Performance anxiety: Taming those triggers

Strategies to conquer pre-competition anxiety

— By Kia Schollar

You’re getting ready to race or start an event and you suddenly can’t control your thoughts.

Maybe your hands are shaking. Your heart rate is rising.

Perhaps you’re even experiencing stomach pain. You’re wondering if you’re sick.

Been there?

If so, you’re not alone. caught up with mental trainer Brie Ellard-Jedlic, a former national team rower, to talk about performance anxiety and how to manage it.

Ellard-Jedlic combines her education in sport psychology and kinesiology with her experience as an elite athlete to work with clients at Good to Great Mental Training in Regina.


The symptoms mentioned above are some of the most common ailments athletes describe when looking to get a handle on their performance anxiety.

Brie Ellard-Jedlic is a mental trainer and former member of Canada's national rowing team. (Contributed)

Brie Ellard-Jedlic is a mental trainer and former member of Canada's national rowing team. (Contributed)

Ellard-Jedlic notes “nerves are good, they can be a good performance indicator” because they show the individual is engaged and cares.

However there is a “tipping point” where intervention is needed.


She explains regular nerves versus performance anxiety in terms of a linear spectrum.

On the left, we have regular nerves which one might liken to “manageable butterflies that one can breathe through.”

This scale moves to the right with the far right housing severe performance anxiety that may manifest itself with “a loss of physical control, panic attacks, elevated heart rate, (and in some cases) becoming sick to one’s stomach.”

When individuals come for help, Ellard-Jedlic will often draw out a spectrum and ask the individual to mark down where they believe they land. From there they can assess the starting point and how to best proceed. Where do you fall?

It’s key to understand the performance anxiety triggers, Ellard-Jedlic says, because once a trigger point is reached it can’t be stopped.

She says some individuals have a routine — much like the quarterback in the movie Any Given Sunday — where they throw up prior to their event or competition. But this isn’t ideal, she notes.


So, what can help in advance?

Every person is unique. Ellard-Jedlic will often provide a list of skills and strategies that can be learned, allowing the person to try different options and create their own game plan. The list is expansive, and includes: breathing exercises, both deep breathing and rhythmic; progressive relaxation; self-talk; mental imagery; building and sticking to routines (one of her top recommendations); all the way to baths.

Routine is key when an athlete is at a competition. It’s created ahead of time and designed to get the athlete into “their ideal arousal, or performance state.”

Imagery is a powerful tool for preparation
— Brie Ellard-Jedlic

The routines can include physical activities such as yoga or stretching or something like listening to specific music.

But it’s important that the routine is established and familiar.

“It tends to make (people) less anxious (as it) removes the unknown,” Ellard-Jedlic says.

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The “unknowns” are usually the triggers for performance anxiety symptoms.

“The more routine one has (for the things that can be controlled), the more calm one will be.”

Another tip: Practise visualization!

“Imagery is a powerful tool for preparation,” she said.

Visualization allows people to see the performance ahead of time, which leads to confidence in the moment and often a better performance outcome. Visualization, just like physical skills, must be trained ahead of time for it to truly be effective.

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Visualization helps athletes to be calm, confident and less anxious when at a competition or event, Ellard-Jedlic says.

When visualizing, she says it’s important to engage all the senses: sight, what will you see? Sound, what will you hear? Smell, what will be around? Feel, what will you be wearing, what will your warm up consist of? This makes practising imagery as “real” as possible.


If the skills you’ve learned don’t help and the performance anxiety continues, Ellard-Jedlic says it’s OK to admit the situation may not be for you.

You may thrive in a different environment, she says.

No matter the situation, sport or life, she notes that the skills and strategies developed for ideal performance are transferable and should be used often to keep them sharp.