Players perform worse against an opponent they know has been climbing in rank


Buzz about tennis’s newest rising stars – like 15-year-old prodigy Coco Gauff, who beat Venus Williams at Wimbledon – can be so intimidating it can make their opponents play worse, according to new research from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

A study of more than 117,000 pro tennis matches and more than 5 million observations in online amateur chess indicates that even when competitors are evenly matched, players perform worse against an opponent they know has been climbing in rank.

As players rise, they gather what social scientists call “status momentum,” said Hemant Kakkar, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Fuqua and author of the research appearing the week of Oct. 28 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Kakkar said an opponent’s momentum is not just hype; a positive trend in an opponent’s ranking can be threatening for athletes, even for seasoned pros whose training often includes creating the right mental space for high-stakes match-ups.

“Our experiments suggest this is because people take the physical laws of momentum into their mental landscape,” Kakkar said.

“For instance, they know a ball rolling downhill will keep rolling until someone applies a force to stop it.

They do the same mental gymnastics or mental calculations about a competitor.

They tend to think, yeah, this person will keep moving up.

Because of this, they start feeling threatened and their performance tends to suffer.”

In tennis, for example, the researchers found that players committed more double faults when facing an opponent with status momentum.

This type of unforced error suggests the player’s mental game was faltering, the researchers said.

This theory poses a counterpoint to the widely debated “hot hand” concept in sports psychology that suggests a player’s positive momentum can heighten his own performance – in other words, a basketball shooting guard experiences a psychological boost he makes a basket, and therefore is more likely to sink the next few shots.

While the “hot hands” theory examines how a player’s own momentum could improve performance, Kakkar and his co-authors examine how a player’s momentum actually influences the performance of their opponents.

In addition to analyzing chess and tennis results, the researchers tested their theory with more than 1,800 online research participants.

Participants faced various competitive scenarios and took tests to measure how threatened they felt.

Results showed they were more threatened by upwardly mobile opponents than by opponents with the same rank who lacked momentum.

Two tactics that many people already use in daily life measurably reduced participants’ threat levels when facing an opponent on a hot streak, the studies found.

People who practiced affirmations of their own skills and strengths before a potential matchup were less threatened, as were those who found a reason to doubt an opponent’s momentum.

“Once you present people with some kind of doubt to the veracity of the rankings, such as a clerical error that affected the rankings, that alleviates some of the adverse effect of the opponent’s momentum,” Kakkar said. “

We are generally motivated to think more favorably about ourselves, so when given a reason to doubt others—even a slight one—we tend to think, maybe this person isn’t actually that good, and that can change how threatened we feel.”

Anxiety has long been associated with performance problems in a variety of fields (Masters and Johnson, 1970Kleine, 1990McCabe, 2005Kenny, 2011Oudejans et al., 2013Biasutti and Concina, 2014) and, not surprisingly, remediation often includes anxiety reduction techniques as a key element for addressing the problem.

Anxiety, defined as a negative mood, typically accompanied by bodily symptoms such as increased heart rate, muscle tension, a sense of unease, and apprehension about the future (Barlow, 2002American Psychiatric Association, 2013), can serve as a strong motivator for future avoidance and/or approach behaviors.

Anxiety is often tied to any type of performance, particularly when an evaluative component is present (Hope and Heimberg, 1988Bögels and Lamers, 2002). Furthermore, evaluation often entails significant consequences for an individual, which may further intensify the anxiety (Bancroft, 2009)1.

For example, partnered sexual activity, particularly at the outset of a relationship, typically includes both evaluative and consequence components, and sexual impairment has long been associated with anxiety (Barlow, 1986van den Hout and Barlow, 2000Dèttore et al., 2013Gerrior et al., 2015). Each individual in the dyad may be concerned about his/her partner’s expectations and perceptions, and each may worry that if performance is not “adequate,” not only will embarrassment and shame follow, but the relationship itself may be in jeopardy.

In sports, players are often under scrutiny not just by teammates but also by fans, and the consequences for failed or diminished athletic performance can be both personal (embarrassment, loss of confidence, etc.) and professional (loss of contracts, income, etc.). Stage performance shares similar characteristics.

Whether the situation is musical, theatrical, or simply public speaking, each consists of evaluation by the audience (and critics), coupled with personal and professional consequences (Biasutti and Concina, 2014). Such anxiety undoubtedly occurs in other activities (e.g., academic test taking and work/professional conditions), but situations involving Sex, Sport, and Stage share the fact that they represent interpersonal performance domains (unlike test taking or math anxiety).

They are known to provoke anxiety which in turn may affect performance and may eventually lead to avoidance. Well-known examples of anxiety affecting performance in Sport include John McEnroe (tennis) and Phil Mickelsen (golf); examples in Stage include Barbara Streisand, Megan Fox, Leonard Cohen, and Jim Carrey (Jacobs, 2013).

Examples in Sex are for obvious reasons not known but consider Fellini’s classical movie Satyricon, based on Petronius’ book, in which the protagonist finds himself having to perform sexually in front of clamoring throngs at a Roman amphitheater. Not surprisingly, he gets the thumbs down from the audience!

However, while anxieties related to Sex, Sport, and Stage share the common elements of evaluation and consequence, they also differ in substantive ways. For one, the response sets are different: in Sex, autonomic responses related to sexual arousal are most salient; in Sport, visual/spatial motor responses may often dominate; and in Stage, cognitive/memory (including motor memory) processes are engaged, sometimes fully memorized, other times aided with musical scores or written notes.

Second, Sport and Stage are carried out in highly competitive environments, from tryouts and auditions—where competition for coveted positions is intense—to public performances in either solo or team formats. Sex is less competitive, usually an intimate performance involving two people.

The nature of the evaluation may also vary. Beyond self-evaluation—generally common to all three—evaluation in Sport and Stage typically involves larger groups.

The consequences, too, may be quite different, more personal and intra-relational for sexual failure, more public and professional for stage and sports failures. In all three situations, however, embarrassment and shame are likely to follow failure, and such failure may present an obstacle to attaining an important life goal (sexual partner, job, wealth, respect).

While all three fields—Sex, Sport, and Stage—deal with performance problems related to anxiety, with general reviews written within each field (e.g., Seto, 1992Craft et al., 2003Kenny, 2011Çırakoğlu, 2013Dèttore et al., 2013), cross-disciplinary theorizing and conversation has been limited2. In transcending disciplinary isolation, mutual benefit might be realized by all three fields, with each gaining understanding and insight from the other.

Herein, we explore three questions:

(1) how do these disparate fields approach and understand anxiety and performance?

(2) how does the understanding of the issue within one field offer insight to another field; and

(3) how could each field benefit from the ideas and strategies used by the others?

In addition, we pose a fourth question: whether the anxiety-performance dimension in each of these three disparate domains might be subsumed under a single model, such that common language and interpretation might ensure optimal benefit in both conceptualization and practice across fields.

To this end:

  1. We first provide a short review of general models of anxiety/arousal and how they affect performance.
  2. Then for each domain (Sex, Sport, and Stage), we explore the issues: definitions, prevalence, models, underlying physiological processes, and precipitating and mitigating conditions in a narrative review.
  3. And, finally, we integrate the fields by identifying points of intersection and differentiation and ask whether a unifying model might stimulate hypothesis testing and further research across these fields.

