You’re in the locker room before the first game of the year. Head phones on, bumping your pregame playlist, getting ready for battle. The moment you’ve been working towards for the last 9 months is here and the anticipation is mounting. The countdown clock in the locker room is moving but not fast enough.
Butterflies jump around in your stomach and you can feel your whole body tense with anticipation. Pacing the room, sweat already beading on your forehead from the warm up which felt like hours ago. “Just get me on that field!” The energy in the locker room grows as the rest of the team starts to get antsy. The beast that is the team is ready to be unleashed.
Then it starts. One person on the other side of the room let’s out the first scream. “Let’s F@$&#&$ GOOOO!” And the room erupts. Yeeeees and Yaaaaas echoing from every corner of the room. Head butts and face slaps galore, whatever you need to get on that right level.
The walk through the tunnel is a blur. All you can hear are the thousands of fans in the stadium pulsing as they wait for the team to run out. The smoke starts pouring and thunderous applause and cheers explode as the banner breaks and it’s an all out sprint to take the field. In that moment, there’s no other feeling like it. The adrenaline pulsing through your body, the crowd getting fired up and rowdy and you standing on the field with your brothers. Flying around the warm up, bouncing on the sidelines as kickoff nears.
Finally, it’s time to get your first series on the field. You’re so amped right now you can barely stand it. It’s time. But the first play doesn’t go right. Mental mistake. Then another. You feel slower than you should. Decisions aren’t as fast, you’re thinking too much. “What the fuck?!” You think. “I’m ready, I’ve prepared, why aren’t I playing good?!”
It’s happened to us all if you’ve been in athletics. After waiting for so long to get in a game or event that you’re really excited for, your performance isn’t what you want it to be. You know your skills are there but when it matters, you underperform.
But what causes this? Why, after all the training and practices, do people still fail to perform?
It wasn’t until an evening meeting during my first fall camp at Boise State that I learned about the Performance Anxiety Curve. If you’ve taken any statistics classes or had any experience with Bell Curves, it should be pretty self explanatory once you see the graph.
Basically, the Performance Anxiety Curve illustrates the “zone” that will reflect optimum performance of the participant, based on stress. As with all Bell curves, the extremes are on either end of curve, but notice, performance is lowest at these ends. The middle, or “optimal performance” is achieved when the participant has a good balance or stress and focus. See the graph below.
As you can see, there’s that sweet spot that yields the best performance. And the key, is finding a way to stay in that sweet sport for the duration of your event. Trust me, it’s not as easy as it sounds.
Looking back on my athletic career, there are many instances where I’ve found myself all over the Performance Anxiety Curve. Even in my business experiences, I’ve found the same effects to be true.
Don’t peak too soon. It was a mantra around Boise State during my career. In part because we were a good team and expected to win every game we played in. That confidence, although a powerful tool, definitely lead us to some times on the High Stress end of the curve.
The specific instance I can remember most was during our opening game of the 2010 season. We were playing Virginia Tech at Fedex Field in Washington DC, for the Chick-Fil-A College Football Kickoff game. It was a matchup of 2 Top 10 teams and everyone was going to be watching. The 2010 Boise State team was arguable one of the best ever at BSU. And we were all juiced about playing the Hokies on National TV in with the whole country watching and 85,000 fans cheering in person.
We were all so hyped that during warmups, guys were going bananas. Flying around like we were already playing the game an hour before kickoff. Guys were soaked with sweat after warmups and it wasn’t a particularly hot evening. The atmosphere was unforgettable, especially being that VTech’s home field was only a couple of hours away. Home field advantage was an understatement.
But it didn’t matter to the Broncos. Once the game started, we were firing on all cylinders. We came out explosive and took an early lead. But even in the first quarter, we noticed some of our guys were dragging. By the second quarter, guys were cramping up, calling for substitutions and even though we were winning, we weren’t playing with the fire we came out with. We had peaked too soon.
All the energy from warmups and all the anticipation leading up to the game had drained us. As a unit, we were partially spent before the game even started. And it showed. We allowed Tech to get back into the game, giving up a large lead and almost giving up the game. Luckily, we held on by some spectacular individual plays and efforts.
When we got back to the locker room after the game, Coach Pete looked at us all and reminded us of the Performance Anxiety Curve. The coaches could see it before the game. We were all so hyped up and excited, we let ourselves get overwhelmed. Needless to say, after learning our lesson, the rest of the season had much different approaches to each game.
The cool thing about the lessons I’ve learned from the amazing people in my life and especially from football is how many different applications they have in life. The Performance Anxiety Curve isn’t just sports related. It applies to any event or engagement you might be participating in.
My advice is to slow down. When I controlled my own energy levels and didn’t get too amped up before the games, the natural adrenaline that you feel will help boost you the the right level. When I felt that I peaked too soon, there usually wasn’t a good way to recover and get back to the optimum level after the fact.
Next time you have something to prepare for, remember the PAC and think about your own levels or stress and performance. Find the right mix and balance for you so that you’re able to maintain a high level of performance throughout the event. Don’t let the energy drain you before you even start and don’t peak too soon!