By Margie Sugarman
Margie Sugarman is a leading board-certified psychotherapist and sports consultant based in New York. Margie’s desire is to enhance performance through the connection between the mind and body, and her current client list includes Olympic, professional and amateur athletes across the country. Her experience employing various therapeutic modalities has helped equestrians win classics, junior medals and Grand Prix. Do you have a question you want Margie to answer? Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is an immense amount of pressure on junior riders in the equitation. I’m a solid rider and do well in the medals throughout the year. I’m hoping to qualify for Devon. When it comes to the big competitions such as the Winter Equestrian Festival, Devon and indoors, my nerves go into high gear when it counts the most. Do you have a recommendation on how I can calm my nerves before entering the ring?
— Connor, 18-year-old junior rider
So many athletes suffer from debilitating performance anxiety. Right before big shows they’re freaking out, hyperventilating and mentally setting themselves up to choke. Trainers and parents see this and offer these well-meaning words of advice, “Just relax! You’re too nervous!”
The only problem with this kind of “help” is that it doesn’t really help the athlete do this. Sports performance often has as much to do with how a person handles pressure in demanding situations as with the physical abilities displayed by the competitors.
For many athletes, from young people to seasoned professionals, nerves can wreak havoc on an athlete’s ability to perform at their best. Learning how to stay calm under pressure is probably one of the most important mental skills an athlete can have and is the hallmark of mental toughness.
Studies have shown that if the heart rate during the competition significantly differs from the rate during training, the athlete’s performance ability tends to suffer. Consequently, we need to do a couple of things to help mirror our “practice” state with our “competitive” state.
This process is two-fold: 1. Increase arousal states in one’s normal day-to-day practice, which helps us become more comfortable with anxiety in the competitive state (psychological) 2. Use specific breathing techniques that will trigger a calming physiological response regarding the mind/body connection (physiological).
A rider can learn to focus on particular triggers, through the use of imagery and visualization, that will ultimately make their surrounding environment more comfortable. Increasing anxiety in the training environment will in due course decrease it in a competitive situation. For example: Imagine being at your barn in the ring and ready to ride either on the flat or over fences. Include all the stimuli that trigger anxiety at a show: You were dressed in your show clothes, you had your number on your back, someone over the loudspeaker was announcing your name and the jumps were bright and looked imposing. Even take it as far as picturing spectators standing alongside the fence line watching your every move. If this were the scenario every time you rode at home, repeatedly practicing this visual environment would help your performance at a horse show become more relaxed.
The physiological responses (mind/body connection) are another issue at play in an anxiety-producing situation. Breathing, which we all do from 17,000 to 30,000 times a day, is often not done in the most beneficial way. If the athlete doesn’t properly oxygenate, their muscles will become rigid and their brain will get foggy. This is often seen at shows when riders warming up look stressed and stiff.
When an individual is anxious, they will tend to breathe quickly with shallow breaths. Envision someone in a deep sleep, completely relaxed in both mind and body. The way an individual breathes is related to the brain state they’re in, whether that’s a state of anxiety or a state of sleep. In other words, our breathing impacts our brain state and our brain state impacts our performance. Breathing properly is a major factor in performance. It’s the foundation upon which our mind and body communicate clearly and allow us to stay focused and perform. Remembering simple physiological cues can help lower your heart rate and help calm you down.
Because every person is different, some athletes will respond much differently to pressure situations than others and find different ways of handling the stress of competition. Don’t be afraid to try new things in order to get your nerves under control before entering the show ring. The mind can become an asset on competition days as opposed to an obstacle.