Performance Anxiety

Published: November 12, 2014

This is Sports Psychology 101, folks. The Chicago Bears are stocked with the finest talent at key positions and the highest paid player in the league at quarterback. Their global search for the perfect general manager and head coach resulted in a resounding chorus of Kumbaya. Media reporters who dare to challenge the mediocrity of on-the-field performance are condescendingly informed that everything is fine. Practices are focused. Game plans are studied. Locker room morale is high. The team is prepared. So why do they wet the bed at game time?

Everyone performs well when there is no pressure. The most successful teams on the planet are at their best when it counts the most. They rise to the occasion. It doesn’t matter whether it is a web designer meeting a deadline, a student taking a midterm, or a violinist performing a recital in front of a full concert hall. Top performers become more poised when the conditions are most intense. When you multiply the necessity of poise and resilience under adverse conditions to a team of collaborators, it only takes a fraction of the whole to buckle under pressure to make the entity collapse. It’s a house of cards.

Leadership coaches, sports psychologists, and even sex therapists everywhere know how to fix this problem. Basic anxiety management skills define the foundation of the treatment plan. Next, take a look at your team leaders. Are they trying too hard? Have they checked out? Are they responding to the fear centers of their brains and concluding they are frauds? Get to the bottom of the anxiety and discover its powerful ability to disable.

As Seth Godin writes in his 2012 book, V is for Vulnerable, “Anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. Tell yourself enough vivid stories about the worst possible outcome of your work and you’ll soon come to believe them. Worry is not preparation, and anxiety doesn’t make you better.” Like many teams, the Chicago Bears’ struggles are not arising from some convoluted cocktail of complex competition dynamics. They just have a serious case of good old performance anxiety.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst College where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.