Cheer Before Fear: Conquering Performance Anxiety

Any cheerleader around the world can agree that being the person that folds on the floor is their biggest fear. The pressure you carry as you walk onto that floor does one of two things, it either makes or breaks you. More often than not it's something that breaks an individual, ultimately causing the team to lose. Instead of trying to understand the situation most coaches and teammates will label that person a choke and will never give them another chance to prove themselves. 

But why is this the case? Why is it that coaches are so quick to help fix the technique in skills that are being done improperly but aren't willing to work with athletes the same way when they struggle mentally? This is because the cheer world views choking as a characteristic of an athlete that will never change, it's just who they are. However, that's not the case at all. You can change someone's mentality taking the floor just as easily as changing someone's round off technique. 

Training athletes mentally is more difficult because you can't see the corrections immediately like you can with physical problems but it requires a lot of trust just like every aspect of cheerleading. In this article we are going to be talking about the causes of this pressure, how to overcome it, letting go of the stress from a previous comp you may have messed up at and much more. 

Understanding Human Behavior 

Nearly half of our daily actions, around 63%, are done on autopilot. You may not notice that you're not consciously controlling your breath until it's brought to your attention. This autopilot mode is an example of the conscious brain allowing the subconscious to take over. Consistent repetition is how great teams mold athletes into consistent performers. The more a skill is practiced, the more it becomes ingrained, requiring less conscious effort to execute allowing the athlete to just go along for the ride. This is known as creating muscle memory.

Now what happens when an individual who has built muscle memory with a skill starts to question it? They mess up because they are over analyzing a technique/feeling that's already been executed thousands of times before. We have all experienced something in life like this where when you were younger you did a certain dance to a song or had some hobby you used to do all the time then took a long break from it. Years later someone brings it up and you try to remember how the dance went but you couldn't figure it out however, as soon as the song comes on it just comes to you. 

Any action in life will create a feeling and done enough that feeling will become engraved in your neural psychology. So if the feeling is created then the action happens naturally. This is why fixing technique is so hard because your body has created a feeling with your action and when you start to change the action it won't even feel like the same skill. You have to do this until the new feeling is engraved more than the old one. 

Understanding Why Athletes Mess Up in High Pressure Situations

Most of the day to day life isn't going to evoke so much stress that we question ourselves and/or a feeling we have learned to trust. However, a performance where you only get one chance to show whether or not that year was worth it can and commonly does. Instead of allowing the body to take over and execute most athletes will try to take the wheel and that's where mistakes happen. 

There has been much research on elite level athletes to understand what makes them so good under pressure consistently. The surprising thing is that every individual was the same, they had low activation in the brain during high pressure moments. The best of the best allow their bodies to create that feeling they know and trust. Instead of taking the wheel they trust their technique and muscle memory.

Causes of Performance Anxiety

There are so many reasons why an athlete would feel mental pressure going into a competition and honestly if you say you don't get that you are lying to yourself. You sacrificed time, relationships, events, money just for one moment and that's not even for a guarantee to win, that's just for a chance to show what you got.  

Above is pressure we all feel but there are other factors that can be forced on an individual that could add to it and make the situation worse. Personal events like someone close to you passing away, a break up, any accident that has you in a bad head place can affect you. These moments we can’t control; they happen unexpectedly and make us feel helpless but there are some factors we can control that could cause performance anxiety. 

Lack of sleep, excess caffeine intake, medication, lack of proper nutrition, and overwork can seriously mess with an athlete while performing. Loss of sleep is going to cause many problems some of which would be slower reaction time, brain fog, decrease in endurance and strength. Certain medication increases an athletes alertness which is good for low pressure situations but that with the combination of a big competition can give the athlete anxiety and cause overthinking. Too much caffeine and honestly any caffeine at all can do this as well. 


Every athlete is different, some need some caffeine and/or their medication before they perform and others cant have it at all or they overthink. So its your job to figure out what works for you so that you feel the best backstage. This is going to be a lot of trial and error but most teams have performances in front of people before nationals and worlds so you have plenty of time to figure all that out.


Preventing Performance Anxiety 



1. Leave your baggage at home

Performances and practices are going to require 100% of your attention so you must leave your baggage at home. You have to change your mindset every time you step on that mat which means leaving your problems at the door so they aren't affecting the team and yourself. I mentioned it earlier that there are circumstances that are going to be thrown at you, that you can't control. However, that's life and in this pursuit of being a high performing athlete you will need to learn to let go of it until after the job is done. 

Practice this every single time you are having a bad day but still have some job to do. Learning to put a smile on for your team and giving your best even when it feels like life is falling apart is a super power that will reward you in the future. If you can do this consistently and correctly then it doesn't matter what gets thrown at you before you compete, you are going to feel at peace with the situation. 


2. Fixing the mentality 

There is always going to be some type of fear/performance anxiety before competing. It's not a bad thing at all, it's actually the opposite because it shows you care about the situation you are about to experience. 

Secondly, we need to understand that this is just an emotion much like hunger. It's simply a signal that your body is sending to you and that's it. It's so easy to take this emotion and make it your own, basically identifying yourself as the emotion. This is the biggest pitfall for people who let this performance anxiety affect them because then you are only what your emotions allow you to be in that moment. 

You aren't that emotion, feeling, or negative thought that pops into your head. You are the thing that watches the emotions pop up and with this gives you the power to either act upon the emotion or keep going. In simple terms you have to have discipline and self control to overcome these emotions and that's what elite athletes do. Take for example Kobe Bryant, one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He used to practice 4 times a day for 2 hours at a time… His body probably told him 100 times a day that he was tired but instead of listening, he would keep pushing. Anger, fear, excitement, sadness, they don't control your actions, you do!

So when you are backstage and you have that feeling pop up or you have a thought about dropping, remember that they aren't your reality and just observe them. Trust that everything you have done up to that point is going to help you perform exactly how you are supposed to on the floor. Truthfully, overcoming these feelings in that moment is hard to do and feels less of a decision and more like a leap of faith especially for people that have struggled in the past with performing. 


3. Creating Real Confidence

You know the quote, “Practice makes perfect.” well it's wrong, it should be, “Perfect practice makes perfect performance.” All of what we just talked about means nothing if you didn't train correctly. You are a product of your habits and they show in high pressure situations. If you drop a skill from time to time then it will happen on the floor. You have to rep skills and routines till you can't get them wrong. If you can hit your skill consistently and correctly in the worst circumstances then you know you are going to be fine on the floor. 

The fake it till you make it mentality is not going to work for performing. If you can't hit your skill consistently and you have to do it in a high pressure situation then lying to yourself isn't going to help. True confidence is built by reps and trust in oneself to commit to the technique regardless of their feelings and/or situation. If you hadn't dropped at a single performance all year or any full out then you are going to be able to trust yourself so easily taking the floor. Build the habit of fighting for any and every skill you throw in practice and you will be amazed at your performance on the floor. 


In conclusion, dealing with performance anxiety is an essential aspect of excelling in any competitive field, and the world of cheerleading is no exception. The article sheds light on the psychological pressures athletes face when taking the floor, where the fine line between success and faltering is often defined by one's mental state. The piece underscores the critical need for coaches and teams to recognize the significance of mental training alongside physical techniques. The analogy between muscle memory and neuropsychology highlights the intricate connection between actions, feelings, and performance, demonstrating how honing mental resilience is just as pivotal as perfecting physical skills. By embracing the understanding that performance anxiety is a natural response, individuals can learn to harness their emotions and cultivate genuine confidence through dedicated practice and unwavering self-belief.

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