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  • Luca Mazzon

"DON'T PANIC!" - Performance anxiety and Self Talk

"Candidate number 32! Please be ready to enter, you are next!"

In the candidate's mind, "here, it's time!", the heart all of a sudden starts beating wildly, and a vortex of thoughts begins:

"take the parts, did you also take the cadenza score?"- yes.

"where's the cloth to dry my hands? Will I need the water bottle?"

The candidate enters the room with the accompanying pianist and jury are watching him, the Pianist gives the A and the thoughts follow:

... "how many times can I tune?" -

"maybe already two is too many, i see their faces already bored" -

"that wasn't perfect, let me try the A again" -

"enough! I've already taken it too many times!" -

"concentrate! Don't get nervous!" - "should I open the second page of the score too? Maybe they'll make me go beyond the exposition too, no?" -

"how uncomfortable this shirt is! You should have taken the other one! You're always like this, you see, every time you don't organise yourself properly!"

"Ok, now, don't get nervous and try to have fun!"

Self Talks' are those conversations that take place within our minds: these dialogues have the power to shape our beliefs, emotions and behaviour.

Positive self-talks provide confidence and motivation towards goals by fostering a proactive attitude towards challenges. Negative self-talks, on the other hand, can bias one's self-image and lead to high levels of stress or demotivate individuals.

Among negative self-talks, some common patterns can be distinguished such as personalisation, when the person tends to define him/herself as the sole cause of the failure or failure achieved, and filtration, when the person tends to focus only on the negative information obtained, while ignoring the positive ones.

Studies have shown that elite athletes focus and build internal dialogue in a purposeful manner not only during competitions or to cope with performance anxiety but also in different contexts, among them:

  • during competitions (56%), training (37%) and leisure/other times (7%).

  • through content of 4 different kinds related to:

    • polarity (negative or positive);

    • structure (sentences, hints, key words);

    • person (first or second, e.g. "I, me" or "You");

    • type of instructions (specific or general);

In summary of this theoretical introduction, a positive and dare I say, propulsive self-talk would therefore be useful in the performance field for the following purposes

1) assessing the situation more realistically;

2) controlling negative thoughts and images; in fact, it links the possibility of associating stimulus words with useful sensations or emotions.

3) recognise, use and re-classify neurovegetative activation;

4) analysing oneself to deal with the feared situation more effectively;

5) cope with the most intense fears he/she may experience;

6) reflect on one's own performance

7) self-reinforcing the performed task.

8) increase self-confidence through personal affirmative phrases; these are helpful in arousing feelings of confidence and control over one's own abilities.

9) restructure thinking; examining possible different interpretations of their meaning, circumstances and the context in which they occurred; with the aim of creating alternative 'frames' of reference and different ways of perceiving the situation.

Self-talk, through the lens of the S.F.E.R.A. Model, is used to improve the Synchrony factor, with a consequent effect also on the regulation of Energy, thus allowing the athlete to focus on the present, without digressing into a hypothetical future or into memories of the past, remaining concentrated in the here and now, paying maximum attention to the sensations that our body and surrounding environment send us back.

With practice, it is possible to learn to modify negative self-talk and replace it with more positive and adaptive ones according to the activity we are performing. The first step in this direction is therefore to recognise negative thoughts when they form in our minds, and then to stop and reflect on how we can redefine these thoughts in a more positive and goal-oriented manner. Within everyday life, the mind tends to wander continuously, often in an automatic manner. One of the fundamental exercises is therefore to become more aware of one's thoughts, so as to be able to notice when the vicious circles of negative internal dialogues begin.

Mindfulness would indeed seem to be one of the most effective techniques for this purpose, since through mental training with informal and formal practices, it shifts the focus to awareness of thought itself and consequently, as recent studies on the same technique show, increases a person's well-being by reducing emotional activation, improving self-control and quality of life, as well as social skills. In the work within self-talk, it is therefore important to be able to remain aware of one's thoughts and to manage them in the present moment.

In order to promote the positive internal dialogue style in daily life, it can also be helpful to surround oneself with positive people also because, humour, it would seem, would be an excellent weapon to deflect the negative self-talk tendency of our mind, which most of the time is automatic and unconscious.

Effective self-talk is formed by the almost total absence of the words NOT or DON'T in sentence formulation: 'concentrate' will be more functional than 'don't get distracted'. The explanation for this theory lies in the fact that, especially in stressful moments, the brain tends to function economically, and therefore the first thing on which it will focus attention at a neurolinguistic level will be exactly what the words NOT /DON'T follow.

Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that internal dialogue is produced by our mind through executive and emotional processes, conscious and unconscious, and, therefore, it is sometimes necessary to work on the conflictual and unconscious dynamics with respect to sabotaging dialogues, and consequently, other protocols or psychological interventions might be more appropriate.

Therefore, reliance on specialised professionals to address these issues with the appropriate support is crucial.

I now let the reader think about the irony of how functional it can be to say the famous phrases 'don't worry' or 'don't panic' at a time of great stress.

© Dott. Mazzon Luca *

Dipl. Mus., M. Mus., B. Sc., M. Sc. Psy.


  • Beck, A.T. (1976). Cognitive Therapy and the emotional diorders. New York, NY: New American Library

  • De Vibe et Al; (2012). Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) for Improving Health, Quality of Life, and Social Functioning in Adults. Campbell Systematic Reviews

  • Gustafsson, H., Lundqvist, C., & Tod, D. (2017). Cognitive behavioral intervention in sport psychology: A case illustration of the exposure method with an elite athlete. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 8, 152-162

  • Keng et al. (2011).Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: a review of empirical studies

  • Hardy, J. (2006). Speaking clearly: A critical review of the self-talk literature. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 7(1), 81–97.

  • Vercelli, G. (2009). L’Intelligenza Agonistica. Ponte alle Grazie.

*The contents on the blog "Performance: between Music and Psychology"- of which the blog owner Luca Mazzon is the author - may not be copied, reproduced, published or redistributed because they belong to the author himself. Copying and reproduction of the contents in any way or form is prohibited. The publication and redistribution of content not expressly authorised by the author is prohibited.


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