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Tennis star Emma Raducanu recently withdrew from Wimbledon due to performance anxiety, but what is performance anxiety and how can it be flipped into a superpower? Resilience researcher Despina Djama investigates the psychology of stress and how it can be shaped to enhance performance.

Performance anxiety is common in sport and even in film and music with people like Hugh Grant and Zayn Malik reporting debilitating attacks as the cameras start rolling. Research shows that too much or too little stress can negatively affect performance in some individuals. Stress is the body’s way of letting us know that we should be responding to a situation. Too little stress may not give us enough physiological arousal to respond, while too much stress can prevent us from using arousal. Stress requires a physiological and psychological sweet spot that elevates heart-rate, enhances focus and prepares the body for what’s next. If the sweet spot is missed, individuals need to harness their mental skills to manage their emotions, thinking and performance.

Professional athletes are often in the centre of demanding situations. Whether it is a match which determines the champion: penalty kicks or playing at Centre Court in one of the most prestigious tennis tournaments, as with the case of Emma Raducanu. In such cases where the task is complicated (staying focused, sticking to the plan of action, coordinating complicated body movements, playing in front of a large and loud crowd) the stress can get it the way and distract us from focusing and reaching optimal performance. The key is finding your sweet spot: the balance, so that you can respond to the demands of the situation.

Here are three ways to reshape performance anxiety, so you can master your mindset:

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Breathing control
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Shifting focus
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Mental preparation

Breathing control: We have all experienced quicker breathing under pressure. This is because our body recognises the stress and tries to send oxygen to our muscles to facilitate a response. A good first step in trying to reduce stress is to control breathing. This means that we pay attention to our breathing and try to slow it down by taking a few deep breaths.

Shifting focus: When we feel stressed, we tend to think more about the negative aspects of a situation. For athletes, this could be the consequences of missing a penalty, disappointing supporters, or losing the tennis match. A good tip is to try to stay in the moment by asking yourself a question: What is one thing I can do right now? Tennis players often ground themselves in the point by (for example) bouncing the ball which shifts attention to the current point and immediate skill or serving.

Mental preparation: Remember that stress is normal under high pressure, so prepare for it before it happens. A good strategy is to mentally rehearse yourself being in the stressful situation ahead of time. Try to use your imagery ability to mentally recreate the event in your mind and focus on how you would deal with the challenge. Try to imagine the situation using all your senses; what you can hear, what we can see, what you can smell, and how you feel. Whilst using imagery to ‘time travel’, imagine how you would respond. This can be helpful for less experienced athletes since they may not have been exposed in as many challenges as those with more experience.

Importantly, experiment with strategies and get used to stress, it is beneficial at getting you into your performance sweet spot. And, finally be kind and compassionate to yourself as you master your performance anxiety, - everyone is different, learning at differing speeds, through different experiences and aiming for successes in different goals.