We realize that by first discussing the literature separately for each domain (Sex, Sport, and Stage), we at times repeat theoretical positions on anxiety and performance that occur across domains. Yet, this approach will provide a better sense of the scope/magnitude of the dialogue on each of the various factors related to anxiety and performance, as major lines of thinking/research in one discipline often differ substantially from those of another discipline.

Furthermore, as we progress from one domain to the next, we increasingly cross-reference concepts in previously discussed domains to highlight parallel developments occurring within each of the fields. Were we to organize discourse around specific topics/variables related to anxiety-performance and discuss them concurrently across domains, we believe that the original/unique perspectives within each domain would be lost.

That is, while core conceptualizations may share common elements across domains, the accoutrements and trappings surrounding each construct are frequently very different across Sport, Stage, and Sex. We trust that, in the final synthesis, the parallel concepts across domains will be sufficiently familiar to make the cross-disciplinary connections easy to understand.

General Models of Anxiety, Arousal, and Disrupted Performance

A dominant model of the relationship between anxiety, arousal, and performance was published as early as 1908 and became known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law (YDL; Yerkes and Dodson, 1908) (see reviews of Broadhurst, 1959Broadbent, 1965Teigen, 1994Landers, 2007). Yerkes and Dodson postulated that, as stimulus strength rises, habit formation improves, but only up to a certain maximum, when it begins to deteriorate as stimulus strength continues to increase, generating an inverted U-shape function.

Task difficulty moderates this relation: the optimal anxiety-provoking stimulus strength is higher for easier than difficult tasks. Yerkes and Dodson’s model is one of the few theoretical models in psychology that attained a law-like status. However, it has also encountered criticisms, including its overly general applicability to situations and performance types to which it has been applied (see Neiss, 1988, p. 345; Hanoch and Vitouch, 2004Corbett, 2015).

Other frameworks, including learning theory, cognitive/motivation theory, and stress-coping theories (e.g., Lazarus and Folkman, 1984Lazarus, 2000) can also be invoked to account for individual variability and changes over time regarding the effect of anxiety on performance.

A more recent type of cognitive theory—and in our view more relevant and explanatory—regarding anxiety’s impact on performance in Sex, Sport, and Stage is the reflective-impulsive model (RIM: Strack and Deutsch, 2004; see also Ouimet, 2017).

The RIM belongs to a larger “family” of dual-process models (Evans and Frankish, 2009) comprising two highly different, independent, and component cognitive processes.

The phylogenetically older component is the impulsive system, an intuitive modus operandi with operands formed by accumulated experience.

The impulsive system is permanently active and operates automatically as it processes incoming information from the entire perceptual field, requiring minimal cognitive resources (Evans, 2003).

Most of its operations occur outside awareness, although some may become part of the conscious experience. The other component is the reflective system, the system involved in abstract, conditional, and hypothetical reasoning. As this system requires holding several bits of information in working memory, it can handle only small amounts of information and is highly dependent on the availability of processing capacity in working memory (Baddeley and Hitch, 1975Evans, 2003).

A common example of dual processing is expert car driving. A driver effortlessly performs all necessary adjustments while processing information from both the traffic situation and the car systems and yet may be simultaneously deeply immersed in a conversation with a passenger.

However, when traffic information signals danger, the driver interrupts the conversation to refocus attentional resources to respond to the traffic situation.

The reflective system interrupts or overrides reflexive processing and thus can exert inhibitory control (Evans and Stanovich, 2013; but see Newell and Shanks, 2014, for a critical review). If for some reason processing capacity is reduced, the omnipresent reflexive system will assume priority in the control of behavioral output (Hofmann et al., 2009).

Although we have thus far referred primarily to “anxiety” and “performance,” different domains approach the issue in slightly different ways. For example, the incapacity to perform under pressure is described as “choking” during sporting events, with primary focus on performance rather than anxiety.

In stage performance, the literature focuses on “stage fright” and its impact during stage performance.

In sexual response, emphasis is on “performance demand” and its relationship to sexual dysfunction.

Although terminologies vary, and the reference point in the anxiety-performance relationship may shift, in each case, poor performance is typically associated with excessive anxiety related to fear of failure in an evaluative context. Vulnerability to the effects of anxiety is often framed using a variety of learning/cognitive, situational, and personality factors (see Figure 1 for the relevant constructs and the relationships that form the basis of this paper’s discussion).

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Figure 1
Scope of discussion addressing anxiety and performance.


Selection of Databases

For this integrative review, the following databases were accessed: SPORTDiscus with Full Text, International Bibliography of Theatre and Dance, Music Periodicals Database, RILM Abstract of Music Literature with Full Text, PsycARTICLES, PsycINFO, and MEDLINE/PubMed.

Search Strategy

Depending on the database, all possible combinations (using the Boolean connector “AND”) were made across the following categories of keywords. Category 1: Sports or Athletics or Competition, Public Speaking, Theatre or Theater or Drama, Sexual or Sex; Category 2: Performance; Category 3 (depending on Category 1 entry): Anxiety, Fear, Freezing, Stage Fright, Choking, Dysfunction, Forgetting, Cognitive, Affective, Behavior. We also set the following parameters: Keywords found in any part of the text; search 1970 or after; English language; Scholarly Articles (with and without peer review).


Anxiety and Performance in Sex

Definition and Prevalence

The concept of performance anxiety related to sex has long been known but was first “clinicalized” by Masters and Johnson (1970) in their classic work Human Sexual Inadequacy. Sexual performance anxiety refers to the fear that an individual will not measure up to some preconceived expectation within the context of sexual interaction. Whether related to concerns about body image, one’s masculinity or femininity, or aspects of sexual response itself, such anxiety can disrupt normal sexual response and result in unsatisfying sex with one’s partner. Unlike the somatic/voluntary responses of Sport and Stage, aspects of the sexual response—erection, lubrication, orgasm, ejaculation—involve the autonomic nervous (internal) system and thus are not strictly under voluntary control. Although an individual may take steps to increase (or decrease) the likelihood of autonomic activation for arousal and orgasm, such responses cannot generally be “controlled” or “willed” as occurs in Sport or Stage.

Although the extent to which sex-related performance anxiety is a concern within the general population is unclear, sexual situations automatically represent demands on sexual performance (Barlow, 1986), suggesting a fairly pervasive phenomenon. Fairly recent data (Laumann et al., 1999Mitchell et al., 2013) indicate that about 5–25% of men and women report anxiety surrounding sex—perhaps an underestimate. The estimated prevalence for erectile dysfunction (ED), for example, varies widely and differs according to the type of sex, age group, the specific problem (e.g., getting vs. keeping an erection), and relationship duration. What can be stated with reasonable confidence is that sexual performance-related anxiety and subsequent dysfunctional response occur in a significant portion of men and women at some point in their lives (McCabe, 2005Lewis et al., 2010).

