Have an Audience? How Do You Handle the Pressure?


I can remember back in high school, amidst the burgeoning of adolescent self-consciousness, being on the soccer field with my teammates while spectators cheered us on.  For the most part, this was a plain-and-simple experience of taking pleasure in being an athlete and appreciating the support of friends and family, as my teammates and I applied our training and talents during games against high-school rivals.  But on some days, during occasional moments, there was an awareness of another kind—of whether the boys watching thought I was cute, of whether the girls who played other sports appreciated our efforts, of whether my coach was pleased with my progress.  Luckily, I wasn’t overly self-conscious, so this kind of thinking rarely intruded on my performance.  But for some, self-consciousness or even certain types of social anxiety can absolutely contribute to a decline in athletic performance.  As athletes, it’s important to consider how our psyches affect our physical skills, especially with regard to anxiety.  So, here goes a little analysis on a certain type of social anxiety that has been shown to hinder performance.

In the psychology literature on anxiety, there is a concept called Fear of Negative Evaluation (FNE).  Watson and Friend (1969) first defined FNE as “apprehension about others’ evaluations, distress over their negative evaluations, and the expectation that others would evaluate oneself negatively (p.449).”  Basically, people with high degrees of FNE (which can be assessed by the FNE Scale created by Watson and Friend) are overly concerned with how they are being judged or perceived by other people.  They tend to imagine that they are being perceived in negative ways, and they are often inhibited in their behaviors as a result.  FNE can be related to a more global social anxiety (Schlenker, 1980), and it can lead people to avoid situations in which they might be evaluated.  While most of us have some degree of awareness of how we are received by others as social beings, those who are high in FNE have a heightened level of anxiety that they are, or will be, evaluated in negative ways–an anxiety which affects their behaviors and choices.

People with social anxiety tend to have more negative ratings of their own affect and bodily symptoms than those without social anxiety (Edelmann & Baker, 2002).  In an interesting study of performance anxiety while singing (Chen & Drummond, 2008), high-FNE subjects who were forced to make eye contact with evaluators before and/or during their performance later reported more bodily symptoms consistent with anxiety (e.g., sweating, cardiac measures), even though they did not actually exhibit any more of those symptoms than did their low-FNE counterparts.  It was their FEAR of showing signs of anxiety that made them experience changes in their bodies that were actually not happening.  This finding seems very relevant to performance anxiety in sports, which often leads to decreases in performance.  If you have a high FNE or are otherwise socially anxious, you are likely to experience heightened levels of anxiety in somatic ways, even when your body is not actually affected.  For example, you may feel more winded or more fatigued or experience your muscles failing you, even when you, and they, are not.  Your cognitive assessment of these phantom bodily symptoms might make you give up early—perhaps you will fail a lift, miss a putt, botch a free-throw.

Self-presentation models of “choking” under pressure to perform are also discussed in the literature (Schlenker, 1980; Mesagno, Harvey, Janelle, 2012).  Self-presentation refers to behaviors and actions chosen to present a certain image of oneself to other people.  As Mesagno et al (2012) discuss, concerns around self-presentation likely affect competitive athletes’ susceptibility to choking.  Indeed, qualitative work has demonstrated a link between desires to present a positive self-image, and choking in competitions (Gucciardi, Lombardi, Jackson, & Dimmock, 2010; Hill, Hanton, Matthews, & Flemming, 2010).  In one study, Mesagno (2009) took fourteen athletes known to be susceptible to choking and asked them about their experiences involving low and high-pressure performance scenarios.  As summarized by Mesagno et al (2012), “analysis of participants’ interviews suggested a link between perceived self-presentation concerns and choking, which might be explained through public self-consciousness (i.e., tendency to focus on outwardly observable aspects of the self such as physical appearance or performance) and fear of negative evaluation (FNE)” (p. 61).

There is plenty more evidence that people high in FNE appear to be more susceptible to performance anxiety in sport than those who are low in FNE.   For example, in a research study examining choking under pressure in experienced basketball players, high-FNE subjects had a significant increase in anxiety and a significant decrease in performance when pressure to perform was induced (Mesagno et al 2012).  In a slightly different vein, a study in England explored how students respond to physical education classes.  Elementary and secondary school students were asked to rate their own athletic competence immediately after physical education classes.  The study found that girls had higher FNE than boys, as well as lower perceptions of their own athletic competence.  High-school-aged girls had the highest FNE levels and lowest perceived competence of all groups (Hartmann,  Zahner, Pühse, Schneider, Puder, Kriemler, 2010).  These results suggest that when we are anxious about how others will judge or evaluate us (high FNE), we are more likely to underestimate our skills and competencies, and, therefore, more likely to stay away from activities in which they will be judged.  Or, perhaps, we may engage in these activities but with only part of ourselves being actually committed to the task; the other parts are too busy worrying about how we will be perceived.

