Could rituals and routines boost your competition performance?

  • In her new book "Transform Pressure to Power: 8 Mindset Strategies to Achieve Eventing Success", Helen Rennie looks at how rituals and routines are key mindset tools that enable you to switch yourself into performance mode and get into your zone

    You may have noticed that professional sports people have routines that they always go through before and during competitions. Often these routines are labelled as ‘superstitions,’ which makes them seem like they are frivolous and irrelevant, but they are actually the key to helping the athlete or sports person unlock their performance potential.

    The reason routines are labelled as ‘superstitions’ is because they have meaning to the competitor using them but they may have no logical or rational meaning to other people.

    You can argue that triggers fall into the same category. It doesn’t matter if the routine, ritual or trigger makes logical sense or not; it just needs to help the competitor perform at their best. If it serves that purpose, that is what matters.

    Obviously in equestrian sport, there is the horse to consider in all of this and so any routine, ritual or trigger must be safe for the horse and rider, and it must also not compromise the horse’s ability to perform. So for example, a warm-up routine must effectively warm up the horse to prepare it for the athletic challenge ahead and prevent injury, whilst also helping the rider to get focused and in their performance zone.

    Here I’m going to outline some of the most common rituals and routines that help event riders. These are repeatable processes that you can use as often as you need to throughout all three phases of an event.

    Effective routines and rituals

    Effective routines and rituals give you certainty, control and a plan of action. When you are at an event, you are competing in an environment that is often uncertain and unpredictable, so having routines and rituals in place will give you reassurance and a greater sense of control.

    Routines and rituals are essentially about getting you into your performance zone and helping you to conserve vital mental energy and control your emotions.

    Camilla Kruger, international event rider and Zimbabwe Nations Cup Team member, told me that she has a series of routines that she has designed and refined in training at home so that when she goes to competitions, she focuses on doing what she’s trained to do at home.

    This is a great strategy because it provides Camilla with greater control and an ability to more easily transfer her performance level at home to the competition environment.

    Make sure you plan each event knowing which rituals and routines you need in order to be successful, because this will help you focus on yourself and what you need to do to perform at your best. If you are competing in a big class, this will help you to manage the pressure of other riders because you will be more focused on your performance.

    Here are the most common rituals and routines that I find are most helpful for event riders:

    • Pre-competition
    The purpose of this routine is to help you stay organised before competitions and focus your attention on the upcoming event. This type of routine covers everything from the last work session you do with your horse before an event, to the process of packing your lorry or trailer for an event. It is common for riders to have a series of these pre-competition routines that they carry out in the final week before every event.

    • Warm-up
    Having a warm-up routine is good for you and it’s good for your horse, particularly if you ride young or inexperienced horses. Routine gives horses comfort in the uncertain and unpredictable environment of a competition. It also has the exact same benefit for you and, because it gets you focused on riding each step of the routine, it enables you to get in to your performance zone. The better you know the routine and the more precisely you ride it, the more effective the routine will be in a competition environment. So make sure you practise it at home and know it back to front!

    • Refocusing
    Have a routine or ritual that allows you to refocus and get back in your zone quickly. This could be a deep breath, saying something to yourself or simply riding a shape like a 10m circle to give you time to refocus. This will help you to limit the impact that distractions have on your performance and help you refocus more quickly.

    • Mental rehearsal
    As well as being a mindset strategy, mental rehearsal is also a routine that you can use to switch yourself into performance mode.

    Continued below…

    Pre-competition routines

    Very often a mistake made at an event can be directly linked back to the pre-competition routine and preparation of the horse and rider. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you already have pre-competition routines and rituals; it’s just that they may be unhelpful rather than being something that aids your performance.

    One pre-competition ritual I have come across is something I call ‘the wind-up.’ Some event riders use the time before an event to get nervous and wound up about the conditions and the challenges they may face. Clearly this isn’t going to be helpful to them on the day, as it is merely building up their stress levels in advance of the event, which in itself will raise their stress levels.

    So it’s important that you establish some clear pre-competition routines as well as event routines and rituals that help you manage your stress, conserve your mental energy and get you ready to switch into performance mode and get into your zone!

    Effective pre-competition routines are essential for getting you in the right state of mind to perform at your best and get the competition outcome you really want. These routines will give you a greater sense of control going into the competition and will help your horse remain calm.

    The best pre-competition routines are simple. Keeping it simple means your routine will be predictable and easy to repeat for every competition.

    This will give you a greater sense of control, and the predictability of the routine will help keep your horse calm. Write down everything you believe you need to do in order to prepare for the competition, including what exercise routine your horse needs to perform at his/her best.

    Being clear about the optimal plan for your horse is essential. This will depend on your horse’s preferences and fitness. Only you will know what works for your horse; just make sure you have a clear plan that gets your horse prepared and ready to perform. Once you’ve completed your list, go through it and evaluate the importance of each item. Check that you have included the essential things like checking your horse’s shoes, packing your equipment, food, first aid kit, etc.

    Your pre-competition routine must include a deadline for finishing up practise. This is really important because last minute practise can be damaging to your competition performance, especially if you are struggling with something, like a section of your dressage test. It is much better to practise the things that you are finding difficult and could be the weakest link in your performance way before you get to the competition, because trying to fix that last minute will likely damage your confidence and not set you up for success.

    The next element you need in your pre-competition routine is a routine for eating, sleeping and just generally taking care of yourself. To make sure you have sufficient mental energy for all 3 phases of your event, it is very important that you rest and eat well in the week leading up to the event. Your muscles also need to be well rested and this needs to be balanced up with the riding preparation you are doing.

    Your pre-competition routine needs to be designed to reduce your stress so that you’re not leaving things to the last minute and so that you are well-prepared. This means preparing all the logistics well in time and knowing when you’re going to do things like plaiting up and loading equipment on to your lorry.

    Structure is your friend

    Build a checklist for the event itself to help guide you through the event so that if things start to get overwhelming, you can simply review your checklist and identify the exact thing you need to do next. This will help you focus and give you back control.

    Be completely open with your support people, or whoever comes with you to competitions, about what you need from them in order to remain calm and focused. Remember rituals and routines are all about giving you control and allowing you to remain calm under pressure, so make sure you’re really honest with the people around you about what you need them to do for you so you can implement the rituals and routines you need to get into performance mode and into your zone in each phase.

    Design your own

    So now you know more about the most common routines and rituals that help event riders get switched on and into their performance zone, it’s important you understand how to design your own rituals and routines. This is something I help competition riders with so I have a lot of experience and here are my top tips:

    • Keep it simple! Simple routines are more powerful than complex ones so make sure you keep it simple.
    • Remember the aim of a routine is to help you stay organised and feel in control before and during competitions so you can focus your attention on your performance.
    • Focus on creating a routine or ritual that enables you to be in peak state and remember that what works for other people might not work for you – find what works for you and stick with it!
    • Make sure your routine or ritual enables you to get into your performance zone, so you quieten your inner critic and maintain the right level of stress and pressure that enables you to thrive and perform at your best


    Make a list of all the rituals and routines you use before a competition currently and include all the unhelpful ones as well as the ones that help you perform at your best. Then design new routines and rituals using the information and tips above, that you will implement in place of the unhelpful ones so you remain calm, in control and ready to perform at your next event.

    Transform Pressure to Power: 8 Mindset Strategies to Achieve Eventing Success by Helen Rennie

    Price: £14.99

    Visit: www.transformpressuretopower.comTransform Pressure to Power


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