Performance Anxiety For Athletes

I hope you liked the interview about performance anxiety for athlete with Clinical Sport Psychologist, Phil Johnson – whether you watched the somewhat shorter version on my You Tube channel or listened to it on the Athlete Story podcast

This episode on sports and performance anxiety is the first part of a series on Sports Psychology For Athletes with UK Clinical Sport Psychologist of the Year 2017, Phil Johnson.

Have you ever been in a situation where you tought :

How can I do so well in training and still not perform in competition ?

You know that it is something going on in your head that you are not quite in control of. Get my notes – but how can it impair your ability to perform even though you have the skills ?

  • what is exactly performance anxiety?
  • where does it come from and how does it show? 

To save YOU the hassle and time, I have taken great notes for you.

Want them ?

You can read the full interview in the transcript below, but as I promised you can also get my notes from the show with the main takeaways sent to your email. Click the green button here and enter the email you want it sent to.

READ the transcript of full interview by clicking here.



What do you think when I say…Performance anxiety?

If you’ve ever had that feeling of: “Why do I have to mess up when it counts? – What is wrong with me?” then you know what I’m talking about. And somehow it seems self reinforcing, right?

“My legs are feeling like jelly” – or “Please, don’t mess this one up!”

  • and then you don’t perform like you know you can? Like you do in training.

Well don’t worry! This is Athlete Story and I’m your host Anja Bolbjerg.

I have brought in the UK Clinical Sports Psychologist of the year 2017, Phil Johnson to help us understand the psychological mechanics of things like performance anxiety and blocks to performance – and he will even let us in on one of the more recent techniques – a quite revolutionary technique actually – that he uses to help athletes and performers with those issues today.

If you are a world class athlete – or simply into sports – I suggest you subscribe to my show right now – because I will be posting a lot more athlete stories and chats with world class sports experts and insiders.

In fact, my talk with Phil Johnson turned into a whole Sport Psychology for Athletes series with different topics that I can’t wait to share with you !!

But one episode at a time, okay. For now let’s head on over to Phil’s to learn how to break the vicious cycle of performance anxiety.


Hi Phil, welcome to the show Athlete Story.


Thank you very much for inviting me.


We have soooo many things to talk about, I think.

I think so.


Can you start by just telling briefly what it is that you do?


I’m known as a clinical sports psychologist – as opposed to a clinical psychologist and a sports psychologist – because I’m both. And 15 years ago I moved out of working in mental health services in England, in particular in psychiatry and working with families as a systemic family therapist into sport.

And I retrained. I became a football coach, because that was my sport. I had a ski shop so that was sport. And I also had an equestrian center. So I worked with horses and riders. So mental health and sport have been my life focus. And so I then eventually was able to qualify in both mental health psychology and sport and exercise psychology.

So I deal with a lot of mental health issues in sport and performance environments.

So I also work in perming arts, with musicians, with actors, actresses, broadcasters, writers. And in business too.

And so it all links up. And I’m very systemic in the way that I work. And I continue to make discoveries, and I’ve worked with literally 2000 people over the last 25 years.

And so I have this wealth of experience in 25 different sports – as well as in music and acting and so on.


I see athletes as people and my philosophical approach is that you are a person first. And you simply happen to be talented in sport or in music or where ever it might be, so that I look at the total person. Whereas one of the issues of social IDENTITY is that you can identify solely with what it is that you are good at – which might be skiing or football… so, that’s what I do. That’s how I approach it.



So if we start with the PERFORMANCE part

How do you help athletes that come to you and say: “I’m kind of stalling, I don’t quite get the results that I used to….Or, I’m not quite there yet, I feel like there’s something holding me back….”?


The major reason that people come to me in the first place is PERFORMANCE ANXIETY.

So the background tends to be what you just spoken about – that people are losing performance or not creating a level of performance that they feel satisfied with – and know that they are potentially capable of.

It then starts to show itself in BLOCKS TO PERFORMANCE – of which performance anxiety is one of the most demonstrable of all of them. So people suddenly get worried hours, days, weeks even before a competition.

So I begin to look at the block to performance. And the performance can be inside of sport and outside of sport.

And over the years I’d had the opportunity not just to train in psychology and social work and family work, but to teach exercise physiology and nutrition. And when I did that, it opened my eyes psychologically, when I realized how totally interdependent our physiology and our thinking are.


And so I developed a four corners model to assess and understand what happens to an individual in the context of their sport or their performance but also as a human being.

So the first part of the model is focused on PERFORMANCE because that’s what people are interested in.

