How Can We Talk to Young Students About Performance Anxiety?

The days of hanging out in a friend’s back yard after school or cruising around the neighborhood on bikes are being replaced by 8-yr olds running in 80-degree heat to cut weight for Pop Warner kiddie football weigh-ins (true story) and middle school children being dropped off for early morning swim practice with a mug of coffee (also true).

From athletics to academics to music, there seems to be more pressure than ever for children to become overachieving whiz kids who will get into all the right schools and have successful high-income careers.

And to hear parents, teachers, and administrators tell it, the stress is evident, even if the kids can’t quite articulate what they are experiencing.

There are good questions being raised about whether this pressure is helping or hurting our students’ likelihood of success in the long run as creativity is a necessarily messy process, that will only flourish to the degree that mistakes and “failure” are accepted as temporary points of reflection along the way.

But regardless of whether this pressure has a net positive or negative effect on our kids, the issues are amplified when our students don’t have the tools to handle this kind of stress effectively.

But how do we bring up such a topic with young children? And what are we supposed to say, anyway?

“It’s ok, you don’t have to get on stage if you don’t want?”

“Suck it up and get your butt out there?”

We could certainly shy away from talking about it. But then that sends the message that they shouldn’t feel what they feel, that being nervous is bad, that there’s something wrong with them if they feel anxious, that they’re abnormal, that performance stress is a taboo subject, or something to fear.

So how can we talk about performance pressure, nerves, and stage fright in the most open, natural, and helpful way?

My Little Pony

My kids were watching episodes of My Little Pony on Netflix the other day, and while I resisted watching at first, I quickly became a fan of the show. So much so, that I actually spent some time tracking down the creator of the show to see if there was any way I could contribute.

Huh? Why?!

Many of the show’s themes revolve around psychology and performance. From developing a stronger sense of self, to trusting one’s own artistic values, to dealing with stage fright, the show does a great job of creating stories around key psychological principles in a way that resonates with youngsters, avoids stigmatizing these experiences, and most importantly, paves the way for an open dialogue about how best to respond in these kinds of situations.

After all, it’s a lot easier to talk about a situation you see in a TV show, and then gently shift the focus to the child’s life than to dive into a student’s situation right off the bat with a barrage of questions. Remember how helpful Aesop’s fables were in learning lessons about life, as opposed to having these lessons delivered via lecture? Same idea.

My Little Pony on stage fright

My favorite episode deals with the issue of stage fright, peak performance, and overconfidence. I’ve watched the episode more times than I’d care to admit, and there are at least 3 or 4 key scenes that would be great conversation starters.

When you watch this episode, keep a pen and paper handy. What key performance psychology principles do you notice? And how might you start a conversation about these points with a student?

Activity: Share your observations below in the comments. I’ll share a few of my own down below – but no peeking until you’ve watched the episode!

Sonic Rainboom

My observations

[expand title=”Click here to reveal my notes”](1) Rainbow Dash is focused on outcomes like winning the competition, getting the prize, impressing others, proving naysayers wrong, maintaining a reputation, etc. The alternative? Focus on the process.

(2) During the competition she is focused on mistakes, and tries to hard to redeem herself by doing something more impressive after each failure. The alternative? Stay in the moment, have a recovery strategy, and don’t self-evaluate until afterwards.

(3) Rarity demonstrates that overconfidence and vanity are not the answer either.[/expand]

Main takeaway

For me, the moral of the story is that when we try to impress our peers and judges, please our parents and teachers, play everything in tune, hit the high notes, and play “perfectly,” we experience more pressure and fall short of our target.

Conversely, when we focus on the big picture of making/creating music and the larger purpose of that endeavor (making someone feel something, experience beauty, speak to them in a way that words may not, and so on) we often play better in tune, hit the high notes more effortlessly, experience less pressure, and enjoy ourselves more.

As Rainbow Dash learned, the paradox of peak performance is that we often get all the things we want when we approach them obliquely. When we keep our focus on something bigger than ourselves, or something that matters more than hitting notes and feeding our ego, the acclaim, the prizes, and financial rewards often follow.

photo credit: Lotus Carroll via photopin cc

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


5 Responses

  1. Besides the main ones, which you’ve covered, a few others:

    – We often think we’re giving it our all, when actually there’s plenty of room for improvement – as when Fleur cheers at the beginning and thinks she did too much even though her cheers were all pretty weak

    – Not a good idea to try something in performance if you’ve never practiced it before, e.g., Rarity’s attempt to fly up to the sun

  2. Focussing on the big picture, instead of impressing the judges, is something that most people have to learn to get over. Some people move on after a while but others stay there forever. Seeing the big picture might not win you big awards right away, but it’ll pay off in the long run.
    For example, while most Canadians don’t write SATs, there is an immense amount of pressure to get high marks. In the midst of trying to get higher marks, students forget to “learn”, and go to school just for the sake of it. This means most people take the easiest possible courses and do the least amount of work possible, to “save up” for the harder subjects. They don’t see that high school preps you for life and culture; e.g. I wish I would’ve learned about WWII for myself, not for the exam that I can’t remember anything about, so I wouldn’t have to look it up on Google again.
    My Little Pony seems to be a better alternative to Spongebob; after watching that first episode, I am almost sold– a little girl I know has been trying to convince me to watch the show for a long time now!

  3. Hello Dr. Noa my name is gideon jonathan,4rm nigeria and I’m a music student,I play drums 2 be precise.I just want to say a big thank you to you 4 helping young musicians like myself striving 2 grow,u’ve really been a source of inspiration 2 me,I’ve learnt quite a lot from you,thank you very much.

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