Anxiety is not the Enemy – in Sports or PR

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by Laurie Jakobsen

I attended a great sports psychology clinic last night with Dr. Janet Sasson Edgette, who has a different approach than the usual “just relax” one tends to hear when it comes to performance. Her thinking is that telling someone to relax is counter-productive. The sport in question, horseback riding, has intrinsic dangers, and being too relaxed in a competitive situation will likely get you in trouble. You’ve got to be a bit amped up to go into a ring to perform, with the spectators and the judge watching you. In fact, in some classes, they begin by announcing, “You are now being judged,” which really drills home that point!  Her focus is on how you can embrace your anxiety, and learn how to perform while feeling nervous.

It reminded me of what I tell people when I coach them on public speaking and for interviews. It would not be normal to be relaxed when you’re about to get on the stage in front of people – your stress response will kick in before you’re even aware of it; if it did not, something would actually be very wrong with you! So the goal is to recognize that you’re anxious, and figure out the strategies that work for you in that heightened state so you can deliver. Perhaps that means marking up your speech with notations in the margins to “breathe,” “go slow, or “you’re doing great!”, in your favorite color ink. And of course, lots of practice.

For media interviews, I remind people how they can apply experiences they’ve had in other areas to this new context. Given they have a job, it’s likely they’ve been on at least one interview to secure it, and that was successful! So it’s a good mental frame to use to figure out how to handle a media interview, which has a similar structure. Yes, the stakes are “public,” so that’s where you need to work on upping your game to handle the additional challenge. Again, that means working with a PR person or media trainer to be prepared for both the typical and the hardball questions.

Another comment of Dr. Edgette’s that I really liked was to work on recognizing if something is a “negative thought,” or if it’s good judgement. She noted negative thoughts get that label because we don’t like the content of the thought (for example, “I’m nervous” is a fact, not negative thinking). It’s better to acknowledge the thought (“yes, I’m nervous”), and then come up with a response (“but I’ve practiced this speech five times, so I know I can handle it”).

Hopefully, these tips will help you prep for your next panel or interview – or hey, maybe a horse show!

The author, in a local NJ horse show.

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