Even the world’s elite riders aren’t immune to competition nerves. Martha Terry discovers how they channel their jitters into a winning performance
Nerves happen to the best of us. When Emily Philp was contesting her first Burghley, in 2019, she passed Pippa Funnell’s lorry en route to the cross-country. Bear in mind Pippa has a dozen Olympic, world and European medals, six five-star trophies and 30 five-star starts under her belt. Pippa leaned out of her lorry window to wish Emily good luck and check she was OK.
“I said, ‘No, I feel dreadful,’” Emily says. “And Pippa laughed, and said, ‘Trust me, it gets worse, not better.’”
Pippa went on to win, proving that nerves are no barrier to success. But how familiar her angst is to so many riders, whether we’re at British novice or Badminton.
On online equestrian forums, discussions about how to cope with competition nerves abound. Instant solutions such as gin, Rescue Remedy and Human Kalm Cookies (a human version of the equine ones) are suggested, alongside hypnotherapy, neuro-linguistic programming and performance psychology.
After last year’s stop-start competition season, we might be yearning to feel those butterflies again. But when the new season resumes and the sickening nerves do kick in, it’s helpful to remember that top riders, too, have to battle with their own fear of failure – and have learned to channel these negative thoughts into winning results.
1. Maintain perspective
Mary King’s perpetual smile, win or lose, masks the nerves she still feels even after a lifetime at the top of the sport.
She overcomes her jitters by keeping a sense of perspective.
“Older riders may look relaxed but there are always nerves underneath,” she says. “I make myself remember how lucky I am to do this sport. I think of all the wars and starving people in the world, while we are prancing around on horses. We are just so fortunate.”
Team GBR dressage rider Gareth Hughes views nerves as “anticipation”, the desire to perform. He finds perspective a useful lens.
“The main thing to remember is that dressage is not about life and death,” he says. “We’re not paid millions. It’s more of a personal challenge. You have to put it in perspective.”
2. Embrace the nerves
Performance psychologist Sarah Huntley works on “reframing riders’ nerves into something positive”.
“The physiological sensations of nerves – butterflies or clammy palms – are not negative in themselves; it’s the emotion we attach to them,” she says.
“It’s part of our fight or flight response. So instead of interpreting nerves as a negative, try to think of them as a positive: ‘This shows I’m ready; nerves will help me perform better’.”
William Fox-Pitt, who believes nerves are “universal”, uses this approach: “The trick is to turn them into something positive – accept you can’t avoid them and instead embrace them. Nerves get your blood up, make you ride with more attack and positivity. You have to control them so they put you in the groove.”
Piggy March, who had a record-breaking season in 2019, actually thrives on the adrenaline nerves bring.
“Of course you start thinking about what can and can’t go wrong, but you feel sharp,” she says. “I like the pressure, I think it makes me better. I wake up. I’m quite laid-back naturally, what will be will be, but I think that also comes with age and experience.”
3. Stick to your plan
Piggy’s other method for coping with the big occasion is to “take my system to the competition”.
“It’s either good enough or it’s not,” she says. “So you have to program yourself to ride exactly how you ride at home. You go into your bubble, do the best you can, then feel amazed when you see the scoreboard.”
Treble CCI5* winner Hazel Shannon has such a specific plan that when she landed her third Adelaide, last season, she didn’t even know she’d won.
“Nerves don’t change the skills you have, so you have to stay disciplined,” she says. “My coach Heath Ryan has prepared me how to jump last when I’m in the lead. I watch the first few, then from warming up to going into the ring, I don’t watch anyone else as I don’t need to know how they’ve done. When I won Adelaide, people wondered why I didn’t look happier, but I’d knocked two down and had no idea I had two fences in hand.”
This is a classic psychological technique, to imagine performing whatever test lies ahead. Gareth Hughes admits he doesn’t always sleep well before a big championship, but sees it “like being excited before a holiday”. He uses any sleepless time to go through scenarios and past tests.
“I try to give myself the mental image of what the judge will see, to help me present the best picture,” he says. “I also watch video snippets of myself working at a competition and ask myself if I’m happy with what I see, or whether I need to adapt my approach. Visualisation is a big thing for me, because dressage is all about the impression we give.”
Showjumper Chloe Winchester also uses visualisation to diffuse anxiety before an important class.
