The worst case of stage fright I’ve faced happened in 2009, before the first True Patriot Love gala dinner that we staged in Toronto. Some of the highest-ranking members of the Canadian military were there, as was then prime minister Stephen Harper. I got up onstage and looked out at the crowd, and there was a terrible moment where I just blanked. I’d rehearsed my speech so much that I knew it cold, but as I stood there before hundreds of people, I couldn’t have told you the first few words.
The first thing that people should know about stage fright is that it’s enormously common. “What happens,” Peter Jensen, the performance coach, says, “is whenever your arousal level goes up, your focus narrows. Whatever the reason—whether you’re anxious or you’re just overly competitive—it triggers the same mechanism in the body.”
The problem with that mechanism is that your focus can narrow so much that you forget everything else. In my case, I forgot my speech while the prime minister looked on. Jensen has dealt with athletes who face similarly dire situations. For example, a basketball player who steps up to the free-throw line and freezes because she’s focusing on the crowd. Or a figure skater who forgets her routine moments before she steps onto the ice.
In each case, we begin obsessing about something that distracts us from the task at hand. At one Winter Olympics, Jensen was sitting alongside a female figure skater he’d been coaching. Ten minutes before she was to compete, she turned to Jensen and said, “Peter, I’m really nervous.”
Jensen looked at her and saw that she was right. In fact, the young woman was so nervous that her anxiety threatened to prevent her from performing. So Jensen asked, “What else are you?”
At first she didn’t know what he meant. “What kind of shape are you in?” Jensen asked.
The young woman shrugged.
“I’m in the best shape of my life.”
“What about your program—how’s that?”
“My program is great,” she said, referring to the routine of axels and toe loops she was about to execute.
“How’s your confidence?” Jensen asked.
“My confidence levels have been amazing,” she said.
Jensen was trying to get the woman to reframe her thinking. Of course she was anxious—she was about to perform at the Olympics. It was the culminating moment of her young life. It would be a little crazy if she weren’t nervous. But that wasn’t the important thing that would dictate how she would do. What was important was all the other stuff—how she’d practiced, her fitness level, her confidence. So Jensen summed everything up in reverse: “You’re in great shape, your program is great, your confidence is great—and you’re nervous.” Then he asked, “Have you centered?”
Centering is what Jensen calls his breathing exercise. At that first True Patriot Love gala, I would have loved to have had a little Peter Jensen on my shoulder, whispering words of wisdom before I spoke. But when that’s not possible, Jensen suggests centering, a breathing exercise he also refers to as ABC, for Awareness, Breathing, Choose.
“The minute you focus on your breath,” he says, “it shuts down everything else. You’re focusing on your diaphragm, the breath entering through the nostrils, and it brings you back to the moment.”
So when faced with stage fright or any other form of performance anxiety, the first step is to notice what’s happening. In step two, breathe slowly and steadily. Pay attention to every aspect of the respiratory cycle. Inhale, fill the chest, notice how that feels, and exhale. That will direct your focus away from what’s threatening to obsess you, whether it’s the crowd or the fact that you suddenly can’t remember how to shoot a basketball.
In step three, redirect your attention. The initial move to focus on your breathing will calm you down. Once your anxiety is under control, your focus can broaden. Your panic will diminish. It may yet still be there. But there are also your preparation, your hard work, and your great previous performances in similarly fraught situations.
When world champion figure skater Elvis Stojko stood in his skates at center ice, about to begin a performance, he would conduct Jensen’s breathing exercises. Hundreds of other athletes Jensen has advised have done the same in similar moments of intense pressure.
When I froze at the beginning of my speech, I thought back to Jensen’s ABCs. A few breaths in, my panic subsided, a door somewhere in my brain opened, and the words of my speech returned. I still use Jensen’s breathing exercises anytime I feel any sort of performance anxiety coming on. I recommend that you do, too.