The Role of Biological Factors in Sexual Performance Anxiety

A physiological basis for anxiety’s role has been delineated for several sexual dysfunctions. For example, a high level of anxiety (and stress) may interfere with the normal erectile process: anxiety typically prompts elevated sympathetic nervous system response (flight or fight), whereas the process of erection demands a predominantly parasympathetic response. Furthermore, elevated cortisol (a stress hormone) has been associated with diminished erectile response and greater self-reported “worry” (Rowland et al., 1987). As men progress through the sexual response cycle, dominance typically shifts from parasympathetic to sympathetic control necessary for ejaculation. Evidence suggests that some men show a too-rapid shift from parasympathetic to sympathetic dominance, resulting in (a premature) ejaculation before the man feels ready (Rowland, 2011Rowland and Crawford, 2011).

In women, the relationship between anxiety and sexual response is less clear. Inducing an anxiety state may in some instances increase sexual arousal (Meston and Bradford, 2007Meana, 2012), but most often, anxiety interferes with all phases of sexual response—desire, arousal (including lubrication), and orgasm (McCabe, 2005)—perhaps in a manner consistent with the YDL. Unlike in men, in women, the understanding of the effect of anxiety on autonomically controlled aspects of sexual response is not well delineated. However, to the extent that anxiety may serve as a distractor from erotic cues, it may negatively affect all aspects of sexual response in both men and women (Geer and Fuhr, 1976Farkas et al., 1979van Lankveld and van den Hout, 2004Salemink and van Lankveld, 2006).

Psychological Models of Sexual Performance Anxiety and Course of Development

Several models, two general and one focused on the role of performance anxiety, have attempted to understand sexual response and dysfunction.

Inhibition-excitation models focus on the opposing effects of excitatory and inhibitory factors rather than on performance demand per se (Bancroft and Janssen, 2000Perelman, 2009). In these models, excitatory factors may be individual, relational, and contextual—they include both neurobiological and psycho-socio-cultural factors. For example, the desire and attraction to one’s partner, and the value of sexual intimacy and a satisfying relationship represent important excitatory elements. Inhibitory factors—ones that interfere with the sexual response—also involve individual and bio-psycho-socio-cultural components and may include a neurobiological predisposition for anxiety, relationship conflict that suspends sexual advances, or cognition/assessment of risk factors resulting from infectious disease, inappropriate (and sometimes illegal) objects of desire, and so on. In such models, performance anxiety assumes a role as one of any number of inhibiting factors on sexual response.

More directly focused on anxiety performance related to male erectile response and to a lesser extent female arousal inhibition, Barlow (1986) proposed a cognitive-affective model that distinguished sexually functional men from dysfunctional men through feedback loops. According to this widely referenced model, sexually functional men progress through stages that lead to stepwise increases in autonomic arousal, subsequent functional performance, and future approach toward similar situations. In contrast, dysfunctional men progress through similar stages, yet due to low expectancies, self-efficacy, perception of control, and attention on consequences of failure rather than on erotic cues, these variant stages lead to autonomic arousal/anxiety, dysfunctional performance, and avoidance in future situations. This descriptive model generated a quest to verify differences between dysfunctional and functional men along a number of dimensions; however, the model did not address either how the dysfunctional response developed in the first place, or why some men develop performance anxiety and others do not.

Although the precise effect of psychogenic factors on sexual response is difficult to disentangle, men and women nevertheless often worry, show concern, or are otherwise anxious about the “adequacy” of their sexual response, and as this worry increases, it has, ironically, increasing probability of disrupting it (Bancroft, 2009). And, if one failure follows another, the level of anticipatory performance anxiety is likely to increase, which then further interferes with sexual response. In a typical fashion, the individual attempts to “pursue” the response (e.g., erection in men, orgasm in women) rather than to allow it to “ensue” in response to sexual stimulation. Such compounding failures impart both emotional and cognitive effects—the individual may become obsessed with negative thoughts related to failure, embarrassment, and shame (Bruce and Barlow, 1990Rowland et al., 19951996Nobre and Pinto-Gouveia, 2008), augmenting his/her frustration, sense of low self-efficacy, and anxiety—all of which further decrease the likelihood of an adequate sexual response. Indeed, an individual’s actions may become directed more toward reducing the anxiety (e.g., attempting successful penetration before fully becoming erect) than toward the positive feelings that usually accompany sexual intimacy.

Characteristics and Influencers of Anxiety Surrounding Sexual Performance

For both men and women, the relationships between anxiety and performance are neither simple nor straightforward. For example, men and women having no sexual problems sometimes experience enhanced arousal under conditions of anxiety, but for those already having sexual difficulties, anxiety tends to compound the problem—they exhibit even stronger susceptibility to the effects of performance demand (Barlow et al., 1983; but also see Beck and Barlow, 1986). Some evidence for a curvilinear relationship between sympathetic activation and sexual arousal, similar to the YDL, has been indicated (Lorenz et al., 2012). Not surprisingly, given the anxiety surrounding performance, men and women with sexual problems report higher levels of negative affect in anticipation of and in response to sexual experiences than functional men (Rowland et al., 1996Meana, 2012). A number of factors are likely to cause, result from, or exacerbate such anxiety.


Both men and women with performance anxiety tend to focus heavily on themselves rather than on the erotic cues provided by the partner. This self-focus includes the monitoring of one’s own physical responsiveness [e.g., for men, the extent of their erection; for women, how close they are (or are not) to orgasm], a process referred to as “spectatoring” or “hypervigilance” (Masters and Johnson, 1970). For most individuals, close self-monitoring has negative results: arousal due to erotic cues is either lost or never achieved because the focus on one’s own body—whether related to body image, genital pain, or sexual response itself—precludes attention to partner-generated erotic cues (van Lankveld et al., 2004Meston, 2006van Lankveld and Bergh, 2008Woertman and van den Brink, 2012). A curvilinear relationship, similar to the YDL, has also been suggested between self-focus level and sexual arousal (van Lankveld et al., 2004Meston, 2006).


One consequence of self-focus is that it distracts from the erotic cues at hand. This shift in focus counters the typical (and somewhat reflexive) response to those cues, such that levels of psychological/physiological arousal necessary for erection or lubrication are never achieved (Geer and Fuhr, 1976Farkas et al., 1979Salemink and van Lankveld, 2006). Although self-focus and distraction often occur concomitantly—resulting in diminished performance—the parameters may not be the same for the two sexes. While sexually dysfunctional men tend to self-focus on their erection, how aroused they are, or how incompetent they are, sexually dysfunctional women tend to self-focus on their body appearance and, surprisingly, non-sexual residuals from the day, although thoughts about incompetency also play a role (Nobre and Pinto-Gouveia, 20082009).

Expectancies and Self-Assessment

Men and women with sexual problems tend to underestimate (or at least underreport) their level of subjective arousal and genital response (Heiman and Rowland, 1983Barlow, 1986). Two cognitive processes might explain this. (1) These individuals may set high (or even unattainable) expectations for themselves, based on what they themselves want, what they believe their partners expect, and what they assume to be a socio-cultural norm; that is, they believe that they can never live up to the expectations they have adopted. (2) These individuals are also more likely to catastrophize about their situation, believing that the situation is far worse than it really is.

