We have all been there. You have practised so hard for the perfect test at home, jumped higher jumps than you would ever face in competition, you feel quietly confident that this will be your lucky day. Then you arrive at the competition. You freeze, you lose focus and things just don’t go to plan. The competition nerves strike! Everybody gets nerves, but how come some people seem to thrive off them whereas others crumble?
The trick is to be performance ready so you can turn that switch on and perform.
When we are at a competition we push our limits, putting pressure on ourselves to do our personal best. It has taken a lot of hard work to get to this point (and often a lot of money as well), and we don’t want to let ourselves or our horse down. But this requires more effort, more concentration and increased intensity to push ourselves to reach our goals. Unfortunately this also comes with a change to our rate of breathing, a racing heart rate, pumping adrenalin causing muscles to tense up, and the sudden loss of concentration causing a total blank over which way to go next in the dressage test! But don’t panic! There are ways of using our heightened senses to perform better than in practice and come out on top.
It is all in our state of mind. We can train our brain to keep calm under pressure, focus harder and for longer, and to not let the reins slip through our sweaty palms. Being aware of our emotions and learning how to harness them leads to superior performance, but it takes practice and work at home.
Training is often in a relaxed environment, which is not a bad thing, but it is important to sometimes try to replicate the tension of a competition so you can practise harnessing those nerves. Get someone to film you, and try to do it like a mock competition, even to the extent of waiting for the bell to ring before you start. Not only does this help you deal with the adrenalin, but it also is useful for you to review the film and see what you look like to an outsider or judge. Go to local shows and practise, so when it comes to a big event you are ready. We might try to take a young horse to lots of small events to get them used to the atmosphere, so do the same but concentrating on you rather than the horse. Set personal goals of what you hope to achieve, putting pressure on yourself to push your limits.
Another great tip is to use visualisation. Visualisation enables us to create the right mental state to energise us and align our emotions to the task in hand. OK, so you might not be at the stage where you are visualising Olympic Gold yet, but visualising achieving your personal best, your goal, is a very powerful tool. Have faith in yourself that you can do it. You entered the competition in the first place imagining that you would have a chance of success, so hold on to that feeling and replicate it. Practise visualisation at home then it is easier to use at a competition. Positive thinking goes a long way.
You are at the competition. Picture the scene…close your eyes and ride every movement of your dressage test or the course you are about to jump. Feel the horse beneath you, sense the smells and the sounds. See yourself doing a fantastic job. Stay in that focused state and get on your horse. Watch your breathing is regular and try to stay in that calm focused state. If timings go askew, don’t panic, just make sure before you go in, you take yourself back to that positive, happy image of you in harmony with your horse, performing well.
It is amazing what you can achieve with some positive thinking and practise! Go to the competition prepared both mentally and physically, be performance ready so you can turn on that switch and perform!