Although this article is about equestrian showing, especially dressage, the principles apply to all sports.
USING MENTAL SKILLS TO IMPROVE PERFORMANCE
Eileen Keipper, www.mentaledgeconsulting.com
NCDCTA Newsletter, September, 2008
The USDF Regional Championships are coming up soon. Congratulations to all of you who are talented and hard working enough to qualify. You are probably all pumped up and ready to give your best ride of the year. But how many of you have gone to the championships and fallen apart emotionally? Instead of your best ride you have one of your worst rides of the season? Pre-competition jitters have ruined many a ride.
In this article I will discuss what pre-competition jitters are, symptoms and causes of jitters and six techniques you can use to get the jitters to help rather than hinder you.
PRE-COMPETITON JITTERS ARE NORMAL
So what are pre-competition jitters? First off they are a normal reaction to a stressful situation. The jitters are a mild form of the “fight or flight” response. If we perceive a threat to our safety or even our ego or self esteem, we get ready to run away or stand and fight. (Remember, the horse is feeling the same way, perhaps more so.) If we perceive an imbalance between the threat and our mental or physical resources to handle the threat, we feel endangered and jittery. The imbalance resulting in jitters would be the feeling that you were not ready or qualified to manage the stress. On the other hand, if you felt more than qualified to handle the situation, then you might be bored. If you perceived a moderately difficult situation and the mental and physical ability to handle it, then you might feel good or even excited. So think of the jitters as your body’s way of telling you that you are excited about the upcoming competition, but need some mental help to handle the situation. It sounds easier already, doesn’t it?
CAUSES OF THE JITTERS
There are several causes of anxiety or jitters. First, there is the uncertainty or unpredictability of the place and the program. Maybe the championships are being held in a state or show ground where you have never competed before. When I competed at the show grounds in GA that had been built for the 1996 Olympics, I kept getting lost between all the identical barns. There are also changes in the rules. For example, if you are used to having a reader, you can not have one.
Second, we often assign greater importance to situations like the championships, which increases stress. It is hard to tell yourself that this is just any old ride when you could get your name in the national magazine, win that cooler to hang outside your horse’s stall and have the jacket to wear on your back. You may feel pressure to do well to justify all of the time and money you have spent on your horse activities. If you are a professional, you may feel that you have to do well to keep the owners happy and continue your business.
Third, there are apt to be spectators at the championships. Unless you show at the FEI levels, ride musical freestyles, or have a large private cheering squad, this may be one of the few times that there have been people watching you ride. Spectators can be distracting, make unaccustomed noise and movements, as well as add to the importance and stress level.
Next, we participate in an individual sport with a sense of isolation and exposure which can be more stressful than team sports. Let’s face it, when you ride a dressage test, there is no where to hide as the judge is watching every move. And unlike in jumping classes, technique and form do count. If you mess up there is no one to blame but yourself.
Another stress is the real possibility of getting hurt. Most dressage horses are calm and do not misbehave during tests, but we have all seen unexpected spooks or bolts, even from the experienced FEI horses. Don’t forget that horses have a stronger fight or flight response that we do. They may feel our pre-competition jitters and interpret then as cause for real fear. Unfortunately, our reaction to the fear may result in a physical response that increases out likelihood of getting hurt. This can result in a negative feedback loop between you and the horse. For a long time I used to curl up into a fetal position, or as close as I could get and stay in the saddle. I still have to fight the urge to pull my heels up and grab mane during a scary situation. You can believe that this does not calm the horse.
Finally there is the expectation of success at the championships. After all you beat a lot of talented horses and riders to qualify and get there. Maybe your family made financial or time sacrifices so that you could compete. This is the culmination of your competition season, so you better win or at least do well.
SYMPTOMS OF JITTERS
We have two main ways to respond to stress, physical and mental. Our bodies respond physically by increasing heart rate and respiration rate. Our muscles tighten up and performance suffers. We have reduced flexibility and more fatigue. Because of muscle tightness our balance may be compromised. We are not able to follow the horse’s movement, stay in saddle as well, use independent aids, etc. Of course our horses feel these physical changes and think that there is something really scary out there. Then the horse tightens up or maybe balks or spooks and we get even more upset. The technical name for this is a negative feedback loop, where the horse and rider feed each others’ anxieties. If you interpret these symptoms as bad, (for example, “I am scared silly. I can’t compete.”), then you are apt to ride badly. However, if you perceive these symptoms as your body telling you that you are ready to do your best by using your mental skills, then you may perform better. Which interpretation do you think your horse would prefer you make?
The mental effects of jitters or stress may be reduced concentration, poor memory, impaired decision making and reduced confidence. Some symptoms may be self-defeating thoughts such as, “I don’t belong here. Why did I ever think that I could win?” On the other hand, if you have positive thoughts about your abilities, you will have increased confidence and better performance and better results.
