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Performance Anxiety

29 Dec

Your aspiring athlete or musician has become increasingly anxious before some competition or performance. If you have an anxious child, this is not necessarily a surprising turn of events. It is the anxious brain at work, always ready to imagine the worst case scenario. And yet, the activities your child is involved in can be so important in developing a sense of competence, learning healthy habits, developing self-discipline, and making friends. So what is the thing to do when your child develops performance anxiety? There are four considerations.

First, there is a question of whether adults have been creating the problem. Parents can be guilty of living vicariously through their children and placing way too much interest in the outcome of an event. Children want to please their parents, so they are especially vulnerable to this pressure. Coaches all too frequently operate under the mistaken belief that being critical and tough fosters competitive excellence. A good coach certainly brings out the best in his or her team, but the prerequisite is creating a climate in which it is safe to make mistakes.  Only when children feel safe to make mistakes can they get the feedback that will enable them to improve and reach their potential.  Unfortunately, many coaches believe that belittling the athlete will motivate him or her, when in fact it only leads to discouragement and anxiety.

Second, for any number of reasons, your child may be overly focused on winning. This is understandable, but counter-productive. In part, one of the benefits in pursuing a sport or musical skill is that it teaches the child focus and concentration skills. Along the way, your child has to learn to tolerate the tension that is inherent in most performance situations. Breathing and visualization skills can be very helpful to children in learning to focus on the here and now of doing their sport, rather than getting ahead of themselves and thinking about winning.

Third, if the performance problem is chronic in nature, consider the possibility that it is the product of an injury, such as falling off a balance beam, or an adverse event such as being criticized by a coach in front of the entire team. A child may have recovered from the physical part of the injury, but psychologically he may still be affected. Trauma occurs when you can’t protect yourself–you fall off the balance beam and you can’t stop your fall, or the coach is berating you and you don’t feel you can say anything. While your child may be able to put this problem into words, she is basically not feeling safe in her performance-related activity. When the more psychological aspects of this injury or trauma is addressed, the problem can be resolved.

Finally, it may be that what appears to be performance anxiety may actually be the manifestation of another problem. A child with separation anxiety might be afraid to participate in a sport because it involves being away from a parent. OCD can also interfere with a performance when obsessions get attached to some aspect of the activity, e.g., “I can’t play golf because my clubs are dirty.” The problem, again, is not the performance, but rather another form of anxiety that gets attached to the activity. Part of the solution in both of these situations is helping the child view these activities as so important and valuable that it is worthwhile to struggle through the discomfort. Having compelling goal is very important in dealing with all forms of anxiety.

The skills learned in dealing with the performance anxiety your child has about participating in a swim meet or a chorus production can be invaluable lessons which will help in all aspects of life.

(For more information on Performance issues see my interview with Dr. Alan Goldberg on my iTunes podcast “Your Anxious Child: 5 minute solutions”)

copyright@Edward H. Plimpton, PhD


The video of girls first ski jump

26 Jul

You hear the endearingly anxious voice of a 4th grade girl and see a 60 meter ski jump. She is about to do her first 60 meter ski jump and we experience the event courtesy of the camera attached to her helmet. If it is still available I would encourage you to watch this Utube video last viewed 7/242013).. It is touching and instructional; touching because of this girls courage and triumph, instructional because what it can teach us about dealing with a version of performance anxiety.

How is she able to do this jump? She has of course spent hours on smaller jumps perfecting her technique, acquiring the necessary skills and so doesn’t have to think about the basics. A mastery of technique. Essential.

But what else?

She has a coach who is calm, supportive and reminds her of the key elements “don’t snow plow”. The support of family and coaches. Critical.

She finds a way to redefine this new experience of a 60 meter jump into something she is already familiar with “it is just a bigger 20”. A perspective on the situation that reinforces the familiar and her previously acquired skills. Reframing the challenge. Essential.

She does not focus on her fear or anxiety, although it is clearly present and not being denied. But rather she focuses on the future “I will be fine, I will do it” suggesting that she is envisioning successfully executing the jump. And she focus on some specifics of the task such as not to snow plowing and that you go a little faster on the end run. Her focus is not how anxious she feels and that is wise because that fear could immobilize her, but rather it is more externally focused on envisioning doing the jump and some specifics involved in the execution of the jump.

