side of challenges, she was really trying to get in with this kid and listen. And she said his times didn’t matter, just go and do your best. He kept covering himself up, and they didn’t go.

Then she went after, which I think is awesome. You wait till you cool down, and then you go in for a conversation, and she said, “Okay, how can we prevent this from happening again?” And he said he hasn’t been practicing hard, he could work harder at practice. Mom, that’s a win, ’cause mom backed off. She stopped pushing him, she stopped making him go, she stopped making him focus, and she let him do his own thing, and now he’s got a natural consequence, which is way better than a parent given consequence any day of the week.

If he can notice that he hasn’t been showing up and he hasn’t been working, then it’s his choice to do it, so this is actually really good. And then, she said, “Oh yeah, it sounds like a good idea. Like, you gotta get in there and practice a litter harder.” And then he said that his friend has been teasing him, and calls him slow, and makes him feel bad.

Relationship Threat

Okay, so this has a different threat, this is a relationship threat, where our other little girl, who Ashley talked about, has the tears, and upset stomach, and nervousness before practice, you know, she might have a relationship thing going on too. And the first one I talked about, it’s more, I’m guessing, about the fear of failure. And all of these, there’s a low self confidence, there’s some negative thinking, they’re expecting to fail, and they’re thinking that those feeling of performance anxiety and nervousness is bad.

That’s what we know is happening. And so, I did a little research. Dr. Jeremy Pettit talks about the symptoms of sport anxiety, okay? These are the symptoms: reluctance to play or practice, no longer interested in a sport that was previously enjoyed, fear of doing the sport, sleep disturbances, fatigue, and depression. So that’s kind of happening here, right?

Classic anxiety. It’s not that, necessarily, they don’t wanna do it, because these moms give the kids choices. “Well, you don’t wanna do it anymore?” “Yes, of course, I love it. I don’t wanna quit.” So then you’re in this tug of war of, like, “You won’t go but you won’t quit, so what are we gonna do here?” So, what causes sport anxiety? Stress, that’s the answer. These kids are stressed out, okay? We are here in October … I know a seven year old is not gonna have the school stress that these other kids are, but you know, a 13, 14, 15 year old athlete, at this point in the year, especially a junior in high school, as the, you know, like tick, tick toward getting into college kinda cranks up, these kids are gonna start getting really stressed out.

Dealing with Stress

And what’s the best way to deal with stress? Well, there’s a couple of healthy ways to deal with stress:

  • do something you enjoy
  • engage in something pleasant
  • engage in something pleasurable
  • anything you love that isn’t swimming

You know, do something that feels good, that can kinda take your mind off of it. You know, what makes you happy? Think about what are couple things that make you happy; go do one of those in the next 48 hours, or at least in the next week.

Take Care of Your Body

Now, some people, I know world champion athletes who stress eat. They’re so stressed, so they just eat, and eat, and eat, and then they feel awful because they ate, and then they can’t move their body and practice well. So something really important is to have kind of your self-care regiment worked out. How do you feed yourself? How many hours of sleep do you need to get? Do you need to have some extra time to relax, and not talk to mom about sports?

You know, you can pre-schedule that in, like, “Mom, I don’t wanna talk about this until tomorrow. So today I get to play video games, I get to eat whatever I want, that’s not gonna make me feel bad, and I’m just gonna kick it, I’m gonna put my feet up and have a nice evening after my meet, or after my practice.”

Maintaining a Positive Perspective

Being able to look at it in a positive light. Optimism, that’s a key thread in getting over stress. If you are so stressed because you’re looking at something like, “This is the end of the world, and if I don’t do well everybody’s gonna hate me, and I might as well die.” Like, little kids especially, really, like, “If I don’t do well and my friend says I’m slow, then it’s all over.”

14 year old swimmer, trains her heart out, swims her goal times consistently in training, is happy, feels good on race day, but the nerves hit her, wham-o. That’s so common, especially with swimmers, that they swim really, really well in practice, and then they get nervous, and their body kinda shuts down on them. Okay, here’s the question. “Feels good on race day, but then the nerves hit her, wham-o, as she’s at the blocks, and she, for over a year now, struggles through the race, and is off her goal times. Is resistant to nerves on race day strategies, as they catch her out late in the piece.”