Fear of negative evaluation also intersects with perfectionism, which can be the result of an over-investment in others’ evaluations of oneself. People  with high degrees of perfectionism often lack self-confidence and worry that perfect performance is the only way to please others.  This can lead to an avoidance of activities in which someone is not perfectly competent or confident. (Frost, Glossner, & Maxner, 2010).

The point of this post is not simply to expose or detail the pathology of an intriguing aspect of social anxiety.  Rather, my idea is to make use of examples in the literature to raise awareness of some of the anxieties that might impact not only an athlete’s performance, but also his/her desire to engage in training or practice at all.   While most of us don’t suffer from severe social anxiety or high FNE, we all experience moments of fear or questioning related to how we are being judged, especially when learning new skills.  In the physical realm, when these skills are outside our zones of comfort, we are more likely to feel self-conscious and less likely to allow our bodies to do their things, unfettered.

My own experience with Olympic-style weightlifting has been a great learning process for me along these lines.  It is by far the most I have struggled with something physical in my life and has involved the times when I have felt the least capable or coordinated.  Until recently, when I lifted, I would fight not only the barbell, but also my mind telling me ten ways from Sunday what I was doing wrong.  When I had an audience, even of just one person, the ante was upped, and my chances of training effectively or performing well were quite slim.  Thankfully, I’ve gotten over my fears to a large extent (admittedly helped along by a lack of competitive ambitions for the moment).  My run-in with the barbell in my early forties has been a powerful learning experience as far as the mind-body relationship goes, and I have learned much about how self-doubts can dictate physical outcomes.

So, next time you’re out doing something physical—really doing anything–and have an audience, be aware of how focused you are on what they are thinking of your performance.  Don’t try this during a competition or important training session, of course!  First try it out during a session when the stakes aren’t high, but there are people around.  How worried are you about what they will think?  How tense does your body feel, and how hindered might your movements be?  What is it that worries you about their evaluations?  It can even be helpful to take notes in a journal after your training session or performance, allowing you reflect on the results of your anxiety and how your performance was affected.  While I don’t have a list of answers for how to make you stop caring about what others think, I do know that we would all benefit from this kind of internal analysis and reflection on what it is that concerns us so much about having an audience.

Of course the implications for life off the courts are plentiful here.  When we are ridden with social anxiety or simply with worries of how others will perceive us, we often restrict ourselves in ways that fulfill our own fear-driven prophecies–at work, in relationships, wherever.  Too much fear of how others are judging us can wreak havoc on our senses of ourselves and our abilities to maximize our talents and optimize our learning potential. Self awareness and an understanding of who we are in relation to others is, of course, critical to optimal functioning.  However, there is a tipping point at which our ability to shine will be totally outweighed by our fears.  Make sure you’re not reaching that point, and if you are, it may be time to do some serious work.  Just think how awesome you might actually be!


Chen, V., & Drummond, P. D. (2008).  Fear of negative evaluation augments negative affect and somatic symptoms in social-evaluative situations. Cognition and Emotion: 22(1), 21-43.

Collins, K.A., Westra, H.A., Dozois, D.J.A., Stewart, S. H. (2005). The validity of the brief version of the Fear of Negative Evaluation Scale.  Journal of anxiety disorders: 19: 345-359.

Edelmann, R. J., & Baker, S. R. (2002). Self-reported and actual physiological responses in social phobia. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 41, 1-14.

Frost, R. O.; Glossner, & K.; Maxner, S. (2010).  Social anxiety disorder and its relationship to perfectionism.  In Social anxiety: Clinical, developmental, and social perspectives (2nd ed.), Hofmann, S. G. (Ed) &  DiBartolo, P. M., Eds. (pp. 119-145). San Diego, CA, US: Elsevier Academic Press.

Gucciardi, D.F., Longbottom, J., Jackson, B., & Dimmock, J.A. (2010).  Experienced golfers’ perspectives on choking under pressure.  Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 32, 61-83.

