March 27, 2007

Pressure to perform

A runner friend of mine (okay, it's my husband), recently told me that when he turns the last corner in a race and starts heading toward the finish line, he starts to panic and wants to stop running. Seeing all the people watching and cheering makes him feel extremely anxious. The expectation! The pressure! Sound familiar?

In a recent post, I discussed how performance anxiety affects speakers and athletes in similar ways. It never occurred to me that crossing the finish line would create as much anxiety as crossing the starting line - I guess because I'm not a runner!

My husband also mentioned that there's an expectation that a runner will sprint the last few yards before the finish line, which also adds pressure.

However, he pointed out that the additional adrenaline stirred up by the crowd and perceived pressure actually propels him to finish the race, sprint and all.

The speaker's audience and the athlete's audience are also similar. Look at that cheering crowd at the finish line. What are they yelling? "Go!" "You can do it!" "Good job!" "Keep going!" And other supportive, encouraging things.

Okay, so the speaker's audience isn't yelling, "You can do it!" but they are thinking it! Yes they are. Just imagine for a moment that you're the person in the audience. You're hoping the speaker does well. You're hoping to learn something new. You're even hoping to be entertained a little. It's unlikely that you're sitting there thinking, "I hope she falls on her face."

The crowd at the finish line isn't thinking that, either. And anyway, what would happen if you fell (literally as a runner, or figuratively as a speaker)? Would people laugh at you? Of course not. Would they deem you a failure? No. They would feel concerned, want to know that you're okay, and they would encourage you to get up and keep going. Because we're all human, and we can all relate to falling down.

Speakers and athletes who learn to channel that adrenaline and use it are going to find that manageable anxiety is helpful to them in achieving their goal. Also, by perceiving the audience as supportive instead of hostile, they retrain their brains to expect positive results in their endeavors.

I'm amazed, yet again, at how similar the experiences are of the athlete and performer.

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