And so we look at the TECHNICAL elements of their particular sport because in psychology everything is about context. And so we are looking at the context of the sport – which also includes the culture and the language of their sport. And then we look at the tactical elements, the competitive nature of their sport. And within that I added COMMUNICATIONS. Communications with yourself and communications with your support team and so on and so forth.


I like it that you have that one in there. That’s cool!


The second part is PHYSICAL . If you think about if you don’t sleep well, you lose energy. And if you lose energy – there is a direct relationship between your energy, your mood, the way you feel about yourself, your motivation to do things and then ultimately your performance.

So understanding that, I want to know about how people sleep, or why they don’t sleep properly.

You know, in psychology we talk about initial insomnia. In other words, what keeps you awake at night, thinking and overthinking about things. Why do people wake up early? Are they depressed are they anxious, what’s happening in their dreams? Thank you Freud.

But I also want to know about – are you hydrated? If you do intensive exercise, do you take electrolyte replacement? The number of professional athletes who don’t know that is shocking. It really is bizarre. But that’s one of the things that, simply, you can change that effects your sleep. If you are dehydrated you are going to wake up.

The other ones are about PAIN, INJURY, ILLNESS. And so when you put all of those things together and you have a physical profile, it impacts on your psychological state, emotionally and in the way that you think.

Then I really discovered the crucial element of SOCIAL relationships.

And particularly in a performance environment.

So here in Monaco, you know, I come across people like Djokovic and his team of support and the way that he trains and so on and so forth.

And that grouping of people are significantly influential in the way that you ultimately perform.

In the same way that the book that I’m writing at the moment is called “Supporting Athlete Parents,” is that parents play such a significant role in the development of young athletes and performers. They are totally under-resourced and unsupported. And so, I’m looking to change that.

And so our social relationships with our coaches, with our teachers, with our fellow team mates, with our physiotherapists, or acupuncturist or whoever might be in our physical and emotional support team, including psychologists, our friends.

And also gives rise to issues of social isolation, social withdrawal and the issues that ultimately impacts upon performance or performance impacts upon those behaviors.


Only then do we begin to look at the PSYCOHOLOGICAL elements such as the concept of mental toughness – which looks at our ability to perform under pressure, having robust self belief, our ability to recover from setbacks, whether they be in the moment or longer term, and finally determination.

If I repeat those four, you tell me which you think is the most important and dominant:

  1. the ability to perform under pressure

  2. the ability to recover from setback

  3. robust self belief


which do you think is the most important?

→ Robust self belief…?


Because you can learn the other three. But determination seems to be that in-built characteristic.

I said to you, just earlier, I said: -I know how determined you are. And to do the sport that you did takes enormous determination. And so much of it is physical in nature. But it comes from the way that you think and the way that you feel about yourself and the goals that you set to achieve.

It’s that determination to reach those goals that actually helps you to succeed in the end.

And in determination comes motivation, And with motivation we have two definitions of what happens:

Extrinsic motivation comes from the influence of the people outside of us. I call it the circle of influence. And you need to check in your circle of influence that you have the right people in it, because if you don’t, they actually drain your energy and they create negativity and can even disrupt your support team.

0.13.03 – 0.13.07 CUT

When you are a younger person, I discovered that 75% of motivation is extrinsic – parents, coaches, teachers, friends. You might do a sport, not because you really totally enjoy it, but because it’s what your parents encourage you to do and you like to watch it, you like your friends whatever.


But there is a transition point around the age of 15-16 where you decide, this is what I want to do for myself. You become more intrinsically motivated and SELF DETERMINATION THEORY demonstrates that if you are not intrinsically motivated you won’t reach your goals.


Many people are familiar with the SMART model of motivation and goal setting. Specific Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, over Time. The reason that they fail mostly, is that the time scale isn’t sufficient.

But I added I’M SMART. Intrinsically Motivated SMART goals. So it fits with the self determination theory that actually, unless your goals are intrinsically motivated, it ain’t going to happen.

So I also look at post-traumatic stress disorder…



Let me just hold on to the determination part….How does DOUBT come into the picture when you talk about determination?


So, your view point that belief is most significant, at one level, is also true. Our beliefs about ourselves are subconsciously driven, as is much of our behavior. And it’s the doubt which creates the negative thinking that then links into a reduction in our motivation and can affect our determination.


So, in the approach that I use, building SELF VALUE feeds into that BELIEF SYSTEM about ourselves and other people. So that when we begin to doubt, we say things like: “I can’t do this, I won’t win, I can never do that, I’m gonna lose this, this guy is better than me, this woman just knows how to do this, I’m not going to do it.”

