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.
I keep having a rail at the end of the course every time I go in the ring. I get toward the last jump with a clear round and I say to myself, “I’m almost there!” and then inevitably have one of the last one or two jumps down. I’m so close to the jump-off, yet so far. Is there an exercise I can do that might help me not get anxious or rush the end? — Sara, 25-year-old amateur
Worrying can be helpful when it spurs you to take action and solve a problem. If you’re preoccupied with “what ifs” and worst-case scenarios, worry becomes a problem. Unrelenting doubt and fears can be paralyzing. They can sap your emotional energy, send your anxiety levels soaring and interfere with your daily life. Chronic worrying is a mental habit that can be broken. You can train your brain to stay calm and look at life from a more positive perspective.
I want to establish that I’m not a trainer so I’ll not be giving any “riding” tips. Instead, I’ll recommend a three-part process to help with this problem: refocus, reduce anxiety and follow-through.
If a rider takes all of the focus and complementary anxiety off of the last rail, the end result will be much better. The rider should readjust their focus to benefit their performance on the course, making sure every move is smooth and consistent. Consistency/smoothness is a key to success in jumping.
Many riders lose control when they have to ride a jump-off because they pull and push riding at several different paces. If you watch some of the lower level classes, riders are often seen going fast, slowing down, and then speeding up again. The push and pull of this type of rider causes them to lose time, smoothness, concentration and the ability to leave the fences up. If you watch top Grand Prix riders, the smoothness of their ride is what makes them stand apart from the other riders. In a jump-off, there is a noticeable difference between higher level and lower level riders.
Lower level riders tend to see a long distance and make sudden movements to close up the distance whereas higher level riders know enough about that distance ahead of time to close it up without making any sudden increases or decreases in speed. If you watch riders like McLain Ward and Kent Farrington in jump-offs, their rounds are very smooth and their horse is going relatively the same speed throughout the course. They are able to judge distances from far away, cut corners just the right amount, and place their horses in a way that is very subtle to spectators. Lower level riders tend to slow down and speed up all over the course instead of maintaining this constant fast speed.
Anxiety can occur for any reason and for no reason. Anxiety often comes without warning and may not be something you presently feel you can control.
Reducing anxiety to the point where it allows the rider to stay focused and follow through with a plan is the second part of the equation for success. Anxiety is often present when doing a jump-off and is often accompanied by muscular tension and problems with concentration. Although anxiety can be appropriate in some situations, it can negatively affect a rider’s performance due to the way it impacts muscle tension and concentration — which are related to brain state and physical functioning. Maintaining consistency of thought helps to reduce anxiety by keeping the brain state low and heightening focus. There are some psychological techniques that can be utilized and ultimately help with keeping the pace consistent. By reducing anxiety, the rider’s mind will work with them rather than against them when competing.
The last part of the process is the follow-through: the things one does to complete a plan. You must continue to practice exercises that will lower your anxiety and refocus your attention until it becomes second nature. For example, the follow-through of professional Grand Prix riders is the maintenance of a consistent pace from the beginning of a ride until through the timers. The ability to maintain this skill is what sets the rider apart, but working on your own follow-through can fix the problems you’ve been having.
Focusing and refocusing on following through with a consistently smooth pace and pairing it with a low state of anxiety are key elements in leaving the fences up and getting that win.