3 strategies for dealing with public speaking anxiety: Lessons from a pro athlete

In Tips & Tricks

Fans often ask my wife, pro equestrian Elisa Wallace, if she still gets nervous. Her answer is always: yes.

Even at the highest levels of equestrian competition, it is not uncommon for athletes to involuntarily evacuate the contents of their stomach before an event. With pressure coming from large numbers of spectators (in person and on television), the hopes and dreams of fans and country, and — most importantly — the internal desire to do justice to the potential of her equine partner, a spike in adrenaline is impossible to avoid.

That involuntary physiological response is completely natural. It is a function of the fact that Elisa cares. If it didn’t happen, something would be wrong.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this this adrenaline response in my own professional life. Although still relatively new to speaking in front of very large audiences, I’ve been public speaking now for a long time, both as a teacher and as a scholar. It seems that no matter how much experience I get, I can’t overcome the experience of an involuntary adrenaline response prior to taking a stage.

This is something that I worry about, since I know that this response has an impact on my ability to think clearly, and to recall even the most well-practiced talk tracks. I worry about a quivering voice. I worry about fumbling about on stage, dropping things, and losing my train of thought.

Recently, I asked my wife how she deals with this kind of pre-performance stress response. She gave me three pieces of advice, based on her own experience as a professional athlete:

1. Embrace it.

The only reason you experience an adrenaline response prior to engaging in a public activity (or any activity for that matter) is that you care. That’s a good thing. The worst thing you can do is to stress out about stressing out. Instead, expect your adrenaline to spike and embrace it as an important part of your process. By simply reinterpreting this physiological response as working for you instead of against you, you can transform a hindrance into a helper.

2. You deserve to be there.

A lot of our anxiety comes from insecurity. For anyone with a realistic self-concept, it can be difficult to overcome ‘imposter syndrome.’ Whether you are a professional athlete or a public speaker, remember that you have worked hard, and the only reason you are there is because others want to see you there. You are there because you are already respected, and others already value your opinion. You have nothing to prove. Just do what you came to do.

3. Get pumped.

(1) and (2) are about mindset. This point is about how to get there. Many professional athletes have mastered the art of creating portable fortresses of solitude. They put their headphones on, listen to music, and tune out. Elisa has a ‘pump up’ playlist on her phone. Prior to going on cross country (the most thrilling and dangerous of her threee phases), listening to music is helpful in two ways. It simultaneously (and paradoxically) helps you to tune out extraneous information so you can focus on the task at hand, and distracts you (in a productive way) from the importance of what you are about to do. Preference, of course, is music with driving bass lines, which we know from research has the effect of boosting confidence as well.

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