What Leads to Better Performances: Telling Yourself to Calm Down? Or Get Excited?

I think there are two types of people in the world. 

Roller coaster people. And non-roller coaster people. 

Roller coaster people are the ones with their hands in the air, smiles on their face, who scream, woo-hoo, and look excited and happy after the ride.

Non-roller coaster people (like me) are the ones who apply a death grip to the seat belt/bar/anything for dear life, have fear in their eyes, try valiantly to calm themselves down and avoid freaking out, and look relieved when the ride is over. 

I’ve learned that trying to calm myself down before roller coasters, demon drops, bungee jumps, and other such death-defying modes of “entertainment,” is pretty much an exercise in futility, and guarantees a miserable experience form start to finish

What does this have to do with performing? 

As it turns out, trying to calm down before a performance may not only be similarly futile, but counterproductive to boot. 

Arousal and activation

As we wait in the wings, or walk out on stage, our heart starts beating faster and we feel increasingly jittery. We know it’s normal, but that doesn’t make us feel any better, and we start worrying that this is going to derail our performance.

We generally refer to this unpleasant experience as “nerves” or “anxiety,” but technically, those terms are not accurate. 

Officially, this heightened physiological fight-or-flight state is known as “arousal” or “activation” by sport psychologists (you’ll see why in a moment). 

Our instinct is to try to calm ourselves down and downshift the heck away from this higher-energy state. However, the state of being physically activated is in and of itself neither positive or negative.

It’s the emotional component on top of the arousal state that makes it either positive or negative, helpful or hurtful. 

Anxiety vs. excitement

Anxiety, for instance, feels bad, tends to disrupt performances, and involves a negative emotional component. (i.e. anxiety = arousal + negative emotion)

Excitement, on the other hand, entails a similar physiological experience, but feels much more positive and tends to enhance performance. (i.e. excitement = arousal + positive emotion)

Sport psychologists have know for some time that successful performers tend to interpret pre-performance activation as excitement. That they’re pumped up and ready to tackle the challenge ahead of them. 

A recent set of studies suggest that being “excited” does indeed lead to better performances. Even more interestingly, it appears that switching from being anxious to being excited may not be as difficult as one would think. 

Singing performance

In one study, subjects were asked to sing Don't Stop Believin' by Journey on a karaoke program, in front of an observer, where the amount of money they received would depend on their singing accuracy score (volume, pitch, and note duration).

Before singing, they were asked “How are you feeling?”

One group was required to respond by saying “I am anxious.”

Another group was required to respond “I am excited.”

And a third group wasn’t asked how they were feeling at all.

Singing accuracy was highest in the “excited” condition (80.52%) and lowest in the “anxious” condition (52.98%). This was significantly worse than the group which wasn’t asked about their feelings at all (69.27%).

Public speaking performance

Another group of subjects was asked to prepare a 2-3 min speech on a specific topic, which was to be delivered on camera, and later judged by a panel of their peers.

The subjects were asked to say either “I am excited” or “I am calm” out loud, and then delivered their speech.

A 3-person panel then viewed the speeches, and rated the subjects on a variety of factors.

The “excited” group was rated as being more persuasive, more competent, more confident, more persistent, and interestingly, they also gave longer speeches – 35 seconds longer on average.

Math performance

A third group of subjects was tested on their ability to solve a series of difficult math problems under time pressure.

One group was urged to “try to get excited.” Another group was urged to “try to remain calm.” And a third group was told nothing at all.

The “excited” group scored the highest – with an average score of 45%. The “calm” group and the group which was given no instructions at all both scored significantly lower – 36.75%.

Take action

So the next time you have a performance, and the fight-or-flight response starts to kick in, don’t tell people you are nervous! And don’t stress out if you aren’t feeling as calm as you’d like.

Try saying “I am excited!” to yourself – even out loud – and see what happens when you embrace the energy and heightened focus that comes with the adrenaline.

photo credit: Au Kirk via photopin cc

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.


12 Responses

  1. This confirms something I’ve wondered about for a while. I used to be a ‘keep calm’ type and I suffered from crippling performance nerves. Then somewhere along the way I started to tell myself I was excited rather than nervous and instantly performing became a pleasurable experience, and I felt in control. It’s interesting that you mention rollercoasters, because this change in my attitude coincided with moving to live near a theme park and overcoming my fear of going on rides and rollercoasters. I’d never linked the two together before 🙂

  2. I have an audition coming up soon, and auditions have a way of melting me into a puddle of anxiety way before I even play, so I have been trying to figure out how to increase my performance during auditions.

