Performance under pressure: What works for you?

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

How do you perform at your best in a stressful situation? Psychologist Dr Margaret Osborne is an expert in coping with performance anxiety, and lectures at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. Ahead of the Music and the Mind panel events on mental health which our friends in the Australian office are runningin May/June, we asked her for some performance advice. 

Dr Osborne says performers need three factors to work together when they’re under pressure:

  1. Competence (eg. practising, developing your skills, mastering your craft);
  2. Physical well-being (eg. eating well, getting enough sleep, keeping fit);
  3. Psychological well-being (eg. managing stress and anxiety by being positive and realistic about yourself and your performance).

When it comes to how you mentally cope with anxiety, Dr Osborne says there are a number of things that have an impact.

“An individual’s positive or negative interpretation of anxiety is affected by their performance history, previous experience with high physiological arousal levels, degree of skill, self-confidence, self-belief in their ability to execute the task correctly, and their ability to control physical and mental anxiety symptoms,” she says. 

To perform at your optimal level, Dr Osborne suggests you identify, record and examine your personal triggers to both successful and unsuccessful performances. This will allow you to create a performance plan that meets your individual needs, and takes into account various performance scenarios (eg. amount of preparation, solo versus group performance, size of the audience, time of day, alcohol consumption etc.). 

In all cases, Dr Osborne has some advice for performers:

  • Mistakes do not equal failure. Musicians do make mistakes, and an optimal performance – one where you think and feel you are performing at your best - is not a perfect performance. It is one where mistakes are fewest, and/or, minor problems are recovered from quickly.
  • Performances that don’t go to plan can provide valuable information to help you improve future performances;
  • Experiencing anxiety before, during, or after a performance is completely natural, and is the body’s response to a challenging situation; and,
  • Anxiety may actually enhance performance.

Dr Osborne says being aware of these factors can help performers manage mind and body reactions under stress to stay calm, focused and flexible.

“When performers are encouraged to understand, accept, and regulate the emotional and physiological symptoms that arise naturally when performing under pressure, they can be empowered to take constructive action and execute an optimal performance despite them,” she says.


Adapted from Osborne, M. S. (2016). Psychological skills to support performance under pressure. In A. Mornell (Ed.), Art in motion III: Performing under pressure (pp. 93-114). New York: Peter Lang


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