Dear Dr. Bonomi,
I am struggling with a problem that I know is mental, but I can’t seem to shake it. When I ride at home, I am relaxed and ride great. I have no problems focusing and can easily execute the plan my trainer sets out for me. I’m also calm and focused at our regional shows and generally do well. But, as soon as I get to the bigger competitions, I get really nervous and make dumb mistakes! It’s so embarrassing and frustrating.
Can you help me?
T.H., Central Valley, CA
Your struggle is very common! We can definitely work on it.
You don’t say why you think this is happening, so I’m going to guess a bit.
Here are my guesses: the big shows matter to you. You are nervous because the competition is tough, and you feel pressure to do well. Perhaps you are intimidated by well-known riders, or are aware of being in the spotlight. You find yourself like a deer in headlights: you freeze up. Or, as one of my young riders likes to say: “my brain leaves my body.”
It’s frustrating when this happens and you know you’re not riding up to your capability. So, let’s get to work.
First, we need to get you back to ‘owning’ your rides. I talk about this concept a lot because it’s a foundation of top performance. As Olympian Michael Phelps says, above all, you have to “stay in your lane” — that is, focus on your own performance, not anyone else’s. This is harder to do at big competitions, for sure; you have to be deliberate. Every time you get on your horse, be clear about your plan. Your plan is what you need to do to ride your horse the best you can on that particular day. Usually I have riders focus on three basic tasks for their ride. ‘Owning’ means you know that your performance is only between you and your horse—it has nothing to do with anyone else.
Stay In Your Lane
Owning your rides also means you are very deliberate about where you put your attention. Your mention of embarrassment suggests to me that you are focused on what you think others are thinking of you rather than being present in your riding. You’re outside yourself, in a position of judgment, rather inside your experience. If you find yourself “watching yourself,” call yourself back into the saddle and focus on your three tasks.
Being present sounds like an easy concept, but believe me, it can be hard to achieve! One helpful tool is mindful breathing, which you can do anytime, including during your ride. Simply focus on your breath, actively following your inhale and then your exhale, calling yourself back to your body and back in the saddle. You can even employ a mantra with your breath, such as “be here,” or “ride every step.” Using mindful breathing also helps you reestablish connection with your horse: he will feel you come back into the present and in communication with him. Note that he may take a breath too!
Now, are you ready to kick it up a notch? Once you have mastered the first two steps, which are owning your ride and becoming fully present, then consider this: can you use the nerves of a big competition to actually elevate your performance? For many athletes there is a fine line between nerves and excitement. What if you could convince yourself that your ‘butterflies’ are in fact energy and excitement—like the fire of a racehorse at the gate?
- Start by changing your self talk. Turn “I’m nervous” into “I can’t wait to get in the ring.”
- Connect with past thrilling rides where you performed your best and re-experience that feeling in your mind and body.
- Deliberately choose to feel excited rather than scared, to feel big rather than small.
- Visualize performing exquisitely, and
- Feel the thrill of your great ride!
Make it a practice to turn on your jets at big competitions rather than idling them. You will find that what you can see and feel in your mind’s eye is what you can create.
Darby Bonomi, PhD is a Sport and Performance Psychologist based in San Francisco. She works with equestrians in all disciplines, as well as other athletes, to achieve optimal performance in and out of the competition. She can be reached at .http://www.darbybonomi.com