Ouh, think about the words. They are all blocking. And they are limiting.

So what happens when we lose performance, is the development of LIMITING SELF BELIEFS. And we find these – not just in our sport and performance but in our lives. And they are generated very early on in our lives.

And so, one of the things that I speak about is that, outside of our families, we just need one person. One person who believes in us as individuals and takes an interest. Often it’s a teacher or a coach. Not exclusively, but often. And if they do that, it’s a life changing moment.

What happens when we lose performance is that the origins of that, aren’t necessarily about the context itself, but the performing under pressure, if there’s an issue that we have, is showing our vulnerability. And that vulnerability often comes from life experience.

When we remove those barriers to performance, not only do people feel better, but it allows them to reach a higher level of performance. And in that process, once we have removed those barriers to performance, we then need to build SELF VALUE.

And as we build self value and we feel better about ourselves, we are then able to look at the beliefs that we’ve developed over our a life times – whether it’s ten, fifteen or forty years – that drive our behavior.

And so these LIMITING SELF BELIEFS…. “I can’t do this….” -even the language needs to be stopped. So in stead of: “I can’t do this” – “it’s possible I could…”

And as soon as you change the language, you create opportunity rather than impossibility.


And the greatest example comes all the way from 1954 when Roger Bannister did the first ever sub 4-minute mile.

Then what happened? Within three months 30 other people did it. And so this is about climbing mountains. This about doing what might seem impossible.

I discovered that we can only begin to change our beliefs when our SELF VALUE lifts. Because until then – if I were to suggest that there’s a belief that you have about yourself that doesn’t measure out in reality, you could be shocked, you could so disappointed, you could be so angry because suddenly all these years you believed something about yourself or something or someone that isn’t true. It’s shocking. And then you become angry and you didn’t know why before.

And this is all sub-consciously driven, it’s not what we’re consciously thinking. So when these things get resolved, the possibilities of enhancing performance are significantly higher.


And I’m just thinking immediately of a trampolinist that I worked with who hadn’t won a competition for two and a half years. And within 6 weeks, he won 3 golds, 2 silvers a bronze and got himself into the national team.


Eliminating a self limiting belief?


Ultimately. From the injury history that he had. From the experiences that he had at school, because he had dyslexia and so he found it difficult, not only to write and to deal with numbers, but to express himself.


And like many young people when they struggle academically at school and discover sport or music or something and they are good at it, they feel so good that that’s all they want to do.

But then that sport becomes performance driven.

It’s those beliefs about ourselves and how we limit ourselves to performance, that actually cause so much angst in ourselves. All the more reason that we need to be a total person so it’s not just about the performance in your sport, it’s about your social relationships, it’s about your friendships, it’s about collecting stamps or sailing as a hobby, so that you are not just about being a skier or being a footballer.



But how does that ANGST as you say – how does that develop ? Because you can have 4 years, 5 years, everything is good, and you are performing and then all of sudden this comes up. Where does it come from ?


Okay, so for example in that fifth year following four years of great success,you’re still performing under pressure, but on this particular occasion you feel vulnerable. Something is not working, you are not able to focus, you are not able to concentrate. You are distracted. Something goes wrong, you become immobilized.

These are small traumatic experiences. And where do they come from.


Well when we identity those things there are four characteristics.

HYPER AROUSAL – high level of anxiety which is first an foremost physiological. It’s not emotional.

Our stomach is our second brain and the stomach picks up your sensory information from what is happening around you – along with your skin – and sends that information into the spinal cord and into the subcortical brain.


I just happen to have one here (a brain). And you can see it’s got a line down in the middle because it’s split..

The brain has two parts and they look identical – but they are not! And if you just see here that – this is the brain stem which is linked into your spinal cord for all this information from your stomach which actually comes into your brain half a second quicker than what you see from your eyes.



So the feedback from your stomach is faster than from you eyes ?


Yes. And that’s what we call GUT FEELING. And it is really absolutely true.

And so, what we’re picking up is the anxiety, is the worry. And it goes into this emotional center that is the AMYGDALA.

But on the righthand side of the brain where it’s predominantly dealing with the emotionality and problem solving. It goes up through the brain stem and there is a direct link into the AMYGDALA.

Whereas on the lefthand side of the brain it’s going into other places before it comes back, including the visual cortex – through what we see.


When we are traumatized our brain is literally separate and this side doesn’t talk to the other side – and so that’s what we call the BLOCKS IN PERFORMANCE. It’s the way that our brains are actually working.

