Warren Buffett (the third richest person in the world), Abraham Lincoln (one of the most influential leaders of all time), Bill Russell (one of the best basketball players of all time), and Adele (one of the world’s most talented singers) all have at least one thing in common – they all experienced performance anxiety. That’s quite a list! Who would’ve thought that these highly successful, very influential people were nervous to get up in front of people! In this blog, Part III of a three part series on Performance Anxiety, we will look at the stories of highly successful athletes, business professionals, and performers who experienced significant performance anxiety and the common thread that helped them overcome this challenge.
Warren Buffett is commonly seen as one of the most insightful, wise, and financially successful investors in the world. He is known as the “Oracle of Omaha”. As of 2018 Buffet had a net worth estimated at $84 billion dollars, and between 2006 and 2017 he gave away $28 billion dollars to charity. That’s an amazing amount of influence for one person to exert in our world. It’s hard to believe that he once was so afraid of getting up in front of people that in college he was terrified to get up and say his name in class. He even signed up for a class to help address this fear and cancelled at the last minute because he was so anxious about it. After spending a lot his college career avoiding situations that would cause him to have to get up in front of crowds, he became a stock broker at age 21. He realized he could either try to get more comfortable getting up in front of people or avoid that fear and not reach his potential. He enrolled in a Dale Carnegie course on public speaking (and completed it!) and started on the path towards overcoming this fear. Notice I did not say “and the rest is history”- I’m sure it took a lot of hard work. The key moment was his decision not to let this fear determine his future.
As Abraham Lincoln’s political career was starting to take off, he became anxious to the point of declining speaking invitations – afraid that he was not suited to handle the spotlight of his new notoriety. Bill Russell, 11 time NBA champion and widely considered one of the best players of all time, got nervous to the point of throwing up before almost every big game he played in. It was such a consistent pattern that his teammates considered it a sign of good luck when they heard him wretching in the bathroom before warmups! Adele, one of the most talented and successful musicians in the world, has been very vocal about her struggles with “stage fright” and how she manages this ongoing challenge.
One particularly acute form of performance anxiety is known as the ‘yips’. Sports gives the term ‘yips’ to unexplained, extreme instances of an athletes losing the ability to effectively perform routine tasks eg. Shoot free throws, hit golf balls, kick field goals. Steve Sax, a professional baseball player in the 1980’s, was the National League Rookie of the year in 1982. During his next season he inexplicably struggled to throw the ball to first base on seemingly routine plays (a relatively easy task for a professional player). You can imagine how confusing and embarrassing this must have been. Sax was able to recover from these throwing issues and went on to have the highest fielding percentage (.987) among second basemen in the major leagues. He had a long and successful baseball career, playing for 13 seasons and winning 2 World Series.
So what is the common thread that helped all of these famous, uber-effective people succeed despite their performance anxiety? Purpose. Seeing beyond their fear by focusing on why they do what they do. It didn’t make the fear go away, but it put it in perspective. It took away some of its power and allowed each person to move forward with a sense of empowered focus. Warren Buffet saw his career at a crossroads and he chose to bet on himself and his own potential. Abraham Lincoln’s passion for abolishing slavery, among other causes, fueled him to pursue his political career despite his significant fear of public speaking. Bill Russel (and his teammates) came to see his pregame nerves as a good sign – he was ready. He was nervous because he cared. Basketball was his calling. Adele says that her feelings of anxiety don’t necessarily go away while she’s performing. She just does it anyway! She says humor and managing expectations (“nothing seems to ever go horrifically wrong”) help her manage it. Steve Sax, with the help of his father who was also a successful baseball player, envisioned a time when he would not experience this challenge and it slowly started to get better and baseball became fun again.
Keri Walsh, three time gold medal winner and one of the best women’s beach volleyball players of all time, Russell Wilson, 7 time pro-bowler and Super Bowl champion, and Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time with 28 medals, all credit sports psychology and mental training as huge parts of their success.
I’ll wrap up with a metaphor that will hopefully help you keep the core my message fresh in your mind. Visuals always help me retain information. Purpose is the foundation that gives you something solid to stand on when your fears creep in. All of the other tools, some of which I explored in my last blog, are the scaffolding that provide the structure to help you build up the confidence and habits that propel you towards success.
This concludes my three part blog on Performance Anxiety. Please feel free to let me know if you have questions or comments!
Andrew Bednarzik, Owner of Riverbank Counseling in Asheville, NC