How Much Anxiety Is Best for Performance?

“What a great performance – were you nervous?”

“You seem so calm on stage – how do you not get nervous?”

“There’s nothing to be nervous about – you’ll be great!”

Well-meaning parents, teachers, and fellow students often commend us on our poise and ability to keep our cool in performances from a young age.

Yet these best of intentions often backfire, as innocent remarks like the ones above send the implicit message that there is something bad or wrong with being nervous. That we shouldn’t feel that way, and if we do, that it’s a sign of trouble.

Feeling those butterflies and pre-performance jitters is not much fun, but is anxiety a reliable predictor of poor performance? Or is this just a myth?

Meet Yuri Hanin

In 1975, Yuri Hanin, a Russian sport psychology researcher, was invited to work with a group of Russia’s top divers preparing for the Olympics. At the time, the prevailing belief was that a moderate amount of anxiety was best for optimal performance. But what he observed amongst the elite athletes at this competition did not seem to fit.

Curiously, he noticed that some athletes were calm, relaxed, and confident, but did not perform up to their abilities. While other athletes were extremely successful at relatively high levels of anxiety.

What?!

This seeming paradox led him to study hundreds more elite athletes in the hopes of figuring out just what the relationship was between anxiety and performance.

What he found was that there was no one-size-fits-all rule. It all depended on the individual athlete.

The IZOF model

Hanin’s data suggested that every athlete has an optimal zone of anxiety in which they are likely to have their best performances. If they are in their optimal zone, they will probably perform well. If they are out of their zone, they will likely perform below their abilities.

And believe it or not, calm is not always better! A surprising number of individuals perform their best when they’re quite high in anxiety.

In one study of elite female distance runners, researchers found that 30% performed their best when anxiety was significantly elevated. In a study of collegiate track and field athletes, it was found that 51% of men and 48% of women had their best performances when anxiety was high. Studies of athletes in other sports have found similar types of variability in ranges of optimal anxiety as well.

Though there isn’t a lot of research on musicians and their optimal zones of anxiety, at least anecdotally, Hanin’s IZOF (Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning) model seems to be pretty reflective of what I’ve observed in class. Whether it’s a pre-college student, grad student, or seasoned musician, very few have reported having their best performances when totally calm and relaxed. Most peak performances have occurred when their anxiety, energy, or activation was in the moderate to high range.

Is it pleasant and comfortable? No, not particularly. But does the anxiety help them “bring it” and mobilize their focus? Absolutely.

Think back to your own two or three absolute best performances. Where would you put your anxiety on a scale of 1-10?

1-3? 4-6? 7-10?

Getting into the zone

The good news is that we don’t have to leave things to chance. For one, we can learn how to gain more control over our natural fight or flight response. Developing a pre-performance routine, learning how to control our focus of attention, and gaining more control over our physical response are all learnable skills.

Plus, we can learn to expand our optimal zone of functioning – to play at a higher level even when we’re feeling nervous, our hands are cold, and our muscles are tight. Again, not comfortable, but practicing with pressure can help us perform better with pressure.

The worst thing we can do is send the wrong message to our young performers or buy into this myth ourselves that being nervous is a bad thing. Actually, in many cases, not being nervous could be a sign that we might be getting a little overconfident and ought to worry a tad more.

Take action

If you haven’t experimented with pre-performance routines, that would be a great place to start (here’s one to try).

Mock auditions and performances can be a huge help too.

Because at the end of the day, as violinist Midori explains in this video , trying to bring the practice room to the concert hall doesn’t work so well in the long run.

Work on bringing the concert hall to the practice room, and you’ll find yourself in a much better position to thrive in real pressure situations!

The one-sentence summary

“It’s okay to have butterflies in your stomach. The key is to make them fly in formation.”  ~Unknown

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

12 Responses

  1. Also, don’t dismiss the powerful energy in those butterflies. Focus on the beauty of the creatures and make positive use of these forces. Make them part of your team.

  2. I know that my optimal energy is very low … which sort of stinks because it’s almost never low when a person is actually performing. Thus I am musical by composing, which is acceptable to do alone, at one’s own pace, and in private. 🙂

  3. I think this kind of hearkens back to one of your previous articles where you spoke about smaller performances and why it was important to take those seriously as well. I think it’s possible to develop the skill to control the “butterflies” in a smaller, less risk environment like a small performance.