Diminished Self-Efficacy and Negative Scripts

The above processes often result in a diminished “self-efficacy,” a construct developed by Bandura (1989) that refers to one’s perceived ability to be effective at a given task based on previous experiences (Albarracín et al., 2001). Individuals with high self-efficacy rehearse situations with positive performance strategies and visualize success even when having to overcome significant problems, whereas those with low self-efficacy dwell on the negatives of the situation and envision failed scenarios (Bandura, 1989).

Men and women who have recurring sexual failures begin to view sexual situations differently—no longer as an opportunity for pleasure and intimacy but as a situation that leads to failure, shame, and embarrassment (Rowland et al., 1996Desrochers et al., 2009). Thus, from a cognitive/affective perspective, these individuals handicap themselves. Their self-narrative (thoughts) during sex becomes negative, with the inevitability of failure as the anticipated outcome of any encounter. Concomitantly, anxiety levels overwhelm any potential for positive affect, thereby engendering counterproductive behaviors—including avoidance of intimacy altogether—that are aimed at reducing the negative affect but which often only sustain or intensify the problem (Fichten et al., 1988Rowland et al., 2015).

Vulnerable Personalities

Psychologists have long sought a link between various personality characteristics and a propensity toward psychogenic sexual problems to better understand why some individuals seem more vulnerable than others. Several personality traits have a fairly straightforward relationship to sexual arousal, pleasure, and dysfunction (Quinta-Gomes and Nobre, 2011). Specific personality characteristics may render the individual more vulnerable to the evaluative components of sexual interaction and raise the person’s anxiety by placing high value/effort on sexual performance, inducing fear of failure and negative consequences. Whether such anxiety is specific to the sexual situation or represents a broader personality tendency, the experience of anxiety surrounding sexual activity may shape sexual attitudes and expectations, which exacerbate existing or developing sexual difficulties.

Although such traits may add to either sexual enjoyment or sexual problems, they represent only one of many factors impinging on sexual response for a given individual with a given partner. That is, personality characteristics interact with various relational and situational factors, resulting in specific vulnerabilities or strengths in situations of sexual intimacy. As such, they probably play a secondary role—perhaps exacerbating or intensifying—in sexual response and enjoyment.

Negative Trait Affectivity

Negative trait affectivity is characterized by an undue focus on negative emotions (e.g., anger, anxiety, and guilt), whereas positive trait affectivity is characterized by a focus on positive emotions (happiness and enthusiasm). Negative trait affect is associated with problems surrounding sexual functioning and sexual pain in women (Oliveira and Nobre, 2013) and diminished arousal and erectile functioning in men (Peixoto and Nobre, 2012).

Related to negative trait affect, high levels of neuroticism, a personality trait characterized by nervousness, fear, worry, and lower emotional stability, have been associated with male sexual dysfunctions. Neurotic tendencies may prompt negative feelings and thoughts; therefore, when sexual issues arise, a man higher in neuroticism is likely to evaluate himself negatively, favoring internal attributions for any sexual failure. In women, lower emotional stability is correlated with increased risk of orgasmic difficulties and sexual pain disorders (van Lankveld et al., 2010).


Extraversion-introversion (E-I) is a characteristic that denotes the source of the person’s psychological, emotional, and (even) physical energy, thereby playing a possible role in sexual enjoyment and dysfunction (Harris et al., 2008Quinta-Gomes and Nobre, 2011). Although introversion itself does not lead to sexual problems, an introvert may avoid sex due to its emotionally taxing nature, particularly if the individual has recently entered into a new relationship. Similarly, individuals with social phobia—intense anxiety elicited from social situations—may respond particularly negatively to the overwhelming pressures (both cultural and partner-based) to perform adequately during sex (Figueira et al., 2001).

In summary, a variety of situational, cognitive/behavioral, and personality factors have been invoked within the field of sexology to explain the anxiety-performance connection.

Anxiety and Performance in Sport

Definition and Prevalence

“Choking” is the term most often used for any instance of poor performance in a professional Sport. In contrast with “performance anxiety” used in the context of sexual response—which refers to a particular situational pressure to respond adequately—choking refers to the inadequate response itself. Analogous terminology in sexology might be “impaired” or “dysfunctional” response, in Stage, “freezing” or “substandard performance.” The terminology “competitive anxiety” in Sport refers to the elevated stress/anxiety that occurs in situations when the demands of training or competition exceed an athlete’s perceived ability.

Although choking has been described in various ways (see Buszard et al., 2013Mesagno and Hill, 2013Mesagno and Beckmann, 2017), an important distinction exists between choking and athletic performance anxiety: performance anxiety, a feeling commonly experienced by performers, may either enhance or disrupt performance (Alter et al., 2010Dias et al., 2012Brooks, 2014Akinola et al., 2016), perhaps as the YDL inverted U-function suggests, analogous to the manner in which pressure/anxiety may enhance sexual response in some individuals but disrupt it in dysfunctional/vulnerable individuals (Jones et al., 1993Duncan et al., 2016). Thus, choking refers to the substandard performance (judged by either self or audience standards) occurring under pressure conditions (Baumeister and Showers, 1986) that may include rewards/punishments, evaluative audiences, competition, ego threat, and one-chance events. Baumeister (1984) summarizes this pressure as any factor or combination of factors that increases the importance of performing well (see also Otten, 2009). Consistent with this approach, Mesagno et al. (2008) defined choking as a “critical deterioration in the execution of habitual processes as a result of an elevation in anxiety levels under perceived pressure, leading to substandard performance.” Beilock (2010) and others qualify the concept, noting that performance quality may either increase (e.g., “peak” performance) or decrease, with the latter not necessarily labeled as choking, as this occurs only when cognitive appraisal of a given situation as stressful is coupled with suboptimal performance (Anderson et al., 2014; see also Neil et al., 2012).

Other authors have emphasized various aspects of choking. For example, “expectation” has been incorporated into some definitions, with “choking as an inability to perform up to previously exhibited standards” (Daniel, 1981); or both expectation and pressure have been included, for example, choking involves perceived pressure, both internal and external, which results in suboptimal performance in relation to the expectations of the performer (Gucciardi et al., 2010). Still others have included the concept of motivation, specifying that choking occurs only if the performer could obviously have done better and had intended to do so (Lazarus, 2000Beckmann et al., 2013). Finally, while some definitions focus on prior experience or skill, others examine any instances of performance under pressure. Thus, according to several definitions, novices cannot really “choke” under pressure, as some level of expertise is assumed. In fact, some Sport studies have examined the effects of performance anxiety in novices and experts as distinct phenomena.

Choking occurs in many sports, particularly those involving skill (e.g., tennis, basketball, and golf) as opposed to effort (e.g., track and cycling) (Cox, 2012). Data on prevalence have been based mainly on younger players, 20–30 years old, and most research has not differentiated participants’ level of expertise. Equally problematic, no proposed definition of “expertise” has been widely accepted: some studies have examined players in highly ranked divisions to denote expertise, whereas others focused on the duration of experience in the sport, assuming duration translates into greater expertise. Gender of the participant has been understudied as a relevant factor in prevalence rates, and although sex differences relevant to some athletic activities have been documented, findings are not always consistent (Taylor, 1987Hammermeister and Burton, 2004Nicholls and Polman, 2007Modrono and Guillen, 2011Cohen-Zada et al., 2017).