Hartmann,  T., Zahner, L., Pühse, Us., Schneider, S., Puder, J.J., Kriemler, S. (2010). Physical activity, bodyweight, health and fear of negative evaluation in primary school children.  Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 20(1), 27-34.

Hill, D.M., Hanton, S., Matthews, N., & Fleming, S. (2010).  A qualitative exploration of choking in elite golf.  Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 4, 221-240.

Mesagno, C., Marchant, D., & Morris, T. (2009).  Alleviation choking: the sounds of distraction.  Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 21, 131-147.

Mesagno, C., Harvey, J.T. & Janelle, C.M. (2012).  Choking under pressure: The role of fear of negative evaluation. Psychology of Sport and Exercise: 13(1), 60-68.

Ridgers, Nicola D.; Fazey, Delia M. A.; Fairclough, Stuart J (2007). Perceptions of athletic competence and fear of negative evaluation during physical education. British Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 77(2), 339-349.

Schlenker, B (1980). Impression Management: The Self-concept, Social Identity, and Interpersonal Relations. Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing.

Watson, D. and Friend, R.  (1969). Measurement of social-evaluative Anxiety. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 33 (4): 448–57.

How’s All That Thinking Working Out for You?


Ever had someone tell you to stop thinking so hard when you’re trying to execute a physical skill?  Ever had a feeling inside that if you could just let your mind go, your body would probably do what it needs to do?  Pay close attention to that feeling the next time it happens; there is much to be learned in this terrain, and we would all be better athletes with a greater likelihood of peak performances if we could learn how to quiet our minds when the going gets tough.  Easier said than done, right?

There are moments in our lives as athletes and learners when we need to be very conscious and deliberate, calling upon our higher-level verbal skills to mediate the development of new motor patterns.  However, there comes a time when it is best to let go of this kind of conscious attention to motor skill execution, and when we don’t—when we think too hard—our performance suffers.

Typically when we learn new motor skills, we rely on the type of processing that is mediated verbally.  This is known as explicit learning, which results in declarative knowledge.  For example, when learning how to kick a soccer ball, a novice athlete might respond well to all sorts of verbal cuing from a coach—“make contact with the ball on the top of your foot, keep your hips facing in the direction you want to kick, be sure to follow through towards your target.”  Once we become experienced with a motor pattern or skill, however, our knowledge is considered to be procedural and requires little conscious attention mediated by language.  It has become automated and happens smoothly, with little conscious, verbal control.  If you have ever been taught to run using a specific running method, it is easy to understand the different kind of conscious attention you use when you are learning the new method, as opposed to the kind of automatic processing that happens once you have integrated the new motor patterning and technique into your being.  Once you are in this phase of learning, your knowledge of the skill/motor pattern is considered to be implicit or procedural.  Your movements are no longer regulated by conscious, verbal processing, and they become smoother and more effortless.  (See Masters, 1992 for a good explanation of the different types of learning).

It turns out that when we try to apply declarative knowledge and conscious, verbally mediated attention to the execution of motor skills that have already become automated, we actually do ourselves a disservice.  There is a pool of research demonstrating that when experienced athletes apply conscious, explicit strategies to learned motor-skills, their performance suffers.  This is less true for novice, unskilled learners, who typically benefit from this kind of internal, conscious attention.  The idea is that novices need it in order to perform well, but once there is some level of competency and a motor skill has been automated to a large extent, a “reinvestment” in conscious processing actually hinders the efficiency of movement (Masters and Maxwell, 2008).

In 1992, Masters introduced the theory of conscious processing via a study showing that when people were taught a motor skill using explicit techniques (with clear and specific instructions on how to putt a golf ball), they tended to over-rely on such explicit learning when tested under stress.  In contrast, when implicit learning was involved (practicing how to putt a golf ball with little verbal mediation), subjects were protected against an anxiety-induced regression to explicit knowledge.   Furthermore, explicit learners performed more poorly under pressure than implicit learners, suggesting that declarative knowledge interrupts automatic motor patterns when one experiences performance anxiety (Masters, 1992).

Along these same lines, in situations when athletes experience a heightened level of anxiety, as typically exists in competitive situations or when performance matters for other reasons, there is a tendency to revert to conscious processing.  This is true even when athletes are experienced and would fare better by relying on procedural, automatic, and smooth processing to guide motor mechanics.  (Hardy, Mullen and Jones 1996;  Masters 1992, Masters and Maxwell, 2008; Mullen and Hardy 2000, Pijpers, Oudejans, and Bakker, 2005; Flegal and Anderson, 2008).

