Dealing with performance anxiety

Are you struggling with show nerves, or disheartened because the perfect performance you envisioned isn’t materializing? The solution could be as simple as changing the way you think.

A dad phones me, worried about his daughter. He has spent several weeks helplessly watching Liz shake and jitter and hyperventilate on the eve of her equitation classes. She always places well, but then needs three days to settle her somersaulting stomach. Dad wants Liz to feel more confident and less nervous. Could I teach her some relaxation techniques or something to help her with her anxiety?

The consult

I met with Liz and her dad and learn that she worries a lot – about how many classes to enter at each show; about disappointing her trainer and parents; and about doing at least as well as she did the last time she competed – which, because she usually does very well, means she has to do better than very well every time she goes out! I was beginning to understand why Liz spent her pre-show days all aquiver.

Does Liz’s dad know why his daughter is always raising the bar on herself? “No,” he replies, sadly. “Her mom and I have been trying to help her appreciate her efforts more than her placings. We tell her just to do the best she can, and that we most love seeing her enjoy riding. Isn’t there some kind of technique she can learn to relax?” Relax? I think to myself. Relaxing to a tape at home the evening before a show isn’t going to help this kid manage what’s going on in her mind the next day.

“It’s really not about relaxing,” I begin to explain. “Liz doesn’t need to learn how to relax. She needs to learn how to problem-solve about her show program, and how to let ‘good’ be good enough. She’s nervous as all heck because she demands the world and then some from herself.”

Sport psych isn’t relaxation!

Sport psychology has been yoked to relaxation techniques for longer than I can stand to think about. Some people think teaching relaxation is all a sport psychologist does. But I can’t even remember the last time I did anything remotely like that with a client. Why? Because, as I explained to Liz and her dad, there are so many better things to do – such as helping you:

  • Appreciate that maybe you’re not supposed to be all that relaxed for a competitive event. Shows do involve riding in front of a lot of people, with only two or so minutes to do it right, with no “do-overs”, and with a judge watching. I know being nervous doesn’t feel good, but I’ve always found it easier to accept show nerves as a part of the predictable show experience. A cop-out? No way. Know why? Pretty soon being nervous becomes like background “white noise”. You know it’s there, but don’t let it get to you.
  • Direct your attention to learning to ride well in spite of your show nerves. If being nervous makes you tight, try practicing staying loose in one critical part of your body (e.g. shoulders, elbows). Don’t try to “relax” your whole body; that’s too much. Save it for the spa. If being nervous makes you timid and tentative, make a point to keep reminding yourself to ride more aggressively “Keep your leg on yourself!” I told one rider who rode too quietly whenever her nerves got the best of her.
  • Make changes in how you manage your show day, or in how you think about winning and losing. In Liz’s case, problem-solving meant approaching her trainer and coming up with a better plan for showing. And letting “good” be good enough meant that she learned to measure her worth as a rider — not just by her last class, but by everything she’s ever put into her riding.

Daydreaming doesn’t work

Many riders think visualization techniques will help with nerves and prevent anxiety in the show ring. I don’t ever recommend visualization techniques to riders, for a number of reasons I’ll explain below. That’s not to say riders who benefit from visualization techniques shouldn’t keep using them (“if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”), but most people who try them experience disappointment and frustration.

There are a few reasons why some people struggle with visualization techniques:

  • First of all, any mental exercise that idealizes the notion of “perfect” is a deal-breaker in my book. Being perfect belongs in romance novels and beauty contests; it has nothing to do with riding horses, whose energies are far too dynamic to be bound up in such a term as “perfect”. “Perfect” is not a living term. Table settings are perfect. People and animals are not. People who try to make themselves perfect drive themselves (and those around them, including their horses) crazy.
  • Trying to recapture in real life the “perfect” visualization you imagined the evening before is a perfect (ha!) setup for frustration. You’re chasing a dream. Inspiration is one thing, but to me this dream is more like a tantalizing nightmare. Meanwhile, you’re forgetting to ride the horse you have under you at that moment!
  • Want a great formula for non-spontaneous, non-free riding? Tell yourself to replicate a previous ride; any one will do, real or imagined. Ride it exactly the same way. I mean exactly. Having a little trouble? Are you getting so wrapped up in trying to copy yourself that you’re distracted from your better, freer, more spontaneous riding ability? Of course!

Compensate for your anxiety

If performing causes you anxiety in the ring, consider trying to compensate for the ways in which the anxiety/freezing up affects your riding rather than trying to ride more perfectly (too abstract a goal). You probably wind up “under-riding” — unsure of your decisions, inactive and unclear in your aids, you “go along for the ride” and your horse makes up his own test. If you were to aim instead toward maintaining a more active stance, even if it meant you “over-rode” in your first few shows, I believe you would be able to break the habit.

Doing something different in your riding – even one thing – during those  moments  of anxiety can be the trick to triggering a different response to your performance nerves. For many riders, it beats dreaming! And learning to accept your show nerves as something natural and normal can leave you in a better place to focus on your riding, and having fun!


Credit: Primedia Equine Network

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Janet Edgette is a clinical and sport psychologist practicing in the Philadelphia suburbs and the author of six books on equestrian sport psychology, parenting teens, and counseling teens and families. She showed extensively as a junior, competing in the Medal and Maclay Finals. As an adult, Janet spent ten years training with George Morris and competing in the higher level jumper divisions of major shows on the east coast. Her two books for riders are Heads Up!: Practical Sports Psychology for Riders, Their Parents and Their Trainers and The Rider’s Edge: Overcoming the Psychological Challenges of Riding.