Because of variation in definition, types of sports activities, levels of expertise among players, and potential sex differences, prevalence estimates vary measurably. Furthermore, as Sport participation is generally voluntary—similar to Stage performance and to some extent more so than Sex—many who do experience performance anxiety may simply opt out of participation with little or no cost to one’s goals in life. Nevertheless, existing estimates based on small and select samples of individuals who elect to play sports typically weigh in around 30–60% (Wang et al., 2004Mesagno et al., 2008Otten, 2009).

The Role of Biological Factors in Choking

Unlike sexual psychophysiology where relationships among anxiety, sympathetic activation, and diminished sexual response are both plausible and empirically supported, the connection between biological processes, anxiety, and poor sports performance is less clear. That is, a direct effect of anxiety on somatic sensorimotor control (e.g., visual-motor coordination) is less obvious, although recent evidence suggests a clear link between (state) anxiety and disrupted cognitive-motor performance (Lo et al., 2019). Physical factors also play a role. Both poor physical preparation (e.g., toning, exercise) and physical/mental fatigue have been tied to choking (Hill and Shaw, 2013Silva and Paiva, 2016), with Wang et al. (2004) explaining that increasing physical or mental effort may induce or exacerbate fatigue, although sport participants themselves generally do not assume this association (Hill et al., 2013). Furthermore, as with sexual response, increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol are associated with poorer performance, for example, in golf and tennis serves (Doan et al., 2007Lautenbach et al., 2014).

One approach hypothesizes a central neurobiological role through hemispheric brain inhibition and activation (Beckmann et al., 2013). When a skill is first being learned, the left hemisphere (associated with language) is more active due to verbal iterations involved with skill acquisition. But once the skill has been well learned and is performed automatically, left hemisphere processing may be inhibited and the right (associated with visual-spatial performance) becomes dominant. Choking, then, results when left hemisphere control is re-activated in response to pressure or anxiety, which then disrupts the automatic execution of a skill controlled by the right hemisphere. Indeed, such explanation may have common ground with “self-monitoring” in sexual response, and as discussed later, this distinction between verbal vs. spatial dominance in the acquisition of skills is likely relevant to the distinction between reflective vs. reflexive modes of information processing.

Psychological Models of Choking and Course of Development

One common theme among theories explaining choking is that of change in focus. According to explicit monitoring theory [also known as self-focused attention (Baumeister and Showers, 1986), conscious processing (Masters, 1992), and skill-focus (Baumeister, 1984)], choking occurs when automatic skills (well-learned, reflexive responses) become consciously regulated and disrupted due to depletion of working memory, a condition typically brought on by anxiety (Moran, 2016). Explicit monitoring of responses is important for the skill acquisition process and facilitates performance in novices as motoric output progresses through cognitive, associative, and finally autonomous phases. Thus, when a skill is first learned, the player (Reeves et al., 2007) uses verbal representations of the movement to create a mental image of the motor activity. The subsequent associative phase involves practice of the physical movement in connection with the verbal representations. The final autonomous phase is achieved when performance of the motor skill occurs with little conscious effort or forethought. When this autonomous (reflexive) process reverts to a conscious (reflective) process, the performer regresses to an earlier phase and performance suffers as working memory is “allocated” to the monitoring of a given task rather than to its execution (Baumeister and Showers, 1986Beckmann et al., 2013). For example, a tennis player under stress may revert to consciously thinking about how to swing the racket instead of allowing the process to occur automatically, shifting focus from objective to technique (Mesagno et al., 2009). Thus, choking would only occur when response sets have reached skill-based level, as characterized by automatic sensorimotor processing (Wallace et al., 2005).

A second approach, Attentional Control Theory, posits that choking occurs when working memory is overburdened by task-irrelevant information that then shifts focus away from task relevant information (Baumeister and Showers, 1986Nieuwenhuys et al., 2008). When performing, a player processes a multitude of external (environmental) and internal (thoughts and feelings) stimuli (Hill and Shaw, 2013), with some stimuli improving focus on the immediate task, and others—as seen with impaired sexual response—distracting and shifting attention toward processing information that is less task relevant. This attentional shift may lead to choking in two ways. First, working memory is re-allocated to task irrelevant information, for example, a performer shifts focus away from scoring a goal to note the audience or the importance of the game (Oudejans and Pijpers, 2009Hill and Shaw, 2013Cocks et al., 2016). Working memory thus becomes overburdened, and choking becomes more likely (Beilock, 2010Ducrocq et al., 2017). Second, when attention shifts to non-task variables such as monetary incentives, audience presence, or evaluative circumstances, pressure to perform increases and may induce anxiety (Janelle et al., 1999Hill et al., 2010a2013DeCaro et al., 2011). This attentional shift often leaves players with a sense of lost control, partly validated by performers’ reports that their emotional state affected their performance (Gucciardi et al., 2010). The sense of lost control and anxiety appear to be reciprocating: lack of perceived control (or self-efficacy) or the perceived lack of ability to deal with stress and achieve goals under stress, often occurs prior to anxiety, but it often occurs in response to stress/anxiety as well (Skinner, 1996).

A third approach to choking, self-presentation theory, emphasizes anxiety resulting from the evaluated component of performance which threatens the player’s self-image or self-presentation (Schlenker, 1980Mesagno et al., 2012). For example, audiences create pressure, with size, status, and salience correlated with choking probability (Baumeister and Showers, 1986). While the audience may include both supportive and antagonistic spectators, coaches, recruiters, and teammates (Wallace et al., 2005), their mere presence creates expectations by performers (realistic or perceived) based on prior successes (Jordet, 2009a), overall performance importance (Hill et al., 2010b), and pressure from others to succeed (Wallace et al., 2005). The pressure to fulfill these expectations and the resulting self-focus and anxiety are common precursors to choking (Wallace et al., 2005Jordet, 2009a,bHill et al., 2010a2013Hill and Shaw, 2013), often more so than monetary incentives (Liebling and Shaver, 1973Hope and Heimberg, 1988Mesagno et al., 2011). As with arousal and anxiety, expectation likely functions as an inverted U-shaped curve, where too little or too much results in suboptimal performance, consistent with the YDL model.

Self-presentation theory may also explain “self-handicapping,” that is, “any action or choice of performance setting that enhances the opportunity to externalize (or excuse) failure and to internalize (accept credit for) success” (Gardner et al., 2015; but also see Berglas and Jones, 1978), an attribution process that also plays a significant role in sexual anxiety and performance in men and women (Rowland et al., 20162018). Players’ anxiety will often lead to self-handicapping (e.g., verbalizing lack of practice, physical/mental ailment, or ill-preparedness) as a means to protect their self-image (Coudevylle et al., 2008).

