Nerves is such a big hurdle that so many beginners face. Cutting is literally a death trap for someone that experiences nervousness in sport. So many factors that can make you nervous. I mean, not that I EVER do this (me.. not me... nerves of steel over here ya'll, like super bendy, cheap steel, but steel all the same), but if you go to warm up your horse and you're already nervous about how they've been working that week. If you're nervous about your competition. If you're nervous about the cows. Nervous about people watching you. Nervous about if your horse is ready enough, if they've been warmed up enough. Nervous about literally breathing and existing (bendy steel people, bendy steel)... then SCIENCE you are for sure not going to do as well as your fellow competitor that is walking into the pen with ice cold water glitter in their veins.
So, I wanted to talk about overcoming nerves in the show pen, but I am no expert on that, I am only an expert on writing about sixties and tears, so I enlisted the fabulous June Stevens! June is a sports psychology coach, and she specializes in working with riders to help them develop mental strategies that help them succeed in the show pen. Basically, when I picture June, I picture a really smart unicorn... because what else would you picture really. She has graciously accepted my offer of becoming a guest columnist on With a Western Twist to help riders tackle mental hurdles. If you have a question or specific situation that you think June could help you with, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Ask June: Overcoming Nerves in the Show Pen
Look guys, I found a photo of June Stevens, Sports Psychology Coach, in her natural habitat!
"Dear June, I'm having a really tough time overcoming nerves in the show pen.
For some reason right before I enter the show pen, I get so intensely nervous to show that it's like a black cloud covers my mind and I am
unable to even think straight. It becomes even worse when my trainer
works my horse more often than I do, which is necessary for her
training, but makes me feel unconfident in my riding EVEN though I
KNOW we can both do it. The nerves are so bad sometimes that I can't
even physically think through my runs, and leave the pen barely
remembering what just happened! What are some techniques and advice
you can give me to battle this nervousness issue I have?!"
Thanks for your question. First off, rest assured you are not alone in your battle against nerves. If someone tells you they never get nervous before a show, they are either delusional, a psychopath, or both. (JUST KIDDING. They might have studied sports psychology and learned some cool tricks to calm down.) Some people do process nervousness differently—they experience it as excitement and anticipation of competing, so they might not realize the sensation is actually stressful to others.
Today I’ll explain what happens when you get nervous, why it happens, and how to short circuit the cycle as soon it starts. But before I begin, it’s important to understand that it probably isn’t entirely possible to “conquer” show-ring nerves.
What you can do is learn to embrace the nervousness and work through it. You can also train your mind to view nervousness as a sign that you are ready to do your best.
With that in mind, let’s get started.
The first thing to understand is that we humans are fight or flight creatures, just like our horses. So next time your horse spazzes out over a plastic cup on the ground, remember that he’s having a “black brain cloud moment” just like you do when you hit the show pen. Anxiety is the result of the mind-body connection. It usually begins with a thought, which creates a response in your body. You might think about being an hour away from competing in your class, and suddenly your mouth is dry and your heart is racing. Your mind had a thought it found stressful, and your body responded in kind. Now, your body is sending stress signals (racing heart, dry mouth) to your mind, which creates more anxious thoughts. The body and mind feed off one another. The cycle is begun almost instantly. Often we don’t know which came first, the thoughts or the feelings.
Physically, you might experience sensations such as dry mouth, sweaty palms, the need to urinate, rapid heart rate, butterflies in the stomach, or yawning. Mentally, you might feel confused, tend to forget details, or be irritable, aka “black brain cloud”. You’ll begin to doubt yourself, compare yourself to the other competitors, and engage in a lot of negative self-talk. At this point, you are in full fight or flight mode. You are also likely transmitting your anxiety to your horse, who has no idea why cutting cows at home is so much fun and cutting them at the show is such a stress-festival.
What about those top performers who appear to have ice water running through their veins? Are they immune to all this? Not at all. Elite athletes tend to experience physical signs of anxiety, but not mental ones. They sometimes report extreme physical signs of anxiety, yet still perform exceptionally well. Because they are able to maintain their mental focus, they tell themselves that the physical feelings are just part of being “psyched up” to perform their best. They are able to step out of the mind/body anxiety spiral, and re-channel the anxiety in a positive way. They are actually able to anchor positive thoughts to the physical sensations. They take them as a sign that they are excited and ready to perform their best.