And those feelings that we have are subconscious and come into the lower part of the brain. But we try to constantly rationalize in the top of our brain.


And when we are constantly THINKING rather than FEELING, we become emotionally disconnected.

So when I was to track what was happening in the fifth year of your competition it’s likely that when we look at your history, there is something that will have happened earlier on in your life where you became very disappointed, embarrassed or humiliated.

And that creates literally a physical trauma that your body remembers and your brain remembers.

And if we were to remove that injury or that not winning a medal in that race and resolve it and there is still an issue, we keep tracking it back. And ultimately we come into childhood. And even though psychoanalysts and Freud and everybody has talked about childhood, it is such a significant part of our lives.

And we become imprinted with thoughts and feelings and beliefs early on.


Indeed, our attachment to our parents is such a significant thing and so when we look at injury for example – and being separated from our cultures and our friends because we are injured,

it becomes actually an attachment issue that we feel isolated and even rejected because of the situation that we find ourselves in.

And these things subconsciously emerge to interfere with the performance in the moment -even though these events might have happened five weeks ago, ten years ago or even 20 years ago. And they can be resolved.


Sometimes it doesn’t matter what people say to us – how positive they are towards us.

If we don’t feel it, it’s not happening – and so that’s why our own sense of ourselves. Our own SELF VALUE is key, ultimately, to performance because self value feeds into the beliefs that we have about our capability, about the way that we feel about ourselves, and our abilities to succeed in what it is that we set our minds to.

So in that fifth year there would have been a nugget of something that was interfering with your ability to continue your performance, to sustain it.

This is why having a systemic look at an individual helps me and them to understand themselves.


And in the most fantastic motivational speech of all times – Al Pacino in Any given Sunday’s football speech- he talks about game inches. And in performance and in life – and he says this too. Making that one inch, those centimeters of change when you put them together that gets bigger and bigger. And if you are in a team and each member of your team makes a small progression and you put it together, it gets bigger. And as he says:

the inches are everywhere and they are in every step of the game – in football and in life.”

And I totally and utterly agree.

But you know, you’ve got to be able to see them to know them. And if you have LIMITING SELF BELIEFS, you stop yourself from seeing things. You stop yourself from feeling things.


But at that moment in the fifth year of your performance when something’s gone wrong, it is likely that you were OVERTRAINED. That you were in the process of burning out.

When we look at the characteristics of overtraining, 50 percent are physiological and 50 percent psychological. But when your are burnt out they are 95 percent psychological. We are exhausted – but we are MENTALLY exhausted.

So, one of the real issues behind the prevention of injury are rest, recovery, relaxation. Now you’ve learnt maybe how to relax. But when you’re a professional athlete, do you really know how to stop, sit, be? When you are used to driving your body and focusing and being in the moment. It’s really difficult.

It’s a real challenge for athletes to rest, recover, breathe


When Phelps won his 8 gold medals, he actually said in his press conference : I’m sorry guys, I have to go. I have to eat 6000 calories, I have to go to sleep and I have to recover for my next race. And that’s one of the reasons he was so successful.


And so..when athletes seek help for loss of performance…that’s why when I do this assessment using these four corners….when we look at the physical and we start to ask those questions about sleep. And energy. And mood. And pain. And hydration. And nutrition… Then we start to see patterns emerging. “Yeah, no I do feel like that, yeah I have lost energy, I’ve lost motivation, I don’t want to go to training so much. I feel this pain in my leg and it won’t go away.”

And then there is the players that lose so much confidence that they fain injury. And they say to the physio tell the coach that I’m still injured. I don’t want to play I’m frightened.

Wow, in a sport that’s your love, that’s your passion – and you don’t want to play? What’s happened?

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So, it is complex. But we can discover the ultimate issues. Where they come from. And when we do, they can get fixed.


And yes, simply by finding that spot in your brain through remembering and connecting with the physical and emotional feelings, we can find an eye position- or eye positions that relate to that specific memory.

And then two hemispheres of your brain automatically reconnect and reprocess that information and create new neuro-pathways. Your brain does all the work. There is no failure. It is not talking therapy. And you’re in control. It’s fantastic. It’s called brainspotting.


Wow, I know that was a ton of information so I will leave you with that for this episode to not keep it too long.

Sorry guys – I know you are curious to hear more about this brainspotting – and you will be able to in part 2. But go have a break, do something else – and come back for part 2 where Phil will go more in detail with brainspotting and how it can help you recover from injuries, remove performance anxiety and deal with other issues preventing you from thriving in life.

So take care and stay tuned, okay