In summary, each theory provides insight into pathways of increased anxiety to impaired athletic performance. All three have garnered support, suggesting that each explains an aspect of the emotional, cognitive, and/or behavioral components of choking (Reeves et al., 2007Wilson et al., 2007a,bGucciardi et al., 2010Hill et al., 2010bMesagno et al., 2011Hill and Shaw, 2013Englert and Oudejans, 2014Vealey et al., 2014).

Characteristics and Influencers of Anxiety Surrounding Sport Performance

Many of the characteristics of individuals suffering performance anxiety related to Sport/choking are similar to those identified in the research literature regarding Sex.


Personal meaning carries significant weight for athletes. This meaning may take the form of expectations of self and others, personal goals, importance of the event to the player, and self-identity (Gucciardi et al., 2010Hill and Shaw, 2013). Similar to high expectations, players who set specific personal goals such as improving on a past performance, achieving a certain score or time, or performing well under pressure, impose greater pressure on themselves. As noted earlier, other factors that affect anxiety and choking include the perceived importance of the event (Hill and Shaw, 2013) and the self-identity status of the athlete: an individual identifying him/herself, say, as a golfer will feel greater pressure to succeed (or as importantly, avoid failure) in order to validate his or her self-identity (Wang et al., 2004Gucciardi et al., 2010).

Vulnerable Personalities

Performers high in self-consciousness are more aware of and concerned with others’ impressions of them. Although this need to appear competent can lead to greater anxiety and pressure (Mesagno et al., 200820092012Hill et al., 2010a), low self-consciousness has also been associated with choking. A lack of self-awareness while under pressure may lead some players to become aware of others’ impressions for the first time during a particular event and thus they choke (Baumeister, 1984Baumeister and Showers, 1986). Related to self-consciousness, self-esteem is also involved: Those having high self-esteem experience greater pressure and more self-conscious and strive harder to meet high performance expectancies, and, as a result, may end up choking (Jordet, 2009a,b).

Perfectionism represents another risk factor, as perfectionists often attempt to achieve unrealistic goals (Gucciardi et al., 2010Hill and Shaw, 2013), a situation comparable to unrealistic expectations often occurring during sexual encounters. Yet, the player’s interpretation of perfectionism may also be relevant. In one retrospective analysis, those who choked were self-critical when their perfectionist goals were not achieved, whereas those who did not, view their perfectionism as beneficial to their performance, citing it as a means to increase effort and benefit from mistakes (Hill et al., 2010a). Perfectionism may also result in a greater level of “reinvestment,” a strategy that increases the likelihood of conscious monitoring of thoughts and movements and consequently shifts attention away from task-relevant automatic processing information (Masters, 1992).

As with sexual performance issues, evaluation-based anxiety is a common condition among chokers and appears to disrupt the cerebral dynamics important to precision cognitive-motor performance (Baumeister and Showers, 1986Hanton et al., 2002Mesagno et al., 2009Lo et al., 2019). Furthermore, players may interpret physiological reactions (racing heart beat) as signs of anxiety (Gucciardi et al., 2010). As anxiety increases—as delineated in the attentional control theory of choking—players designate more cognitive resources to coping with the anxiety as they attempt to perform, including increased self-monitoring (similar to hypervigilance in sexual anxiety) (Gropel, 2016Masaki et al., 2017). One interpretation suggests that those who lack the mental discipline to deal with the distraction of anxiety show decrements in performance (Hill et al., 2010b). Another argues that anxiety may actually result in greater attention to relevant stimuli but that the high anxiety causes the players to move less efficiently (Nieuwenhuys et al., 2008).

The relevance of the type of anxiety—state vs. trait—has not led to consensus, the former referring to fear or worry stemming from a specific context or situation, the latter to a personality factor predisposing an individual to experience ongoing anxiety over time and different contexts. State anxiety presumably affects “processing efficiency” more than trait anxiety (Oudejans et al., 2013), yet those at risk for choking also tend to be high in trait anxiety (Mesagno et al., 2008). Whether the fear of negative evaluation is tied to a specific task (state) or stable dispositional factors (trait) may not be a strong differentiating factor; the two might operate incrementally together, with high trait anxious persons reaching a tipping point toward impaired performance under smaller increments of state anxiety than low trait anxious persons (see also Perelman, 2009, with respect to sexual impairment).

Similar to men and women with low self-efficacy in sexual situations, players with low self-confidence (often related to self-efficacy) are more likely to experience anxiety; in contrast, high self-confidence may contribute to superb performance (Hill et al., 2010bHazell et al., 2014Zagorska and Guszkowska, 2014Rowland et al., 2015). High self-confidence typically leads to greater perceived control, a significant predictor of good performance (Otten, 2009). Yet, Hill and Shaw (2013) found that both high and low self-confidence were risk factors for choking (indicating a YDL function), suggesting that high confidence could lead to overconfidence and cause players to relax and lessen attentional control over task relevant stimuli (i.e., “Dunning-Kruger effect:” Kruger and Dunning, 1999).

Finally, lack of practice and preparation (including poor physical care) has been cited as reasons for choking (Hazell et al., 2014). Chokers may place more value on other obligations than toning and practicing for an event. Interestingly, those who choke for such reasons are more able to rationally examine their performance afterwards (Hill et al., 2010a), suggesting awareness of the relationship between lack of practice and impaired performance.

In summary, Sport and Sex share many common ideas in the study of anxiety-performance, including biological process, psychological strategies (e.g., attribution, self-focus, distraction/attentional factors, expectation level, self-efficacy), and personality characteristics (e.g., anxiety prone, perfectionism, self-confidence, etc.).

Anxiety and Performance on Stage

Definition and Prevalence

Referred to as stage performance anxiety (also stage fright, jitters, or butterflies), this condition characterizes many persons called upon to perform music, public speaking, and acting. Among these, fear of public speaking (glossophobia) is arguably the most widely experienced. Nearly everyone is called upon to give a presentation in his or her lifetime, whereas participation in music or acting events is often voluntary (Do you suffer from glossophobia?, 2001Lazarus and Abramovitz, 2004Gaille, 2013Statistic Brain Research Institute, 2013). Response sets for these various activities differ, but because of the situational similarities, we discuss them under a single domain so as to identify common elements for any stage performance situation.

Performance anxiety on stage is analogous to Sex and Sport anxiety, in that heightened apprehension and negative emotional states are postulated to interfere with desired outcomes (Matei and Ginsborg, 2017). At the same time, it differs from choking in Sport by emphasizing the process rather than the outcome alone. Klickstein’s (2009) definition of music performance anxiety represents a typical approach, characterizing stage anxiety as stress that interferes with performance. Other definitions are more elaborate, with music anxiety being defined as the “experience of persisting, distressful apprehension, and/or actual impairment of performance skills in a public context, to a degree unwarranted given the individual’s musical aptitude, training, and level of preparation” (Salmon, 1990) or as “the experience of marked and persistent anxious apprehension related to musical performance that has arisen through underlying biological and/or psychological vulnerabilities and/or specific anxiety-conditioning experiences” (Kenny, 20092011). From an acting perspective, stage fright has been characterized as an “unmooring terror” which overwhelms the actor as he/she is about to take the stage, with the actors’ stress level on opening night equal to that of a car accident victim: Stage fright is “a traumatic, insidious attack on the performers’ expressive instrument, their bodies” (Lahr, 2006).