Combatting Tense Nerves

Yeah, so you don’t wanna start your mental training process in the blocks. You don’t wanna, like, listen to a relaxation exercise in the car on the way to the meet, that’s too late. You know, this is … I mean, we’re talking about self confidence, this is a deeply rooted thing. It’s negative thinking, this is something that you have to spend time doing over and over, catching your performance anxiety and nervousness, catching that you’re putting all your eggs in this basket, and then going, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.”

This is one meet out of hundreds of thousands of meets for swimmers, or out of thousands of meets for gymnasts. One meet. What’s the worst that could happen? Okay, a life guard has to dive in and scoop you out, and then you go home, and you eat pizza, and you go to bed. Or a gymnast, you fall on every single event, your parents hug you, they take you home, you watch TV, you go to bed. You know, it won’t kill you. Even if it’s the worst possible.

But it really feels that way to the athlete, you know, “Why have I been training so hard, and then I get to the competition and everything goes crazy, and then I can’t swim my best, or I can’t do my best.” I’m gonna give you guys some suggestions on how to do that. So first we’ve gotta deal with the stress, which happens way before you get in the blocks, or way before you show up at the meet. You gotta laugh more. You do need to practice relaxing, so I put a little link in for you guys to download, it’s at; there’s three guided relaxation exercises that you guys can pull up and listen to, in the car of course, but don’t wait until right before the meet. Start practicing beforehand.


Talk to other people. So that’s, you know talking to your coach, “I don’t know why I get so stressed.” Talk to your parents, “I don’t feel well.” And I mean, they’re saying, like, “My stomach hurts, my head hurts,” which means, “I am stressed and I’m anxious, and I feel like I can’t handle this feeling.” And then mom, you know, you can say, mom or dad, you can ask them, this is one of my favorite ways to deal with nerves in the moment, “What is your nervous number, on a scale of one to 10?” And you ask them, and so 10 is, like, “So nervous I’m gonna explode,” and one is, “I’m totally fine, relaxed.”

You ask them. Like, you’re in the car and you see their shoulders coming up to their ears, and you go, “Okay honey, what’s your number right now, on a scale of one to 10?” And they’re like, “I don’t know, I can’t think of that,” because their brain is in fight or flight, so they can’t think of numbers, ’cause the rational brain is checked out. They’re just in the, like, “I need to throw up and get out of here brain.” So it forces them to reengage their thinking brain.


Okay, Mary’s saying, “Yes, this is my 10 year old daughter. She’s been talking about pressure.” I know, pressure is, like, in the air right now. You ask their number, “What’s your nervous number?” And they’re like, “I don’t know,” and you kinda help them, and they’re like, “I don’t know; an eight. No, maybe it’s a seven. Seven.” And that little process, it snaps them back to reality. And then, the next thing you’re gonna do is breathe. I’ve been talking a lot about breathing; I’ve had my own stresses going on in Northern California. There’s always stress, right? You breathe, deep into your belly, and then out through your mouth. And typically with five breaths you can get that number down a notch.

And you can be at a 10 and still do okay. Every time I get up, maybe not every, but most times that I get up to speak in front of a big group of people, my body starts to go, “No, don’t do it! Don’t do it!” It’s like, you know, the human tendency to not wanna get in front of a crowd. And, like, when I first started doing Facebook Live, same deal. That’s what, you know, Rich and Ashley, I don’t know if you guys are having that experience, but my whole body was, like, “Get out of here! Don’t do it!” But so I had a little thing I do. I take breaths, I have a mantra that I say to myself. I remember that I wanna be of service, that it’s not about me, I have a whole little thing I do that centers me.

That’s something that I think every athlete should have. Every performer, everyone who ever has to do anything under pressure; have a little something. You get physically grounded, you get mentally grounded, you remember why you’re doing it. “It’s not about me, so if I screw up, who cares? And, I get to learn from it.” I get to watch back my Facebook live and be like, “Whoa, that was awkward. Okay, don’t do that again,” and then off I go. And you get perspective.

