How to deal with nerves – Rachel Cole with Wil Anderson

Every performer under the sun has to deal with nerves at some stage.

Wil Anderson PerformingI know it’s audition day when I’ve done 3 poos before 9am, my top notes are airy and thin and I’m sweating more than Chris Brown on Judgment Day. Before I was aware of healthy coping strategies like: positive self-talk, exercise, preparation, success visualisation etc., I used to down a G&T before every vocal audition to calm my nerves. This works until you have a 9am vocal call and no pubs are open, (in which case it’s best to carry a cup of wine in a Mt Franklin water bottle and pretend it’s Ribena.)

Lets talk science. Psychologically, we feel nervous because our mind perceives a threat, and gets the body ready for action. The ‘threat’- (historically a bear, here the audition panel/audience), sends a signal to the Amygdala and Hypothalamus in our brain, which triggers the autonomic nervous system. We start sweating, the heart rate increases, blood pressure increases, our pupils dilate and we become very alert. This ‘fight or flight response’, aides us to either run from the bear or fight it. To run from the Capitol theatre audition room, or punch the casting director in the face. NB- if you choose Option B, you’ll be joining Chris Brown on Judgment day.

Interestingly, these same heightened arousal symptoms occur when we feel excited. The difference is the way we interpret those sensations. When nervous, we see those symptoms in a negative light, which hinders our performance. If you tell yourself and others that you’re excited rather than nervous, you have a much better chance of using those physiological symptoms of arousal to your advantage. There is a strong relationship between what we say, impacting how we feel, so ensure your words are helpful.

Nobody knows nerves better than Wil Anderson. Wil is a world-renowned Australian comedian and TV personality. He started his career in the Melbourne stand up scene 20 years ago, and is now host of the TV show ‘The Gruen Transfer’. He has performed at the Melbourne Comedy Festival 20 times but loves a tough gig on top of a Chinese Restaurant as much as hosting his own TV show. He is currently touring his new show Political Wil. This is what Wil knows about nerves after 20 years in the biz.

According to Wil Anderson

Wil Anderson HeadshotAssume it will go well

My first thought before I go on stage is: “This is gonna go great.” My comedic experience at this point in my career is, ‘most of the time, it’s gonna go great’. Your expectations of success increase as you become more experienced. Remember you are better today at what you are doing than you ever have been before. All of your experience, training and preparation are in you. Assuming the worst does nothing but set you up for failure.

Prepare, prepare, prepare

Poor preparation is not the same as being nervous. I once asked Steven Waugh, when someone is bowling at you at 120 mph, and you have a split second to decide which shot to play, how do you decide? He responded, “you cant, at that point in time, you have to rely on your training. Train, Train, train, then get out of your own way and let your instincts take over.” That moment immediately before the show or audition, wherever you are, you can’t do anything about it. If you’re not as prepared as you should have been, here’s what won’t help you – freaking out! The ‘should have’ moment is passed. That’s a ‘will do’ idea – commit to change it in the future.

Get a pre show/audition routine

This minimises the number of decisions you have to make to distract you from the task at hand i.e. the show. I like to stay as close as possible to the venue, arrive at the venue as late as possible, have a shower as late as possible, wear the same thing every night and have a beer. This eliminates me having to make choices and also doesn’t give me time to sit around and stress.

Control what you can

Avoid everything which will increase your stress – prepare, arrive on time, do all your preparation, have your clothes ready the night before, be on top of your show. Everything that is within your control – use it to your advantage. That way, less is left up to chance and there is less to be nervous about.

Embrace failure

The bottom line is- nerves are the fear of failure. Let’s reassess that idea- every time you fail, it gives you an opportunity to be better next time. If comedy is the failure business than acting is the rejection business. Embrace failure as part of the process of becoming your best self. Spend lots of time failing in a low stakes environment i.e. use smaller gigs learn and build confidence, do those crappy gigs, with 50 people in the crowd to try out your new material. I do these one hour long improve shows now, with no idea what I’m going to say before the moment I go on. This has been my biggest learning curve. Every performer in the world has had huge fails, but the only person who can stop you from doing what you love is you.

