Stage Fright

by: Sian Beilock | July 18, 2011

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Being the center of attention can hurt your game. Here’s how to keep the pressure off.

It’s the tournament finals and all eyes are on you. Not only is your entire team in the stands, but your family and close friends are watching, too. All of this support is a surefire recipe for success, right? Think again. Playing a decisive match in front of supportive fans can change how people play—but not necessarily for the better. Players become self-conscious about themselves and their movements, which can have dire consequences.

For years, psychologists have known that putting a mirror in front of a person or videotaping him while he performs will make him more self-conscious—more aware of himself and his actions. This also occurs when we find ourselves having to perform in front of a supportive audience. Yes, it can be quite satisfying to have your best performance witnessed by friends. But it’s also more painful to have your supporters see you fall flat on your face. When we are in front of a supportive crowd, we tend to try and control what we are doing to ensure success. This attention to detail can disrupt normally fluid movements, such as a polished serve or easy forehand, and make them more rigid and error-prone. The end result is choking under pressure.

Take a study conducted in my Human Performance Lab at the University of Chicago: We asked professional soccer players to dribble a soccer ball through a series of cones while paying attention to the side of their foot that was striking the ball. This instruction was designed to draw attention to an aspect of their performance about which these players might not normally be conscious. Soccer dribbling was slower and more error-prone when the players paid attention to their foot in comparison to when they dribbled without any instructions.

Paying attention to the details of your performance can be detrimental if, under normal conditions, you play without this conscious control. As an analogy, think about what would happen if I asked you to pay attention to how your knee was bending as you shuffled down the stairs, an activity you have performed countless times in the past. You might fall. Devoting too much attention to fluid and highly practiced movements—whether it is a serve, an easy forehand, a soccer dribble or locomotion—can disrupt them. It’s paralysis by analysis.

Fortunately, there are cures for this paralysis and they don’t have to involve banning your supporters from your match. Singing a song to yourself or even counting backward by threes are helpful techniques to keep your attention from wandering to parts of your movement that are best left outside conscious awareness. It’s also the case that getting used to audience attention during practice can help inoculate you against its ill effects in that do-or die match. Have family and friends attend a practice or even set up a video camera during practice and later show the tape to your teammates. Anything to help you get accustomed to the eyes that will be on you come match day can do the trick.

The moral of the story: We may think that fan support will always manifest itself as a good thing, yet the opposite can be true—at least when the pressure is on. So, make sure that when the big day comes, you not only bring your “A” game to the court, but the psychological tools to combat the pressure as well.

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and the author of Choke: What the  Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To.

Originally published in an April 2011 issue of TENNIS.

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