Finding Your Nervous Number

Okay, so nervous number and breathing, those are the best things in the moment, when you’re in crisis. But, long term, to try to get a handle on the anxiety, there are a lot of different exercises, so that’s why I put three of them in the free download, so you guys go ahead and download those, and you can listen to them. There’s things like progressive relaxation, where you actually tense each muscle, one at a time, and then relax; so you hold it, and relax, then the next one, and relax, then the next one, all the way through your body. And of course, it goes a lot slower than that, but it physically gets your body to have that relaxation response that tells your brain that it’s okay, that kinda calms down that fight or flight response

Visualization; I’m huge on that. I teach a lot of stuff about that in the Perform Happy community. Meditation; I’m also a big fan. Not personally, I don’t enjoy meditation, yet, I’m trying to get there, but I really enjoy the results of it, because it can just bring you back into the moment. And in this moment, everything’s always okay. You know, if you’re worried about what’s gonna be the results … Like what Ashley said, I love that, “Outcome fever,” because you’re so obsessed with the outcome, that your whole body breaks out in anxiety. And if you can get in the moment, where you’re okay, you’re breathing, you have a family, you have a home, you know, you’ve got food in your belly; you’re okay in the moment.

Preventing Nervousness in Athletes Who Compete

Okay, Alexandra is asking, “What do we tell athletes who compete, so that they won’t be nervous?” I’m so glad you asked, because that’s maybe not quite the right thing to say. Everybody gets nervous, you know? Like Shawn Johnson, and Nastia Liukin, and, you know, everybody gets nervous. Everybody gets nervous. The best of the best get nervous. If you didn’t get nervous, it would mean you didn’t care. So instead, it’s knowing that those feelings, the heart pounding, the butterflies in your stomach, everything that’s going on in your body, isn’t bad, it’s normal.

And that’s part of coming to terms with it, is going, “Yup, that’s the way I feel before I speak in front of a thousand people. Got it. Okay.” Just keep doing it, just keep going. You’ll be okay. You know, you’re gonna get in the blocks, and you’re gonna feel your heart pounding. You know, you might be standing there waiting for the judge to salute, and your stomach’s gonna be doing flips, but that’s okay.

Everybody’s feeling that. And it’s the people who don’t let it bother them that do all right. If you can perform well even though you’re feeling that way, then you have the edge, because everyone’s feeling that way, just not everybody is reacting to it like you are, if it’s messing you up.

A Long-Term Solution

Okay, so here is a more, kind of longer term solution, is you gotta get comfortable phasing in discomfort, doing something every day that scares you a little. Get out of your comfort zone. In my fear trainings I talk a lot about how to do this strategically, that you just step a little bit out of your comfort zone so it’s not gonna shock your system, but it is gonna push you, and it is gonna make the butterflies come up, and give you a chance to go, “Okay, keep going, keep going, keep going.”

“Thanks, but what do I say; you will win, or you can be better than before, or what to say before competition?” Okay, great questions Alexandra. All your job, especially around anxiety, is just say, “I love you, I can’t wait to watch you play. You’ve worked so hard. I love you. Good luck out there. Have a good time. Have fun.” The outcome is always gonna stress people out, especially if you have kind of a high-strung kid, like I was when I was a kid; high-strung, a little bit more prone to anxiety.

You don’t wanna say, “You’re gonna win!” Because then they’re like, “What if I don’t win? Then I let my mom down.” No, it’s just, “I love you, have fun. I’ll see you in an hour, we’ll go get pizza,” you know? “Let’s get ice cream, no matter what happens. You score a goal? We get pizza. You don’t score a goal? We get pizza. We get hugs, we go see a movie.”

The Impact of Anxiety

I had a figure skater who was devastated by anxiety, this poor thing, and she really thought that if she didn’t do well, if she made a single mistake, that she was letting her parents down in a big way, she was wasting their money, she was letting her coaches down, and everyone would be disappointed in her. And so she had these horrible meltdowns before every competition, until she finally realize, you know what, her parents are gonna be fine, they love her. And they made a commitment, “We will get ice cream after every competition, no matter what, until you say you don’t want ice cream.”