Here are 3 key tips to top performers use to get a handle on their nerves:
1.Practice visualization. Beginning about three weeks before your next competition, spend a few minutes each day practicing a detailed visualization of your performance. Bring all five senses into the experience, adding as many details as possible. Mentally rehearse every step of your ride, without rushing through any parts.
Studies have shown that this type of mental rehearsal creates a “neural blueprint” for your next performance. Your muscles actually activate and fire during focused visualization—obviously not as strongly as when you actually ride your horse, but enough to create muscle memory for the movements you want to perform.
Visualization is a great way to address the nagging doubts you have about your trainer getting more saddle time on your horse than you do. While visualization cannot replace riding your horse, it can greatly enhance your riding.
2. When the nerves hit on show day, practice deep abdominal breathing, in and out through your nose. This is a bit different from some advice you may have heard about breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, or just “taking a deep breath.”
I recommend breathing in and out through the nose because the mind-body connection is governed in part by your vagal nerve, which runs from your brain to your belly. When you breathe in rapid, shallow breaths, it signals the vagus to produce chemicals like adrenaline, which revs you up for fight or flight.
This rapid, shallow breathing also starves your brain of oxygen, making it more likely that you will space out or forget what you are doing in the show pen. This is where the “black brain cloud” comes in.
When you take deep breaths in and out through your nose, it stimulates the vagal nerve in a different way, signaling the release of a chemical called acetylcholine, which produces feelings of calm and focus. Breathing this way resets your brain chemistry, opening the door for you to be able to take control of what’s going on.
Take at least 4 deep breaths in and out through your nose. Breathe deeply—think about filling your lower belly with air, then expanding your ribcage, and finally your chest. Inhale for a 4 to 6 count, and exhale for the same count or longer. Exhale by collapsing your lower belly first, as if you were going to touch your belly button to your spine. Push the air out from the “bottom up.”
3. Now that you’ve reset your body, reset your mind. Interrupt the negative thoughts with a short phrase such as “Stop!” or “No!” Say to yourself, “I don’t think like that anymore.”
Now, give yourself some positive instructions for your run. They should be short and always positively stated. “Cut aggressively.” “When I leave my hand down, my horse stays committed.”
If you are worried about your trainer riding your horse more than you do, you can tell yourself “My horse is really tuned up today. We are ready to show!”
A pro tip here: You’ll want to avoid “don’t” statements, such as “don’t spur him past the cow,” or “don’t take my eyes off the cow.” Our brains are actually wired to drop the “don’t”, so what you will remember is “spur him past the cow” or “take my eyes off the cow.” Definitely NOT the mojo you want working just before your run.
Now, your mind-body communication cycle has gone from negative to positive. This is the first step toward creating the conditions for a great ride. Keep in mind that you will likely repeat this process many times during your warm-up, and even as you are riding into the show pen. It’s likely that you will hit panic mode and calm yourself down only to spaz out again 5 minutes later. This is very much a “lather, rinse, repeat” process, so it’s important that you stick with it. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not realistic to believe that you can totally banish your nerves. In fact, you need them to have a great performance. You just need to have a bit more control over them. Once you have calmed down and gotten some positive vibes going, tell yourself “This is how I feel when I’m getting ready to do my best.” This is how you begin to train your mind to perceive nervousness as a sensation of excitement and anticipation, instead of impending doom.
Top athletes use these techniques to get the results they want. One of my clients refers to this 3-step process as her “secret weapon.” It’s helped her handle the mental stress of some big finals classes at major shows.
I hope this helps you along your journey to being a top competitor!
Okay, I lied, June C. Stevens is not a highly intelligent unicorn,
she is a highly intelligent mindset coach that is human, with a lot of glitter
June Stevens, of Sharper Focus Performance Coaching, is a mindset coach for sports and health. She is a different kind of "personal trainer" - she helps people develop the mindset to succeed, and teaches them the strategies they need to make it happen. She works with riders all over the country who want to succeed. She says that getting the most out of your horse-life isn't a "happy accident." It's the result of a strategic approach.