The implications of this conscious processing hypothesis for experienced athletes can be summarized in this way: we need to find a way to fight the urge towards regression to language-mediated, conscious control of automated motor skills.  In other words, we need to have faith in our training and our muscle memory, to let go of our declarative/explicit learning processes, to stay focused on the larger picture of the task at hand (E.g., making the lift instead of all of the bits and pieces involved in our body that will make that happen), and to let our body do its thing.  We need to become comfortable with anxiety and know that it can lead to an optimal state of arousal for performance, as long as we don’t let it derail our automatic processes.  We need to have at our beck and call a reservoir of positive self-talk that helps us when we feel nervous and unsure—talk that brings us back to a feeling of confidence in our skills and abilities.  The details of such strategies are for another article (coming soon).  My goal here is to get you thinking about how to avoid over-thinking when you are trying to peak your physical performance or simply perform learned motor skills on demand.

Implications for coaching are also intriguing.  There seem to be a number of ways a coach can teach new skills that may help prevent athletes from succumbing to competition anxiety.  For example, coaches should encourage external focus by helping athletes to think about the effects on the environment of their movements as opposed to how their bodies are moving (Wulf, Hob, and Prinz, 1998).   They should discourage athletes from verbalizing the steps of their successful motor patterns, instead having the athlete use imagery for mental pictures, as well as sensory reflection on how the movement felt.  Additionally, coaches can teach skills under practice conditions that invoke self-consciousness (Beilock and Carr, 2001) and self-awareness (Lewis and Linder, 1997); both have been found to protect against the over-investment in thinking when stressed.  The idea is that training and learning under conditions that mimic the anxiety of competition adapts the athlete to the pressure, making him/her less likely to rely on the reinvestment of conscious processing (Pijpers, Oudejans, and Bakker, 2005).  Competition experience can be mimicked using such techniques as performing for an audience, participating in mock competitions with other athletes, and having people video the athlete during training sessions.

I realize there’s a bunch of fancy terms and research references in this one.  If you’re intrigued by this topic, you now have plenty of studies to sift through on your own.  The big takeaway in my mind is that if you want to optimize your performance when you’re nervous, it’s high time you acquire tools that will prevent you from thinking too hard about motor skills you’ve been doing successfully for some time.  Finding ways to deal with your performance anxiety is half the battle (again, stay tuned for more details on this topic). The other half of the battle relates to how much you allow yourself to be in your body, resisting, in the heat of the moment, the temptation of conscious thinking and verbal processing.  It will serve you well to practice this art.  When you perform a movement—be it a snatch or a golf putt or a tennis swing—reflect on how it feels in your body and how the barbell or the club or the ball moved in space, rather than putting into words what your body just did.  Let the movement happen, and focus on the effects of your automatic execution.  The rest will take care of itself when you’re under pressure.  Don’t let your mind’s thinking get in the way of what your body knows how to do!



Beilock, S.L., Carr, T.H. (2001).  On the fragility of skilled performance: What governs choking under pressure?  Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130, 701-725.

Flegal, K.E. & Anderson, M.C. (2008).  Overthinking skilled motor performance: Or why those who teach can’t do.  Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.  15 (5), 927-932.

Hardy, L., Mullen, R., Jones, G. (1996).  Knowledge and conscious control of motor actions under stress.  British Journal of Psychology.  87, 621-636.

Lewis, B.P. & Linder, D.E. (1997).  Thinking about choking?  Attentional processes and paradoxical performance.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 937-944.

Masters, R. S. W. (1992).  Knowledge, knerves and know-how: The role of explicit versus implicit knowledge in the breakdown of a complex motor skill under pressure.  British Journal of Psychology.  83:3, 343–358.

Masters R. and Maxwell, J.  (2008).  The theory of reinvestment. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology.  0, 1-24.

Mullen, R. & Hardy, L. (2000).  State anxiety and motor performance: Testing the conscious processing hypothesis. Journal of Sports Sciences, 18, 111-120.

Pijpers, J.R., Oudejans, R.D., & Bakker, F.C.  (2005).  Anxiety-induced changes in movement behavior during the exection of a complex whole-body task.  The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. 58A (3), 421-445.

Wulf, G., Hob, M. & Prinz, W. (1998).  Instructions for motor learning: Differential effects of internal versus external focus of attention.  Journal of Motor Behavior, 30, 169-179.