Embrace the nerves!

It’s a sensation I’m sure most of you have experienced– that singular, exhilarating focus and the incredible assurance that comes with it– the feeling that you cannot fail. Athletes call it being “in the zone.”  It’s a state of mental single-mindedness that doesn’t allow any room for hesitation or doubt.  Coming out of it is like surfacing from a pool of endorphin-doped adrenaline– there’s no feeling like it.

But although performing “in the zone” is easy, getting there isn’t.  Especially at a horse show, when you have more to worry about than just your personal performance.  You need to be concerned about class times, your horse’s mental and physical state, the other riders in the warmup ring, braiding, turnout, money… and performance anxiety likes to creep in on top of all these things.  So how do professional riders and athletes set everything else aside and turn their focus to winning alone?

I’m not a sports psychologist, but from extensive personal experience as a weenie, I would have to say that the only way I can set distractions aside and get into that competitive zone is by not trying to do it at all.  I need to embrace my fear, nerves and uncertainty and ride anyway.  Each of those feelings comes with a silver lining.

  • Fear gives you adrenaline. Your body becomes more aware of its surroundings, on guard, if you will.  Breathe deeply and savor that adrenaline rush.  Your muscles know how to ride, they’ve done it a million times before, and in the heat of the moment your body doesn’t even really need help from you to do what it does best.  It’s pretty amazing what you can pull off when you switch into instinctual mode.
  • Nerves give you desire.  You want to perform well, you want to clear all the fences, you want to do your coach proud.   There you go, you have three positive outcomes already formed in your mind.  Don’t let yourself think about the opposites of these scenarios: only think about what it is you want.
  • Uncertainty builds confidence.  Think about the first time you jumped your young horse over the liverpool.  On the first approach he was head-high and snorty, dodging a little bit to either side, ready to slam on the brakes or run out at any opportunity.  But you sat up and put your leg on and he acquiesced and took a leap over it.  He was uncertain and you made him do it anyway.  And the next time you came to that fence he was a little more certain and a little more confident.  You’re the same way.  Go in there and do it.  Next time you try it will be a little bit easier.

Riding is not only a physical endeavor; it’s a mental game, too.  It’s about exuding confidence and decisiveness even when you don’t feel those qualities.  Sometimes it’s about faking it until you make it; just because you’re afraid doesn’t mean you can’t succeed.  Ride anyway, compete anyway.  Riding in the zone isn’t just for professionals; it’s possible for all riders.  Remember, you’re an athlete.  The strategies that work for the upper echelons of the sport can work for you too.

A great book that helped my competitive mindset a lot is In Pursuit of Excellence by Tony Orlick, link here.