    Someone told me that one of the main reasons musicians mess up during performances such as these is because of the rush of adrenaline that comes due to activation, which increases heart rate, which increases jitteriness, which affects performing, and so on and so forth.

    They told me a good method to increase performance level is to run up and down a flight of stairs 3 times (bringing your heart rate to about the level it gets right before a performance) and then practice. Apparently, this would allow you to become used to such conditions while playing so that you wouldn’t be affected when the actual performance came around.

    What I would like to know is, is this an accurate method? Or should I be doing something else? Thanks.

    1. Hi Jenae,

      There are lots of reasons why we mess up in performances, but yes, some of it is indirectly related to the effect of adrenaline. Meaning, when our heart rate goes up, and we start feeling more jittery, we start worrying that we won’t be able to play our best, and so we get even more nervous and have difficulty focusing and concentrating on the right things. This loss of focus is what tends to be what derails our performance. Because you can have a heightened physiological state and still play your best. In fact, you’re probably not going to play your best unless you are in such a state.

      So yes, learning how to perform with an elevated heart rate is helpful because after a while, you won’t be so easily distracted or disturbed by it. The other thing, of course, is that it means you’re doing more performance practice, which is helpful in and of itself.

    2. I love this idea…It so happens that the rehearsal room at the moment is on the 6th floor, so I think I might run some experiments on this 🙂

  3. Very timely as I had started to realise that trying to calm
    myself worked a bit but what if the nervousness, etc could be
    channeled in a positive way to enhance the performance. I hadn’t
    yet figured out a way to do this. I will try the “I’m excited”
    approach next time. Re the running up the stairs, before my last
    public performance I practiced my songs while having the TV
    blasting out in the same room. I found this, eventually, helped
    greatly in focusing my concentration on what I was doing.

  4. Thanks for the sage advice. I think this would work for
    exams as well. I wonder if there is an element of “taking control”
    when one says “I’m excited!” rather than succumbing to feeling
    anxious. Nevertheless, I had a situation in which I was forced to
    take a big-stakes exam for which I wasn’t prepared. I suspect that
    is why the anxiety just wouldn’t go away–for months at a time. Not
    a healthy situation! In that case, it would have been wise to pull
    out of the program all together but I didn’t know that at the time.
    Fortunately, I was able to transfer to another program of study.
    When a door closes, another might open somewhere else!

  5. I have no clue if I’m a rollercoaster person. Well, I LOVED them as a youngster (my neck and back doesn’t allow me to go on them anymore), but … whether my adrenaline is nerves or excitement seems to be context-dependent. If I’m in front of a gigantic crowd with a microphone, I’m definitely excited. I’m one of the freakiest of freaky living creatures in that I LOVE public speaking — the more extemporaneous the better. I adore it.

    Stick a piano in front of me, and I turn into a puddle of anxiety, screw up, and slink offstage in misery.

    I guess it depends on the rollercoaster. I’ve never been able to figure out what’s up with that. I think it’s a matter of the audience not knowing what I’m going to say; I can direct everything, choose my own words, create the universe I want to create up there. I’m not lashed to the mast of someone else’s ideas. If I were an improviser, I would probably be much more relaxed on stage.

  6. niice article! I thought the exact same thing. weird as it can be, I got the tip of changing nervosity to excitement by this Amy Winehouse interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5VPc0PLiRNI (11min10 to 11min35)
    The interviewer is asking her “well don’t you get nervous or shy on stage?” and she keeps on repeating “no! it’s exciting!” even though she’s an insecure person. since this video I decided to change my view of fright and nervosity to excitement.
    I didn’t try it yet, but since I am really anxious on stage and often mess up my public performances, i’ll let you know if it works better!

  7. I do my best playing when I’m in a state of “flow”. start out fine in rehearsals because my mind is engaged with playing the notes and taking direction from the conductor. As we get more familiar, thoughts creep in about how bad it would be to miss the next note. Then I start missing notes. I can’t quiet my mind and get back into that “flow”. I need help!

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