How I Deal With Competition Anxiety

Show nerves. Stage fright. Butterflies. These are a few of the names that athletes and actors use to describe how they feel just before the game or the show begins. it’s absolutely normal to feel competition anxiety. The trick is controlling it and using it to your advantage.

Jimmy Wofford, the Hall of Fame event rider and trainer, has said for years, ?it’s OK to have butterflies, as long as they’re all flying in formation.?

When the butterflies aren?t flying in formation, it’s usually caused by a fear of failure. Almost everyone who competes has a degree of this kind of fear. You feel anxiety about whether you and your horse are up to the task or about letting your horse down, about not doing your job and preventing him from doing his. That anxiety can be very useful?it gets the adrenaline going and makes you focus. Peter Winants, my former editor at The Chronicle of the Horse, used to tell me he thought it was good to get nervous before doing an interview, that it helps you focus and be prepared. I’ve done a couple of thousand interviews, but I still get nervous, and I know he was right.

Fear of disappointing a parent or a coach can also be a motivating factor, but it’s definitely unhelpful and even unhealthy if it’s overwhelming. If this fear is overwhelming, then I’d say it’s an indication that you have the wrong motivation. It suggests that you’re riding and competing because you need the approval of someone else, and that’s a poor reason to compete in anything.

Similarly, if you’re fear of failure revolves around what you think your friends or peers will say about you’re performance, then, again, you’re in it for the wrong reason. And Here’s a secret?most of them don’t really care about how you do. they’re too absorbed in themselves and their own problems or victories.

Sometimes competition anxiety involves fear of injury, and I’d suggest that anyone who tells you they don’t feel just a bit of that is either lying or they’re a moron. Fear of injury was a real fear when I was an amateur steeplechase jockey. Falling when racing over fences is a ?when,? not an ?if.? In steeplechasing, the average number of races between falls for a jockey is eight to 10 rides. My average was about twice that, and I have to give almost all the credit to the horses I rode.

A few years ago, one of our teenage students, riding then in her third or fourth event, asked me if I got nervous before starting on course, and she was surprised when I told her that I did. I told her that I deal with it by getting going, that it evaporates when I start riding the horse.

I’d be lying if I said that I don’t have a moment or two of anxiety these days about falling or getting hurt before starting on most cross-country courses. I don’t have the boundless bravery I did 25 or 30 years ago, when the bravado of youth clouded out that kind of fear. At 53, I have to rely on my experience and my trust in the horses that I ride to push that fear aside.

I actually get most nervous or anxious while walking the cross-country course, especially for preliminary or intermediate levels. Am I sure we can we do this’ Damn, that fence is big! I calm myself by thinking of similar schooling exercises or similar competition questions that I’ve done with the horse. It helps a lot if I think that another exercise or question was actually harder.

I’ll always recall the first time I walked an intermediate course that I was to ride. I’d walked dozens of intermediate and advanced courses as a reporter, when I didn’t have to ride them. But this course looked so much bigger and more complex. ?I got so nervous about halfway around my second walk that I wasn?t sure if I’d throw up or soil my pants. Fortunately, the organizers had strategically located a rent-a-john nearby.

That was eight years ago, and I was riding my wonderful partner Master Merlin. I convinced myself that we were ready, recalling that we’d successfully completed two CCI1*s (placing eighth and fourth in them) and that our training with Sharon White had prepared us for this moment. I remember often looking at combinations on courses and thinking, ?Well, if Sharon built this at home it would have two fewer strides/be half as wide/have a much sharper angle,? and I’d feel much more confident.

But what would really get all my butterflies flying in formation was to get on Merlin to warm up for cross-country. As soon as we picked up the gallop?and I felt his power and balance, and I saw his bay ears flicking back and forth, listening to me?those butterflies would form into a perfect V, ready for action.

Merlin would then get himself rather agitated in the moments just before we started. He?d revert to his youthful fear response of rearing and spinning as we headed toward the start box, but we solved that by Heather taking hold of his left rein and leading him around and then into the starting box, while I held the reins at the buckle. Being with Heather always calmed him. (I think she was a mother figure to him.) Then, when the starter said go, Merlin would leap forward while I gathered the reins, as confidence and courage would overtake us to begin our journey.

This spring my courageous Quarter Horse mare Firebolt (or Alba) will be the first horse I’ve ridden at intermediate since Merlin, and I wonder how nervous I’ll be this time.

Just as with Merlin, when I get on her and we pick up the gallop in the warm-up ring, my butterflies form a tight V formation. Alba floats across the ground at the gallop, and I think she could gallop for 10 miles or more without getting tired. I just smile at my little redheaded girl as we gallop around the warm-up ring, every fiber of her body telling me sHe’s ready to attack what’s ahead.

Alba too gets herself rather wound up on the way to the start box, and the sudden rush of adrenaline causes her to sort of levade and spin. But she won?t let Heather take hold of her head and lead her like a racehorse into the box. Maybe it’s a girl thing, or maybe it invokes a memory from her barrel-racing days. So I jog as quietly as possible her around the box, and, when the starter says go, it’s like letting go of the brake on a jet fighter ready for take-off on an aircraft carrier?s deck. Feeling the G forces on my face, I just steer her toward the first fence and wait for her to take a deep breath as we gallop away from it. Like the fighter jet that’s just cleared the end of the deck, now we’re airborne and I’m in control again.

And I’m no longer nervous. I’m focused, with the best little horse in the world underneath me.

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