    The trick would be to be able to activate your anxiety without needing to be in an important performance. It’s about always taking yourself and your craft seriously in the sense that every time you play you want to make that impression that will last.

    If that seems like too much of a mental burden then you can “decompress the pressure” by jamming or playing in your room for yourself.

  4. Some years ago I heard a sports psychologist talk about the ideal collaborative situation: when opposite adrenalin-types perform together and balance each other out.
    Ever found this to be true? Of course, we can’t always choose our partners by adrenaline output.
    I also agree that going into butterflies with acceptance instead of control is much more effective as it tends to allow the chemical/neurological processes to finish sooner. Find another interesting article by Barbara Conable called “What to Do about Performance Anxiety” at http://www.bodymap.org.

  5. Just remembered my Oh So Favorite Piece of Advice that I got about stage fear or nervousness, and don’t forget that today is opposite day:

    “If you practiced more, you wouldn’t be scared.”

    Possibly the most counterproductive piece of “advice” that’s ever been given, even more so than, “Just relax,” and “It’ll be fine.”

  6. I have an audition next week.
    I am always nervous when I am on stage, and to me it is very hard to play at my best under those conditions. Even when I think that I am relatively calm, my brain does not respond as it does in the practice room, and overall I feel very uncomfortable. Not to talk that I always have frozen hands before and during an important performance, and that makes me feel even more uncomfortable.
    However, even in those conditions I have been able to win some important auditions in the past (So that kinda gives me some confidence) and in theory this audition I am having next week is easier than the ones I have had. However I am taking this audition very seriously and of course I will try to do my best performance.

    I have a question. Pretty often it happens (not only to me I think), that you are preparing for an audition or competition and then you discover that some particular person will be also taking part in that competition. And you know that that particular person is very strong and has a huge chance of beating you.
    So, what can you do in those situations? You should simply do not give a damn about the other person and just focus on yourself? You should have hopes that as strong as he is, he may make mistakes the day of the competition?
    What is the correct way of dealing with those kind of worries?
    It is already stressful enough when the day of the audition is aproaching and you know that you are not 100% prepared yet. So to also have to worry about the other guy is really horrible. So how to deal with it?

    Other than that huge props to you for this website. It has very very helpful articles!
    Thank you very much!

    1. Pawel,

      In any case I think it’s best to focus your mind on the task at hand which is preparing for your audition. Try to play ignorance to the abilities of the competition, but assume that when you are resting they are practicing. A lot can be said for just keeping your head down.

      -Kyle

    2. Hi Pawel,

      One of the key factors in performing your best under pressure is focus. Meaning, are you thinking about things that are going to help? Or make things worse? And if it’s not helping, it’s making things worse – there’s no middle ground.

      The more of our attention can be devoted to things we control (and you can’t control how well or poorly this other person plays), the closer to our potential we will be able to play. And at the end of the day, it’s not like you can flip a switch in your head and play better than you can play just because this other person is there. The most we can hope for, is that we are able to walk out of the audition feeling really great about how we played. This is your main goal – not to win, not to beat the other person, but to do the things you need to do to be able to walk out feeling great. This is the one thing you have the most direct control over anyhow.

      Some reminders you may find helpful to read:
      https://bulletproofmusician.com/ace-your-next-performance-by-practicing-like-a-tennis-pro-ha-see-what-i-did-there/
      https://bulletproofmusician.com/what-should-you-think-about-when-you-perform/

      We’ll never be 100% prepared, so when the day comes, there’s no need to play tentatively or apologetically. Just remember to trust yourself and go for it! Good luck!

  7. Hi Doc I am a musician myself. I remember when I first played the drums in my group when we had our first gig I was a wreck. A few years ago when I stated to play the keyboard for my local church I almost fell off the bench, I was that nervous. What I can tell everyone is that there is a measure of anxiety for everyone before a performance, but when the show starts it melts away.

    Lately on my blog http://howtoovercomeanxiety.org I have many people who are suffering from performance anxiety and panic attacks. I often let them know that first they can do whatever they desire, but to really destress, they need to focus on what they want to get accomplished, give it their all and if they see signs of any anxiety either get a partner that can motivate them or take their time with the project because pressure of finishing maybe too great. Let me know please what you think.

    Ryan Hill

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