Studies suggest that performance anxiety is pervasive among stage performers, most having experienced it at some point during their career. In music performance, depending on the methodology, estimates indicate 50–70% of professional musicians admit to compromised performances (and larger consequences as well) from anxiety (van Kemenade et al., 1995Kirchner et al., 2011Klickstein, 2009Kenny, 2011Helding, 2016), with variation dependent on such factors as solo vs. group performance, audience make up (are family members present?), level of performance of fellow performers, and so on. Although prevalence rates for glossophobia are hard to come by—perhaps because the assumption is that, given the right conditions, nearly everyone experiences it—several sources suggest that about 75% of the population has suffered from this condition at one time or another (Statistic Brain Research Institute, 2013).

The Role of Biological Factors in Stage Performance Anxiety

Most thinking regarding stage performance anxiety invokes autonomic processes, emotion, and inhibition as factors. For example, sympathetic arousal is responsible for the increased heart rate experienced by musicians suffering from performance anxiety (Finn et al., 2009Klickstein, 2009Yoshie et al., 2009). Anxiety increases sympathetic activation and glucocorticoid (stress hormone) release in musicians and those in public speaking situations (Kirschbaum et al., 1992Fancourt et al., 2015), which in turn may have deleterious effects during performance: it increases fatigue, affects “flow” (a state of focused absorption in an activity: Csikzsentmihaly, 1990), alters the temporal perception critical for the rhythm and pace of musical performance, and disrupts general mental processing (Kirchner et al., 2011Yoshie et al., 2009). The level of sympathetic activation (e.g., as assessed by heart rate) depends on numerous factors, such as the setting, situation, and performance type, for example, whether public or semi-private (Finn et al., 2009).

Other biological factors such as “physical reactivity” are viewed as important correlates of stage performance anxiety (Fredrikson and Gunnarsson, 1992Finn et al., 2009). Finn et al. posit those with a “weak” (sic) nervous system can be more (physiologically) sensitive to aversive stimuli than those with a “hardy” (presumably, more resilient) nervous system. As with Sport/choking, stage performance anxiety has been explained in part by the Behavioral Inhibition and Activation System (BIS-BAS) model, although in a different manner3. On stage, the Behavior Inhibition System (BIS) is presumed to regulate the amount of reactivity of the nervous system such that when the body perceives signs of adversity, novelty, and non-reward, BIS neural circuits are activated. The BIS is a “watch and wait” system that monitors general levels of perceived threat. BIS dominance has been linked to psychological state anxiety, which suppresses communicative behaviors such as voice inflection, hand and arm gestures, and facial expressions. Thus, psychological and physiological conditions associated with public-speaking and general stage anxiety involve BIS activation, resulting in dampened behavioral reactivity and responses (Finn et al., 2009).

Psychological Models of Stage Anxiety and Course of Development

Models of stage performance anxiety have drawn substantially from theories of general anxiety and activation, although different areas (music vs. acting vs. speech presentation) have sometimes emphasized different aspects of these theories. Similar to Sex, Stage performance anxiety is viewed as an interactive process of cognitive, behavioral, and physiological factors, involving, for example, distressing thoughts, autonomic arousal, and impaired behavioral responses (Hoffman and Hanrahan, 2012Walker and Commander, 2017). Other characteristics include biological vulnerability, high trait anxiety, fear of evaluation, history of “stage nerves,” specific task requirements and/or situations, and distraction.

A somewhat more specific model—though now quite dated—had been proposed for public speaking situations (Behnke and Beatty, 1981)—one derived from Schachter and Singer’s (1962) work—to explain the relationship of psychological and physiological factors to state (vs. trait) anxiety. According to this cognitive-physiological model, a speaker’s response during oration is contingent on two variables: physiological arousal and a cognitive interpretation/labeling of that arousal state. High trait anxiety speakers are likely to interpret their physiological arousal as anxiety or fear, whereas low trait anxiety speakers may perceive the arousal as enthusiasm or excitement (Finn et al., 2009).

Person vs. Task/Situation Related Factors

Most research in this field suggests that the causes and/or risk factors for stage performance anxiety may be broadly categorized as either person-related or task/situation-related. Those factors emanating from the individual performer (i.e., person-related) include fear of evaluation, lack of preparation, anxiety, and various other personality characteristics.

As with Sport, distinction is made between trait and state anxiety, the former constant across situations and time, the latter varying considerably before, during, and following performances (Finn et al., 2009). Musicians having trait anxiety, thus already having a low threshold for anxious arousal, are more predisposed to a panic (fight-or-flight) behavioral response than more relaxed (low trait anxiety) types (Klickstein, 2009). However, the panic response both results from anxiety and further feeds it, with physiologically aroused states (e.g., heart racing) intensifying the feeling of anxiety. Whereas performers with trait anxiety may develop pervasive nervous habits, which follow them from one performance to the next, those with state anxiety, which results from one’s situation rather than disposition, experience less predictable effects on performance. Because state anxiety, representing an emotional response to a perceived threat, activates the behavioral inhibition system (BIS), the performer’s ability to detect, appraise, and implement appropriate motor responses may be inhibited or even suppressed (Sawyer and Behnke, 2002). Nevertheless, the end effect for state vs. trait anxiety may be quite different: A musician with high trait anxiety walking on stage is more likely to experience panic mode than one with low trait anxiety and low physiological reactivity, even if the latter is experiencing anxiety because of the specific situation (Gosselin et al., 1995Finn et al., 2009).

Linked to the fight-flight syndrome, fear of evaluation is considered another potential cause for performance anxiety among musicians (Helding, 2016). Musical performance involves constant and ongoing evaluation by listeners, so musicians having a high fear of evaluation develop increasing anxiety over the course of their performances, which then can trigger a panic response.

Finally, poor practice skills and/or routines are risk factors for anxiety and subsequent diminished performance (Klickstein, 2009Nicholson et al., 2015). Performers’ habits of practice, more than most other factors, are likely to result in substandard performance resulting from anxiety: “Without the expertise to learn music deeply, on-stage security eludes musicians. Then no matter how simple the material, the performer will not possess the foundations to perform successfully” (Klickstein, 2009). In contrast, when the musician has mastered the performance through strong practice skills, the excitement of being on stage drives a musician to “peaks of artistry.” As with Sport, highly automatized visual-motor behavior based on extensive practice reduces the musician’s vulnerability to shift to de-automatized, controlled performance that is more easily disrupted by apprehensive thoughts, anxiety, and fear.

As with both Sport and Sex, anxiety can be increased by specific conditions (i.e., task/situation factors). If a performer does not have adequate preparation time or chooses pieces too challenging4, the performer may not be able to master the piece, resulting in low self-confidence and increased stress (Kirchner et al., 2011). Other situational causes include a high level of public scrutiny (when evaluative processes are high, such as performances evaluated during contests and jury judgments), high degree of concern (e.g., consequences of a botched performance), and poor psychological and physical self-care. Even seemingly minor factors may become stressful, for example, a dour stand partner or cantankerous conductor (Klickstein, 2009). Distraction from the audience or co-performers may become catastrophic, although “automatic” performance involving strong focus on the task can help filter such distraction.

