Or does it?
Research into how we function under pressure has found trying to calm down actually has a negative effect on performance. One study put three groups of students chosen at random into a singing competition in front of a large audience. The first group were given no coaching, the second were given a relaxation session prior to going on stage, while the third received a pep talk and told to go out and enjoy themselves – basically, ‘what the heck guys, give it everything you’ve got!’
At the end of the competition there was a marked difference in the scores each set of singers received. The ‘no-coaching’ group got an average of 60%; the relaxed singers scored just 53%, while the ‘fired-up’ students achieved 71%.
Other studies using similar formats came to the same conclusion. One even found that patients given relaxation techniques before major surgery took longer to recover!
So why would calming down not help? When faced with a challenging situation, your body’s natural response is to prepare for the perceived threat to your safety, sanity or status. This involves the release of adrenalin and cortisol to quicken your reaction times and fire up your muscles. Calming down therefore dampens your body’s preparations. It can also make you feel more anxious if you can’t relax and therefore think it will adversely affect your performance.
The actor, Bryan Cranston who plays Walter White in the hit US television series, Breaking Bad, revealed the secret of his success at auditions. For any actor, the audition process can be a nerve-racking experience with much riding on their performance. Cranston soon realised if he approached the audition with a mind purely to entertain the panellists, he performed far better. Instead of trying to stay calm and not think about the consequences of failure, he could look forward to the opportunity and put his training to good use.
So, the best way to prepare for a big event is to get excited about it. Tell yourself this is your moment to shine and make the most of the adrenalin pumping around your veins. Rise to the occasion and you may find hidden depths that may surprise you.
By Roy Palmer (Alexander Technique Teacher and lecturer at Northampton University on the BA (Hons) Acting Course.
For more information on Roy see his bio page here.