Okay, mom says, “That’s what I tell her if she gets nervous, ’cause she says, ‘Too much pressure.'” Yeah, well, less is more with parents. If you can just kinda, like, give her a hug, tell her you love her, you know, “You’re gonna be okay. Yeah, you feel nervous, but everybody feels nervous,” then you’ve done your job, and then it’s the coach’s job to kinda manage from there. And then you’re the soft place to land at the end of the day, when she’s gone through the wringer of competition, and you go, “You worked so hard out there, and I’m so proud of you.” Even if she fell four times, you’re like, “I could see you working hard at this, and that looked great, and I’m so proud of you.”

When Your Athlete Doesn’t Admit their Nervousness

Okay, Natasha, “What if you have a child who says she does not get nervous, but you know she does, so you never get to deal with it beforehand?” Well, what comes to mind is that she doesn’t wanna deal with it with you mom. Maybe she, like, doesn’t wanna be nervous, so she wants to be like, “I’m cool, I’m fine,” and that’s okay. You know, she can work it out on her own. That’s one of the most important things for you parents to know, is, they can work it out on their own.

This is their process, this is their sport, this is, you know, if they don’t wanna talk about it … I know, I’m sorry. She said, “Ouch.” They could probably work it out on their own, you know? And you might ask, “Is there anything I can do to help you?” before, and if she says no, then take her for her word. And if she changes that, she’ll know. You know, she told you not to say anything, you didn’t. She trusts you. And then, if she wants something from you, she’ll tell you. But yeah, the nervous number, and only if the asks.

I always, when I work with kids one on one, I tell them, “If you want your parent to do this, tell them.” Otherwise, you know, just tell them what they want. Say, “Don’t talk to me before the meet,” and then they gotta listen. Or say, “Can we just listen to music and sing in the car, and pretend like the meet’s not gonna happen?” Awesome, do that. Basically, as your kid, what does your kid want? I know I say that all the time, but if you don’t know what to do, ask your kid, and take them for their word. And if they lied, they’ll tell you the truth eventually, right? “Actually, I am nervous. Can you help me by doing this?”

Coping with Stress

Now I gotta wrap up. But finally, there’s a lot of different things necessary to cope with stress; depends on the type of stress. Sometimes it’s physical, “I’m afraid of getting hurt.” Sometimes it’s psychological, “I’m afraid of failing, I’m afraid of disappointing people.” Sometimes it’s environmental, “I’m afraid I’m gonna be late, or that the equipment isn’t gonna be good.” Expectation and pressure, I think that’s what most of you guys are dealing with. Relationship issues and life direction concerns, like, “Am I going in the right direction? Am I going toward my goals?” All of these have different, kind of solutions to cope.

A lot of it has to do with the type of thinking, getting it straightened out. So journaling can be huge, because they can look at their thoughts and go, “That’s actually kind of nuts that I’m thinking that.” Or, you know, parents, when they’ve cooled down you can talk to them about what seems to be going on here. Is that true?

What’s the possibility of that actually happening? And if there are relationship issues, like the swimmer afraid that his buddy is gonna make fun of him, have him talk to his buddy. “Hey, you know, that kind of makes me not wanna swim. Would you be nice? Would you not? Thank you.” Or, if that kid’s being mean, hang out with somebody else. Like, come up with a way to ignore that kid, get in a different lane, do something so that you don’t have to be around him at meets, if you know that that’s a trigger for you. Just know what’s the type of stress.

Performance Anxiety and Nervousness = Stress

If your kid is experiencing anxiety, they’re experiencing stress. Help them to cope with stress, whatever that is. Figure out what it is; is it a relationship? Is it the training’s too hard? Then, from there, you can go, “Okay, how can we cope with this? How can we get you in there, feeling like you have what it takes to handle this?” ‘Cause if you’re too stressed, that means you feel like you don’t have what it takes to meet the challenge that you’re facing.

So I’m gonna wrap up, because my little kid-o is ready to have her mommy back. But that’s a little bit for today. In the Perform Happy community we have a live training every week, and I’m basically gonna just keep expanding on this, kind of like what to do, what not to do, and those specific coping mechanisms. So we have a waiting list right now; if you wanna get in, Get on the list, get in there, join us for those trainings. And send questions to Thank you guys so much for joining and participating, and I will see you soon. Bye.

Is your gymnast struggling with mental blocks or fear?  Check out my FREE resource for parents.