When “good enough” never is enough

How performance anxiety can make you step away from what you love, and how to overcome it.

Words by: Helena Werner      
Photos by: Philip Lundman, Helena Werner

My name is Helena Werner and work with mental training and stress management, mostly coaching and inspire how to set healthy goals and to perform during extreme situations. My background with coaching is within the Swedish police and athletes.

I was twelve years old, standing by the result board waiting for the secretary to add my scores. My pony and I had just done the first two trials and the judges scores would now let me know our seeding for the final run. Nothing but the top spot was good enough for me. “If you´re not in the first place, you suck!” I thought to myself. The girl from the secretary comes out holding my result in her hands, and she puts my name on second place and my thoughts become my truth.

I don´t know where I went from always wanting to do my best, to needing to be the best to feel good about myself. I have always worked hard, even extra hard, but still felt lazy or like I could have done more.

Performance anxiety usually comes from low self-esteem that you try to raise with high performance. Getting approval from others and yourself due to high performance can give you a huge rush when you succeed but might put a lot of pressure on you to always do well and the fall might be high when you fail.

If you´ve read my previous articles you might remember that I´m all up for those good feelings and to enjoy the rush. But there is a “but”! If the results decide how you feel about yourself, you probably need to change focus. Because let´s be honest, it´s not always fun progressing; you’re going to struggle and not be at your best at all times.

Mountain biking is one of those sports where you face your results straight away. You don´t need to wait for the judges’ score or for your professor to give you your results of an exam. The wait is sometimes good because you have more time to evaluate your performance and to decide how you feel about it before you receive the results. But with sports like mountain biking, the result can slap you right in your face, and it can build or break you.

"The wait is sometimes good because you have more time to evaluate your performance and to decide how you feel about it before you receive the results. But with sports like mountain biking, the result can slap you right in your face, and it can build or break you."

- Helena Werner

"Instead of saying “You´re fast” “You are fit!” or “great to see that you´re getting faster”, try “It´s so great to see you here!” “That was brave! Well done!”."

- Helena Werner

Grow steady roots for upcoming storms.
We all have low self-esteem sometimes, so it´s important to work on strong roots that will keep you standing when the storm hits. What are your core values? What traits make you who you are and what do you stand for? Mine are that I’m brave, loyal, strong, honest, calm and curious. Those words strengthen me when I feel low or lost. Have these words to fall back on makes it easier for me to not focus on failure because I know who I am and how I tackle life, fast on the bike or not.

Identify your thoughts and how they make you feel.
Thoughts like “I suck” or “I´m worthless” can pop up in your head when you´re not happy with your results and might set you off on a negative spiral. If you believe your thoughts your body will too, meaning that you will not be able to access all your skills.
Separate your personal worth from your performance, you are not a failure if you fail.

Evaluate your performance.
Say that your goal is to perform at an 8 on a scale from 1 to 10. One day you start at feeling like a 1, meaning that you needed to perform quite hard to hit that 8. The other day you’ve slept and ate well, felt strong and started on a 7, so with a lot less effort you hit a 9. Which one of these performances will you be most happy about? The 8 or the 9? Decide before your ride what will make you pleased with your performance. Set a goal before your ride what you want out of your run today. If I have a bad day, my goal is usually to enjoy the outdoors and be proud of getting out.

Do you contribute to other people performance anxiety?
How do you compliment or approve your friends and riding buddies? And how do you talk about other riders? Everyone needs to be seen, heard and apart of the group. Ask yourself, is everyone seen and heard in your group, even if they don´t push themselves or perform?

If you see or know, that someone is struggling mentally with their performance, help them with acknowledging their persona instead of their performance. Instead of saying “You´re fast” “You are fit!” or “great to see that you´re getting faster”, try “It´s so great to see you here!” “That was brave! Well done!”.

I struggled with performance anxiety until my mid-twenties. After some mental training, I realized that it was actually making me perform and feel worse, plus that I lost so much energy and time to over planning and over performing. I still do my best, but now I see failure as an opportunity to learn, not as a mental slap in the face.

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