Managing Performance Anxiety

Steve Roberts black ink drawing: female singer

A singing coach friend recently asked for any insights I might have to help one of her students who is being challenged with performance anxiety.

One of my sons calls me the well-adjusted agoraphobic.  Small talk is beyond me, but when it comes to the stuff of the heart I can speak at ease to anyone, single ear to the population of most phone books.  Among the reasons is my one and only speaking coach, Charlotte Fitzpatrick, the woman who, 50 years ago when I was in 12th grade, made me the American Legion speaking champ in my county.  Never mind that the achievement was helped by the fact that only I and one other kid competed for the prize, since ours was the least populated county in the state.

Mrs. Fitz asked me how I felt whenever I saw someone make a poor public presentation. I said I hated it.  She said what do you wish for that person.  I said I wished they would be wonderful.  She said remember that, remember that’s the way everyone in your audience is feeling about you.  They’re rooting for you to be great.  Feel their support, and let it serve you.

I’ve had a long career as a professional gum-banger––radio, television, film, and since today people hire me because of my point of view and my ability to articulate it, I’m always offering my two cents in one forum or another.  Sometimes it’s just to my dogs as we hike the mountain behind our farm preparing for a talk.  And while whatever skill I have comes from lots of practice, it also comes from remembering that everyone who hears me is hoping I’ll do really well…even if I do have to bribe a few of them with kibble.

Another tool in my kit helps me manage fear in general––regardless of external circumstances.  Fear isn’t a thought.  Fear is energy, and managing it begins by grounding ourselves energetically in the earth.  A few months ago on this site I posted an entry titled “Portable Peace“.  It’s basically a grounding practice.  You can be a mute hermit and still find it useful.

Then, of course, there’s prayer.  In a book by one of my favorite God guys, the late Eric Butterworth, is a story about the great tenor, Roland Hayes.  Before any performance, Hayes would bow his head in prayer.  When asked what he prayed for, he said, “I just get quiet and receptive and say, ‘O Lord, blot out Roland Hayes, that the people may hear only thee.’”

I find that “performance anxiety” can happen no matter what we’re doing––tap dancing in the shower, baking a cake, getting married––and it is most often the fear that arises from holding on to “me” and my ego’s small self chatter.  Managing fear (by prayer, by grounding, by feeling the good will of others) is how we let go of “me” so that what Roland Hayes calls “thee” is heard: our true voice, the voice of our heart.


  1. Steve, this blog entry is a gem. As I’ve been an actor for 20+ years now, I know that performance anxiety is something I grapple with all the time, in large and small ways. Often, I’ll get ‘nervous sick’ before an audition, and before I step out onto the stage, to deliver my first lines. All my negative self-chatter kicks dirt up in my face, and I feel it takes me a good 20 minutes onstage, before I calm down. It’s gotten only slightly better with time. But seriously, this blog entry of yours is brilliant and SO helpful. Thank you so much!! I hope you don’t mind, that I’ll be posting this to my Facebook page?

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"I honor that we are killing the earth for the same reason I consider being an alcoholic a privilege: it is a doorway to the profound self-understanding required to make truly healthy choices."

The Essay: Honoring the Killing of the Earth