In another of our series of Real Life Rider issues, Lisa is fighting competition demons. Anyone who has experienced competition nerves will know just how devastating they can be. Someone swapped your horse for one that is so much more sensitive, hot and strangely problematic. For your horse it’s a case of ‘who is this person riding me and what have you done with my mum?’ (or dad or usual rider!)
But please have faith. With time, patience and a grand plan, you will be able to control your nerves and ride at your very best. But you need to work on it, like everything else that needs training, so you must look at this problem as a training issue – for you.
The thing that is at odds with this situation is that nervousness is the body’s way signalling potential dangers and protecting us from doing anything rash. All very well if we are in a dangerous situation, but at a Dressage comp – really? When you put it into context you can begin use the anxiety you are experiencing in a positive way. Let’s have a look at what is happening to you.
Your body is releasing adrenaline. The rate at which it releases affects your body’s reaction to it. Symptoms can range from anxiety, doubt and negative thoughts, through to nausea, sweating, dry mouth, migraines, an increase in breathing and heart rate, even diarrhoea. If this all sounds depressingly familiar, the good news is that nerves can actually aid our riding. By speeding up our reactions and making us ride with more purpose. But, the bad news is, for some they make the whole competition process one humungous emotional trial. For those of you in the latter group, you need to learn to work with your emotional responses. But firstly you will need to understand them.
- Perhaps you have had a previously bad experience. Pin point for yourself exactly why you are feeling these ‘nerves’ and ask yourself what would be the worst possible outcome?
- Are you concerned for your personal safety?
- Is it that you fear you will not be able to deliver a competent performance in front of others?
- Or is it something else?
- How many times did something negative happen at a competition venue and you didn’t die?
- How many times did you get asked to leave a venue because your riding was so bad?
- How many times when you thought you rode badly did you NOT get asked to leave a venue?
- How many times did you witness a crowd of people standing pointing and laughing at your lack of ability?
- How many times did your friends walk away, refusing to acknowledge that they know you as a result of your riding?
See where I am coming from? If you are nervous because you think everyone is watching, remember people are more concerned with how they are doing than with watching you. Even the spectators are more concerned with who they are there to watch than with how your test is doing. The next thing to do is to establish precisely what is happening to you.
- Are you creating pictures of everything that might go wrong?
- Are you playing out a running commentary of negativity in your head?
- Are you creating a drama that doesn’t exist?
- Are you making excuses for failing before you have even tried?
Your body will not differentiate between what is real and what is imagined. Therefore, what you are thinking and feeling is reflecting throughout your body. Think about replacing the word nervous with ‘excitement’. You will be amazed at how your brain will adapt and generate a totally different state.
The very best way to help your brain relax and not feel the need to press the alarm bell is to try to keep your body soft and relaxed; you will find it hard to generate anxiety from a relaxed body. How? – Breathing. Learn to ride with slow breathing based low, behind your belly button. If you get really good, you can synchronise your slow breathing to the horse’s strides in any pace, this will help you maintain your breathing and a good rhythm. Really practice this as part of your training at home so that it becomes second nature to you at the competition. Holding your breath unconsciously will cause tension and you could even become light headed. When you concentrate on your breathing your jaw will relax. If not, open your mouth very slightly and keep your jaw ‘floppy’, by doing so you are telling your brain that you are relaxed and it will react accordingly. Also try smiling through your test. Smiling can help you to feel more positive and it looks good to the judges.
Use your peripheral vision. Something else you can only do when relaxed and therefore you can trick the body into thinking that you are relaxed is by putting yourself into a soft, blurry gaze where your eyes remain firmly fixed on one spot out in front of you whilst taking in everything around you by way of vague shapes, colours and movement. Learning to ride like this makes it difficult for your brain to generate a negative state because it is not natural. It will also improve your balance and sense of feel and again you should master this at home before the competition.
Why not have a caller for your test if it’s allowed, certainly until you get over the problem. A word of caution; don’t use this as a substitute for learning the test in advance. Not knowing your test will exacerbate the nervous condition. Having a confident and calm friend there with you will help boost your confidence and keep you focussed. Stay away from nervous people. Both are contagious!
Focus on your test, each movement individually and how you are riding. Do not rush. There’s no hurry to finish. If your self-talk is all “this is horrible, I can’t do this, my horse is going to run out of the arena, I can’t sit the trot, I don’t belong here, I am useless, I can’t ride” simply banish it. It is emotional baggage and needs offloading.
Why would you put your energies into this and not learn to stay rooted in the moment, concentrating on what is actually happening underneath you – right now?
Being more positive will decrease the adrenaline secreted in your body and will help with breathing. It is important to explore what the most helpful thoughts are for you individually before you ever get to the show. “I can do this. I’m so proud we got here. How beautiful is my horse? We are developing a really good partnership. We have come a long way together.”
Try to remember a time when you were on your horse and felt the best you have ever felt. Attach a word to that memory and bring yourself back to that feeling through the repetition of the associated word(s). This will re-affirm that you have done it well before and you can do it well again. This is a tool that many top level athletes use. So I use the words “Clint Eastwood” whenever I feel tense. For me it is a memory of one canter in a warm up at a local competition, when I just felt like it all came together. Even now as I write, I am smiling and I feel a very warm, proud feeling – it really was good though! … and I am feeling this because I said ‘Clint Eastwood’ and remembered the feeling of that canter. Clint would have made a good Dressage rider – so relaxed and at one with a horse.
More homework …
- Take a few minutes three times per day to mentally rehearse yourself riding confidently.
- Be extra prepared before the test, know all the movements of your tests by heart
- Be sure that all your equipment, tack and horse are ready before the show so you have less to worry about.
- Be on time and know the way to the show venue (in case you have to leave in a hurry! Hahaha)
- Do some physical exercise that morning or the night before to reduce anxiety.
- Have a hot bath or shower before you leave for the show to help relax you.
- Don’t eat too heavily before you go. It will sit in your stomach like a rock and make you feel worse. Have something light and nutritious and bring some healthy snacks with you.
- Stay hydrated. Plenty of water to keep the anxiety monster at bay.
- Repeatedly watch your favourite rider in person or on video. Recently neuroscientists have discovered ‘mirror’ neurons in the brain that activate when you watch someone do something that you are actively learning about. Very interesting stuff. The idea that I can ride like Charlotte Dujardin just by watching her is pretty exciting, don’t you think?
- Take on board Charlotte’s philosophy – “I always look at it as the same old centreline, just another arena,” Or as she more directly and more famously said, “‘same old shit, different arena.”
If all this fails …
You can get a little help from nature. Before the show, visit with your doctor, pharmacist or health food store for something to help calm your nerves the day of the show. Rescue remedy is a flower essence that is a great help to many riders to keep them calm.
Remember, confidence is like a muscle, the more we use it, the stronger it gets. It’s serious fun!
Patricia – The Dressage Tipster