Mindset training: How to harness your nervous energy to improve your performance

  • Learning to harness your nervous energy will enable you to use competition jitters to enhance your performance. Performance psychologist Charlie Unwin explains how in this final part of his mental fitness training series

    These are, for your mind, what balance, rhythm and accuracy are for your riding:

    Fundamental #1 – win the day
    Fundamental #2 – create the space
    Fundamental #3 – relax into it
    Fundamental #4 – train your feel
    Fundamental #5 – train your nerves

    Training your nerves is perhaps what most people associate with sport psychology. To be successful, we must learn to embrace nerves as part of the competition experience, and harness the energy they give us.

    To do so, we need to combine the previous “Fundamentals of Mental Fitness” together, so I hope you’ve been practising!

    There is a difference between training your nerves and merely coping with nerves.

    Coping is reactive, it encourages us to avoid pressure and work on suppressing the negative effects of our nervous energy. It relies on coping strategies that are unique to competition because we generally don’t need them in training.

    Training your nerves is proactive. It invites pressure on your terms and teaches your mind and body to respond positively to it. It therefore allows you to harness your nervous energy, not suppress it, and most of this work can be done in training.

    In essence, coping will save your performance whereas training will enhance your performance.

    This philosophy has gathered huge momentum over the past 10 years in light of evidence-based research in positive psychology (which you can learn more about in my online talk, State of Mind). This has strongly influenced my approach with riders, which is all about getting good at nerves, not avoiding them.

    Nervousness is simply energy created by the body for us to use in challenging situations. If we don’t learn how to use this energy it can overwhelm us, cloud our judgement and cause us to tense up, freeze or over ride. Harnessed well, this extra energy can be used to help us think faster, stay alert and apply more focused effort to the task we are undertaking.

    It’s little wonder that people’s best and worst performances generally come from the pressure of competition. We can control this.

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    How to train nerves

    Training your nerves consists of two elements: 1) invite stress/pressure and 2) practise your response.

    The best example I can give is through my own experience in the sport of modern pentathlon. Having got as far as competing on the world stage, my progress as an athlete was curtailed by nerves. This came to a head at my first World Cup, when I fell apart in the shooting hall and completely lost control of my performance. So scared was I of repeating this that I was ready to throw in the towel, even though my results in training were going from strength to strength.

    Thanks to some amazing people (without whom I wouldn’t have the career I do now), I took what felt like a huge risk. I decided to focus my training much more on my mental approach to competition. Of course this involved physical practice as well, but that was more of a tool for becoming mentally stronger. The reason it felt like such a risk was because it involved breaking traditional training protocol.

    I realised that many of my training routines were just a comfort blanket that didn’t truly address the challenges of competition. It was the attitude of, “If I do what everyone else is doing then at least I cannot be questioned or ridiculed.”

    Having come out the other side, I now realise how damaging this limiting belief could have been, not just to my sport but to my life.

    Taking the two principles of 1) inviting stress – not delaying it until competition, and 2) training my positive response to it, I set about getting good at my fundamentals. While the other athletes hurriedly unboxed their pistols and started firing shots down the range in training, I sat behind (as you would do in competition) and started the session by working on my mind.

    • Step 1: I imagined I was right in the middle of a big-competition environment. I took time to imagine the spectators, officials and other competitors. I heard the quiet but intense background noise and I felt the temperature of the room. I let the intensity wash through my body, giving permission for my heart to race and energy to surge to my muscles. Now was the time to train my response.
    • Step 2: While staying in this imagined environment, I began to focus on deep, rhythmical breathing and active relaxation from head to toe (see fundamentals #2 and #3). Sometimes I would pick out sights or sounds that would make my heart race again, so I could practise my response – acceptance, breathing and relaxation.
    • Step 3: I repeated a number of positive mantras to myself, which I had written down: “This is my environment”, “I am relaxed and in control”, “I will take one step at a time and let the score take care of itself”.
    • Step 4: Once I was breathing deeply, relaxed throughout my body and thinking clearly and positively, I visualised my full competition routine in my head (fundamental #4), going through every tiny detail and feeling the perfect shot each time – 20 times.
    • Step 5: I would stand up and do what I had just imagined, routinely checking in on my breathing and relaxation.

    After the first few weeks and months of this mental training, the impact it had both on me as a performer and my confidence as a person was indescribable. My training sessions became a very personal and special time for me; they felt intense, energising and exhausting all in one. The consistency of my mental routine immediately impacted the consistency of my results.

    One year on I went to the same World Cup competition where I had bombed out the previous year, winning the shooting event with a huge personal best. It was a period of profound realisation that has stayed with me ever since and is the reason I do what I do.

    More practice methods

    Simulate competition pressure: plan a training session every couple of weeks where you practise your full competition routine. This is something I have been working on with riders during lockdown to ensure they are competition-ready when they are allowed back out.

    If you are doing a dressage test, for example, give yourself a precise time and countdown clock and work backwards from there. The idea is that you will have to practise the same constraints that create pressure for us in competition, and in doing so it creates a genuine intensity. With this intensity you can practise the steps above as part of your preparation.

    Interval training: interval training in the gym, running or on a bike is the perfect opportunity to embed this mental training process. The idea is that you physically exert yourself during the efforts, increasing your heart rate. The training effect is then about how you recover – something which people hardly ever focus on.

    Using the same breathing, relaxation and visualisation protocol as above, you will be able to reduce your recovery time, allowing you to train beyond your usual limits. You will also learn how to actively control your nervous system, thereby conditioning your mind and body to adapt far more positively to stress.

    Cold showers: this is a technique that’s getting plenty of positive exposure at the moment, and for good reason. The benefits of taking cold showers have been widely documented; reducing anxiety and boosting your immune system.

    The cold water initiates your body’s natural stress response, so the key is to learn not to fight it but instead condition the opposite response – deep breathing and relaxation. The mind-body can then map this response to other stressful situations.

    I hope you have enjoyed my mental fitness series and focusing more on the inner game of our amazing sport. Once we gain control of our inner world, competing or performing can provide a unique opportunity to embrace the excitement, raise your level of performance, test self-control and extend limits.

    Meaningful challenges lead you to your ultimate goals. They stimulate you to contribute and perform as you never have before. They bring out your best. And even if they don’t, they provide lessons for living life more fully. Good luck!

    About Chalie: Charlie Unwin is a specialist in human performance and psychology. His clients include Olympic champions, England footballers, elite special forces and the Royal Household, as well as a number of our international equestrian teams. A former Army officer and British athlete, Charlie is passionate about applying the science of mental performance to equestrian sport, helping riders maximise their potential through training and competition.

    Charlie’s online talk State of Mind is now available to download here. Attended by more than 2,500 equestrians this winter, State of Mind explores the inner world of equestrian competition and how to enhance your performance in the saddle by controlling your psychological state.

    With lessons from some of the world’s top performers in equestrian sport and beyond, Charlie demonstrates the versatility of your mind, and how to make it one of the most powerful tools you have.

    Ref Horse & Hound; 7 May 2020