“I try to relax myself by walking the course and then visualising jumping it in my head so that when it comes to riding in the ring, it’s like I’ve already jumped it.”
5. Diffuse the pressure
Gemma Tattersall showjumps alongside her main eventing career and has talked about how the nature of eventing makes it much more nerve-racking.
While for her brilliant five-star campaigner Arctic Soul there are only one or two targets a season – putting huge pressure on the potential for a tiny mistake – showjumpers can jump grands prix every weekend.
William Fox-Pitt deals with this by looking at the bigger picture.
“You’ve done your prep and have got to this stage – that’s already a good situation,” he says. “You have to hope for the best but be prepared for the worst. In the grand scheme of things, if you make a mistake, who really remembers except you? It’s annoying and it hurts but life goes on.”
Showjumper Joe Stockdale diffuses the pressure by making half-goals rather than long-term ones, and focusing on the process rather than results.
“You can say you want to jump on this team or at that show, but anything can go wrong and put you back three months – you’re putting unnecessary pressure on yourself,” he says. “But I can look at myself and say, ‘I want to be in a better position, lighter in the seat, be more like this top rider’, and the results will come.”
Top jockey Rachael Blackmore says the pressure of expectation can mount up when you’re riding a big favourite, so she “tries not to think about it”.
“When people talk about me winning championships, I’ll just smile and not really respond,” she says.
Jockeys have ample opportunity to practise under pressure. Perhaps frequent competition is the solution to steady the nerves. As three-time champion Flat jockey Silvestre De Sousa says: “I used to get nervous but not now. When you have 12 races a day you don’t have time, and you’re used to it.”
6. Remember why you do it
Some riders wake up on competition morning so sick with nerves they question whether they enjoy the sport at all.
Sarah Huntley reassures “it’s normal for motivation to fluctuate – especially when it’s 6am and lashing down with rain.
“Think of what you love most about riding, aside from competition,” Sarah suggests. “Sometimes a simple love of horses gets forgotten.”
Chloe finds this helpful: “Mum always says I have to remember I do the sport because I enjoy it. Sometimes you can become so focused on going well you forget the reason you go into the ring – that you love what you do and that’s very important.”
7. On the day
The key is to do whatever suits you.
- Me time: “I like to sit alone in the lorry for an hour and watch a DVD, have a bit of time to myself,” says Gareth Hughes. “At the Euros I fell asleep on a chair in the stable block. Some people get tired with nerves, others get skittish. If you’re that type, it’s best to keep busy.”
- Take a deep breath: Chloe Winchester says, “I take three deep breaths while relaxing my shoulders before I go into the ring. It really focuses my concentration.”
- Organisation: “You don’t want any surprises on competition day,” says Sarah Huntley, “so have everything really well planned for the morning of a competition, including a plan B so if, say, the horse doesn’t load, you still have time. This helps maintain a level of calm.”
- Most of us will never reach the giddy heights that Pippa Funnell has, but those nerves, common to us all, are surmountable. Keep calm and carry on kicking on.
Sport psychologist Sarah Huntley (pictured) co-runs Centre 10, offering performance-applied psychology training to equestrian coaches and riders, and also competes at international level in aquathlon and rowing. Sarah’s advice is:
- Humans naturally have a negative bias – we feel negative thoughts five to seven times more strongly than positive. Remember that’s a normal bias that makes all of us prone to nerves and remembering negative experiences more readily than positive ones.
- For riders who feel sick, work out over time what food is OK for you as you’ll need something – perhaps plain toast or an energy drink in the morning. And focus on deep, slow, nasal-breathing to help you relax.
- Focus on the process not the result or outcome. How do you need to ride to get that clear round? Concentrate on doing that, not what’s at stake. In Centre 10, we call this the “inside-out” mindset. You may want to focus on a couple of words, like “rhythm” or “calm”.
- The rider’s environment on the day is very important – who they’re travelling with and how that person should behave with them, whether calm or motivating. This needs to be communicated before so that partner can support rather than stress the rider out.
- And if it doesn’t go well, don’t catastrophise. Pull out three or four positives from the experience before moving on to what you need to work on. And remember we learn more from perceived failure than when it all goes smoothly.
How did you overcome nerves? Write to us at email@example.com
Ref: 7 January 2021
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