Discover your best performance mindset

Discover for yourself what gets you into a great performance mindset. This isn’t a one size fits all. It’s like when you see sports people before a match, some listen to music, some sit quietly, some meditate, and some lie down. I like to feel relaxed when I’m doing a standup show, so I have a beer before every show and a few on stage. That’s just for me; I need to match the energy of the audience. I am not a highly stressed out person, so don’t really need to use tactics like meditation, but that can be helpful for some people.

Pick your critics

Sometimes we feel nervous because of something we’ve heard or read about ourselves. Be careful about whose opinions you listen to. Be your own biggest fan and your own worst critic. This will give you both a quiet confidence and that ability to work on yourself. Have a couple of colleagues or mentors whose opinions you trust, and listen to them for improvement. If you choose to read and listen to negative twitter/online criticism, it can send you into a spiral of self-doubt. Even if you google the most perfect person in the world, (let’s say Hugh Jackman), there would probably be an ‘I hate Hugh’ page. Get comfortable with the idea that you’re just doing your best and you can’t please everyone. Good reviews can be just as harmful as bad. A good review will encourage you to rest on your laurels and a bad review can send you spiralling. I don’t want any of those voices in my head, making me nervous for my next show. Once you’ve removed that untrusted external feedback, there goes the pressure and nerves.

Be in the moment

If you are truly in the moment of your performance, you won’t be able to be nervous and think about, how it’s going, do they like me, did that joke land? In that moment, it’s you and the audience, you and the panel- take that group of strangers, and get them on your page. You should all be enjoying the same moment at the same time. If you’re busy being nervous, you’re not connecting.

Have good personal insight and realistic acceptance.

If your fear is, ‘if I fail, people won’t think I’m amazing’, don’t worry about it, you’re not that amazing, there’s always someone better than you. Take that pressure off. Be self-aware without being cripplingly self-critical. Perfection is the enemy of the good and creative, particularly in the arts. I’ve never done anything that I think is perfect, I’ve had moments of perfection, where you touch the void. Every year, I look at what I do well, and what I can get better at.


Exercise is a good way to cope with excess energy. I have osteoarthritis in my hips, so can’t do intense exercise, but when I go on tour, I spend 6 days in cities where I know no one, so I spend 2-3 hours a day walking and soaking it all in.

Determine the source of your nerves

Spend some time finding the deeper causes of your nerves. I.e. I’m scared that my parents will feel let down if I don’t get this audition, I wont be able to pay off my house, my voice may crack etc.… Its important to determine the cause of the nerves, as otherwise you’re treating the symptoms of the problem, rather than the problem itself.  It’s all good to say ‘breath backstage’, but that is a symptom of a larger cognitive problem. Find it, recognise it and deal with it.

Remember you chose this

I don’t really have a mantra, but this is probably the closest I come: “I chose this.” Nobody is forcing me to do this job; no one forced me into this audition or contract. I chose this. So now- what do I have to deal with? Own that. Own your decisions. Most of performing is failure and rejection. If that is something you can’t cope with, perhaps you’re in the wrong gig. Treat the early days like pre season training to take the pressure off yourself, you probably won’t book your early auditions, but learn from them.

Don’t get me wrong, I have not always felt this confident and secure, but I got there, and you will too.

Rachel Cole

Rachel has a degree in Psychology from The University of Sydney but is currently masquerading as understudy for Miss Honey and Mrs Wormwood in the Australian production of Matilda the Musical. She likes to think about what makes people tick. She also likes: Podcasts, politics, pepperoni pizza, property, puns, puppies and cheap things. If you know of a political podcast full of puns we can listen over a cheap pepperoni pizza while we walk a cheap dog looking at cheap property, we might just be fast friends. Follow Rachel on Instagram at: @rachelacole.

Rachel Cole

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