Short-Term Temporal Onset

Another framework for analyzing the course of stage performance anxiety has been to cluster symptoms according to their temporal sequence, from pre-performance anxiety, to the performance itself, and finally to post-performance factors (Klickstein, 2009). Most pre-performance problems are behavioral, although they may have emotional and cognitive repercussions, may occur hours to weeks before a performance, and include a plethora of possibilities including: procrastination, depression, fatigue, distorted thinking, decreased concentration, interpersonal strife, substance use, and somatic symptoms such as headaches, insomnia, and GI problems.

At performance, symptomatology may occur shortly before and continue through the performance. Both psychological and physical effects may be evident, including somatic symptoms: shaking, cold hands, increased heart rate, profuse sweating, nausea, muscle tension, hyperventilation, dry mouth, and the need to urinate. Mental or emotional symptoms include fear, confusion, memory lapse, distorted thinking, self-doubt, agitation, hypersensitivity, negative self-talk, shame, anger, and panic (Klickstein, 2009).

Post-performance symptoms include an overly-critical evaluation of performance, replaying every slight imperfection, and becoming depressed and frustrated, sometimes turning to substance use to quell emotions and concerns.

Depending on the situation and individual propensities, anxiety onset may differ across types of individuals. Although both “avoiders” and “non-avoiders” feel anxiety on the performance day, “avoiders” are also more likely to experience anxiety mid-performance. Kaplan (1969) details the possible relationship between anxiety and missteps during the actual theatrical stage performance, indicating the following (dramatic!) progression of events: The anxiety begins with manic agitation and moodiness which proceeds to delusional thinking and obsessional fantasies, which then leads to blocking, referring to a complete loss of rehearsed material. The actor then begins to stiffen, shake, and go numb and become uncoordinated, and cognitive processes freeze up causing some actors to dissociate, reporting an out of body experience, thus abandoning the character s/he is playing and losing the illusion of invisibility. Symptoms aside, the important point is that such processes can cause a shift in the cognitive thought process, making the actor more self-aware, “overthinking,” and highly impaired (Lahr, 2006).

Characteristics and Influencers of Anxiety Surrounding Stage Performance

Stage performers manifest both unique and shared characteristics relative to Sport and Sex, but within Stage, performers may tend to show individualized or idiosyncratic symptoms.

Somatic Symptoms

Reportedly affecting over 50% of performers, somatic symptoms are many, including those listed previously (Witt et al., 2006Berghs, 2008Finn et al., 2009Studer et al., 2011Hoffman and Hanrahan, 2012). Muscle tonus—either too little or too much—may interfere with performance: increased muscle tension decreases fine motor skills, essential for most stage performance, for example, constricting the body, narrowing the throat, creating tension around the larynx and cheeks, and tightening the abdominal wall (Yoshie et al., 2009). For the vocalist, stage actor, or orator, increased muscle tone makes the voice shrill and poor in vibrato, as if the performer is trying to squeeze the sound out, with fatigue setting in more quickly and making higher notes more difficult. The shoulders become elevated, the neck and back stiffen, often affecting both pitch and tempo of the voice (Berghs, 2008Hoffman and Hanrahan, 2012). Beyond voiced-based performances, increased muscle tension may disrupt stringed instrument performance by creating stronger keystroke force while playing the keyboards, a significant problem as keystroke force is a fundamental skill for pianists. On the other hand, decreased (insufficient) muscle tension may leave the performer less physically coordinated and precise, or even paralyzed by fear. For example, the vocalist’s abdomen will be weak and saggy with shallow breathing, making the voice airy with a slow vibrato and an inability to properly control breathing for long notes (Berghs, 2008). Trembling knees and an expressionless face often characterize decreased muscle tonus (Hoffman and Hanrahan, 2012).

Psychological Symptoms

Many performers show psychological and behavioral effects from anxiety, sometimes in conjunction with or more intensely than physical effects (Sadler and Miller, 2010). “Freezing up” and catastrophizing are ongoing problems in all categories of stage performance and include being unable to speak or move during a presentation, forgetting lines in a play, or forgetting the words or notes of a musical piece. Under some circumstances, “de-realization” occurs, such that the performer has a temporary lapse, feeling disconnected from reality and his/her physical body, actually experiencing the self from a distance (Berghs, 2008).

Vulnerable Personalities

As with Sport and Sex, certain personality factors have been associated with stage performance anxiety. Trait anxiety, identified earlier as a factor, is often correlated with shyness and/or introversion, not surprising as this trait is associated with discomfort and lower confidence in social situations. Shy individuals not only experience higher levels of stress but also different kinds of performance stress than outgoing performers (Klickstein, 2009), the former tending to struggle with anxiety and lack of self-confidence in other areas of their lives (Kenny, 2006). Within performance situations, introversion—such as not knowing what to say in social situations—can affect musical performance, acting, and public speaking where some improvisation may be required; a “fixed” performance or presentation, especially one that does not need to be memorized, is both easier and less anxiety-provoking. Related to shyness, stage performance anxiety shares commonalities with social phobia (social anxiety disorder), distinct from performance anxiety in that the condition involves a general fear of social interaction that extends beyond just the fear of public performances. But social phobia and anxiety share similar cognitive distortions (Osborne and Franklin, 2002Glassman et al., 2014), with performers high in social phobia experiencing higher perceived threat such that the threshold trigger for anxiety may be substantially lower (Kenny, 2009Goodman and Kaufman, 2014).

As with Sport and Sex, perfectionism (and unrealistic expectations) contributes to performance anxiety, as performers with very high standards experience more debilitating anxiety than those with moderate (perhaps more realistic) standards (Mor et al., 1995). Elite performers tend to be acutely aware of the relationship between their perfectionism and anxiety levels, as well as the stress it imposes (Kenny, 20052006). Similarly, high achievers, who generally perform well but also impose additional pressures on themselves, tend to be more prone to performance anxiety.

Other personality characteristics have also been associated either positively or negatively with stage anxiety. For example, neuroticism, the predisposition for adverse reactions to stress, alienation, and negative emotionality, is a strong predisposing factor for performance anxiety, with one multivariate analysis indicating that negative emotionality predicted over 50% of the variance in individual performance (Goodman and Kaufman, 2014). In contrast, high self-efficacy, an overall assessment of the performer’s confidence, as well as an externalized locus of control (or attribution), an indicator of performance confidence associated with immediate and specific circumstances, are often associated with lower anxiety and better performance (Goodman and Kaufman, 2014).

In summary, Stage research tends to be highly descriptive in nature. Sport and Stage both place high premium on practice and preparation as ways to mitigate the deleterious effects of anxiety. Stage shows considerable overlap with Sport and Sex in a number of ways: not only are physiological/physical dimensions considered critical to explaining the process but psychological constructs that involve self-focus, expectation, attention/automatic processing, self-efficacy, and attribution are all deemed relevant.

More information: Hemant Kakkar el al., “The impact of dynamic status changes within competitive rank-ordered hierarchies,” PNAS (2019).

Journal information: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Provided by Duke University


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