The good thing about mental reactions to stress is that they are learned responses and we get to choose them. You can master your emotions or be a slave to them. Of course this does not just happen immediately. You have to be prepared and train your body to handle these responses.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO DEAL WITH PRE-COMPETITION JITTERS?
Reframe the situation
Let us start with the notion that you have to have the best ride of the season at the championships. This automatically puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on you. A more helpful idea is to tell yourself that if you can do your usual good ride in a very challenging situation you will have good results. Riding in the championships provides stress, but also can be seen as a challenge and fun.
How do you feel, think and act when you are performing your best? Think about the last few times when you were really happy with your performance and how you felt. Were you relaxed, focused and calm? How did you act? How did your horse respond to you and the situation? After you have identified your feelings and thoughts of maximal performance, lock those feelings in. Write down relevant words and use them to remind yourself of the state. Another good way to lock in the positive feelings is to get a mental image of yourself feeling great and riding with confidence. Conversely, sometimes it helps to think of a poor performance to contrast it with the good one.
Some people do not get jittery or over aroused before a competition. Rather they are under-aroused or flat. When I compete, I like my body to be relaxed but to have some mental energy. I do not like to be anxious or mad, but rather be in a state that I have come to call “determined”. When I am “determined” I am more focused and able to prepare for the movements by using the corners and half halts. When I am too relaxed it is like I am flat or don’t try hard enough. The movements seem to come up too fast and I seem to be constantly behind. I may even forget the test.
Know what kind of warm-up it takes for you to be ready and perform your best. For example, some people like to stay in the warm-up area until the last minute. Others get very nervous if they do not get up to the competition area with a little time to spare. What works best for you? Be sure and talk it over with your riding instructor and make sure that you both have the same ideas about this.
Know your horse:
What does it take for your equine athlete to perform at his best? For example, what does your horse like for warm-up? Does he like to walk around and look at everything before going to work or does he arrive at the warm-up arena ready to rock and roll? Does he get tired after twenty minutes of effort or does he need thirty minutes to get forward and on the bit? If he needs thirty minutes of warm up and you show up at the warm-up arena with only ten minutes before your test, he is not apt to show at his best.
Take some deep breaths
If you hold your breath or breathe very shallowly, your muscles tense up, lose flexibility and increase fatigue. The result is less ability to follow the horse’s movement, sit the trot, use your aids independently, etc. Furthermore, when you hold your breath, your horse thinks that there is something really scary going on. His anxiety level may ratchet up. So before you start your warm-up or before you go into the competition arena, take some deep breaths and blow out the tension. You should practice this before you get to the show and before you get on your horse. Inhale through your nose and exhale gently through your mouth. Shake any tension out of your shoulders, neck or arms. Use a cue word like relax or calm help you get even more relaxed.
Banish the negative thoughts
Everyone gets negative thoughts at times. How you handle them really makes a difference. If you allow negative thoughts to take over and crowd out your positive, affirming thoughts, then you feel bad, lose confidence and are not likely to ride at your best. So if you have a lot of negative thoughts before riding (or any other time), use a thought stopping technique. You might yell “STOP!” to yourself or get an image in your mind such as a red traffic light or the delete key on your computer. After you stop the negative thoughts, substitute more positive ones. For example, if you have the negative thought, “I am not good enough to be at the regional championships.” You might tell yourself, “Stop!” and see a policeman with a large red sign that said “Stop!” Then you could substitute the thought, “I qualified and I deserve to be here as much as anyone.”
Play some music
Music can affect your mood and energy level a lot. So if you are jittery and need to relax a little, play some calm music on your MP3 player. Take a few moments to sit back and relax. Conversely, if you need to get a little psyched up, play some faster, more energetic music. You could even dance a little or walk quickly to loosen up and get psyched. What music you pick to play and when you play it depends on knowing yourself and what you need to perform your best. You should select the music and have it ready before you leave for the show.
Everyone gets the jitters. You can learn to use them to your advantage and make yourself a better competitor. Remember the jitters can mean that you are ready and willing to see this as an important show and give it your all. I have given you some mental techniques to use to master the jitters. However, just reading about them will not help you with the jitters. Like physical skills, mental skills need to be practiced at home and at competitions until they feel comfortable and easy. The key is to plan ahead and be prepared. Know what you and your horse need to perform at your best and figure out how to make that happen. If you have negative thoughts, banish them and substitute more positive ones. Practice the breathing exercises until you can use them when and where you need them. Have some music ready to help you calm down or get psyched up. But most of all have some fun! After all that’s why we ride, isn’t it?
If your performance is significantly affected by jitters or other mental issues, consider contacting a sport psychologist. Sport psychology consultants have special expertise in working with athletes, exercisers and other performers to enhance performance, improve recovery from injury and have more fun. Like many other sports, equestrian activities have significant mental components. Even the most technically skilled riders may not be fully aware of how to acquire and use the mental skills necessary to achieve success. Sport psychology is for anyone to wants to play or exercise up to their potential by employing the power of the mind.