The thrill of executing the jump is transformative for her. And although not explicitly stated, we know that having a “Big Why” or compelling reason for doing something so challenging is critical for managing the understandable anxiety that goes along with it. But have patience with your children and yourself, this is a skill that can some practice and discipline to acquire. One task of childhood is learning to manage difficulty feelings, and participating in sports, playing board games or learning a musical instrument is one arena where these skills can be acquired. And if your child has an anxious disposition, she may have to put some extra time in to acquire these skills because the “what if..” questions come a little too easy and are not easily dismissed. In the end of course what we are interested in doing is building “islands of competence” for your children in whatever domain allows their potential to unfold.

Copyright@ Edward H. Plimpton, PhD

Islands of Competence

26 Jul

A parent once told me that the most valuable thing I ever said involved the importance of building “islands of competence.” I can’t claim credit for that one — it was borrowed from another psychologist, Robert Brooks. But I agree that it’s one of the most useful concepts around.

The idea is that one of the most important tasks for an elementary school child is developing areas of growing skill and competence. Self-esteem really comes from developing capabilities, and in the process, children learn the importance of practice and persistence. Maybe it seems obvious, but we need to keep reminding your child not to give up, to hang in there, even when good results don’t happen right away. This can be really challenging with an anxious child, since anxiety is so much about avoiding what makes you uncomfortable.

It’s obvious why all children should have “islands of competence,” but there is also a more specific reason when it comes to an anxious child. When you deal with anxiety, it is essential to remember that you can’t “not think about something.” The more you try not to think about something, the more you find yourself dwelling on it. So it is extremely helpful to have compelling alternatives for how you would like to spend your time. In other words, what would you rather be doing than worrying? You don’t have to pretend you aren’t anxious, but you can still focus on activities and goals that are truly engaging, interesting or comforting. Focusing on these goals can help you ride out the moments of anxiety and make them more tolerable.

I need to insert a note of urgency here about what I am saying. If children do not develop at least several ways of defining themselves as competent by the time they reach middle school, they will be all the more vulnerable to peer pressure, or will seek solace in endless computer time. Learning that you get good things through practice and persistence will generalize over the years to help your child face a variety of other challenges.

copyright@Edward H. Plimpton, PhD

Effort versus Performance

14 Jul

Effort Versus Performance


Whether it is an upcoming swim meet or a spelling bee on Friday, children can often suffer from performance anxiety, some of which is perfectly normal and appropriate. However, when the anxiety clearly begins interfering with the child’s participation in the event, then the issue of performance anxiety needs to be considered. Some children who are rather perfectionistic by nature can put a lot of pressure on themselves.


Adults, however, provide added pressure depending upon whether they focus on the child’s effort or performance. It turns out that how we praise children can have a big effect on how they perform depending upon whether you focus on their effort or intelligence.  This insight comes from research by Carol Dweck, who discovered an interesting effect on children’s school performance depending upon whether parents comment on the children’s effort and hard work, or their intelligence and talent. She proposes that we tend to understand success as either the result of innate ability and talent, or the result of hard work and effort.


However well-intentioned, telling your child that he/she is smart and brilliant can inadvertently put pressure on him as when he encounters a problem in his homework that he has difficulty solving. This child may feel that because he could not solve the problem easily, this is an indication that he is not as smart as he thought he was because it required effort. So he gives up. Anything that requires effort is to be avoided and challenges are not welcome.


In contrast, comments that focus on the child’s effort tend to promote greater persistence and a more positive attitude. This has been confirmed in studies on children’s performance on math tests where the feedback in one classroom was on how smart they were and in the other classroom, the feedback focused on their persistence and effort. When given achievement test, the “persistence” group did substantially better.

This point was recognized a long time ago in the book How to Talk So Children Will Listen and Listen So Children Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, who recommended simply describing what you see rather than lavishing praise on your child. Rather than saying to your kindergarten child’s quickly drawn picture, “Oh that is so beautiful,” instead comment, “Wow, there are so many colors in this picture and the house has four windows.” The latter does communicate that the child’s effort was worthy of detailed attention and it brings her attention to what she did that helped make the picture interesting.


So when it comes to providing encouragement for your child, try to focus more on describing the way in which you see him displaying effort and persistence rather than praising him for being talented or smart.

copyright@Edward H Pllimpton, PhD