From Intimation to Inspiration
Timmie Pollock, Ph. D , C.C. – AASP
Equestrian Athlete Sport Psychologist
If “just do it” doesn’t work for you, here’s expert advice on overcoming your anxiety. You’ve decided that this is the year you’re going to get serious about showing, and today’s the day.
You arrive at the show grounds and unload your horse. As you look around, you are suddenly gripped with the thought: “What am I doing here? Everyone else looks so good; they all seem to know what they’re doing.”
You gulp and decide to stick it out. You check in at the show office, only to learn that several well-known professionals will be showing their young horses in your class. A wave of fear rushes over you. “I’m going to look really bad riding against all those great riders.” You think. You begin to dream up creative reasons to scratch and go home. Even if you get out there ride, what will you do if your horse is spooky or just has a bad day?
These are just some of the ways riders talk themselves into being too intimidated to show, or even just to ride in a clinic with a famous trainer. I recently overheard a group of students talking with their trainer about plans for the upcoming show season. They were deciding who would be going to the various shows, which level each would show at and which would ride each horse.
Intimidation is a form of performance anxiety. There are two basic kinds of fear. One is fear of physical injury; the other is fear of emotional injury. Assuming you are not afraid of your horse, intimidation is directly related to the fear of emotional injury. Specifically, it’s about looking bad, not measuring up, embarrassing yourself or opening yourself up to criticism from others.
Intimidation often stops a person from even trying a new situation. It is important to understand that, any time you try something new, you are expanding your comfort zone. When you do so, it is completely normal for you to feel uncomfortable in some way. For some people, the feeling of stretching one’s limits or “pushing the envelope” is exciting. For others, it can be terrifying. Most of us fall somewhere in between. However, one thing is for certain: Systematically challenging your fears is always worthwhile and will result in increased self confidence. What’s more, most people think that they must already possess courage in order to act courageously. In fact, the opposite is true: When we act courageously, we develop courage.
HOW TO DEVELOP COURAGE
- Recall your successes.
Realize that it’s not the other people or the event that is intimidating you; usually, what you’re feeling is your own expectations for some sort of negative outcome. In other words, your fear of failure is what’s really frightening you. Keeping this in mind, the first thing to do is to start “collecting” your successes. Make a list of all the successes you’ve had in your life, both in and out of the saddle. All of these things were once new, challenging or a little scary to you. You managed to do them anyway. We tend to forget how intimidating such events were at the time because they generally become easy or routine after we’ve taken the plunge.
Go back in time as far as you need to. Write each success on an index card and carry the cards with you, reviewing them until they are permanently etched on your brain. You need to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are capable of success.
- Know why you show (or train).
Clarify for yourself why you want to show, move from schooling shows to recognized shows or ride in a particular clinic. If you understand your reasoning and have a clear set of goals, you will help define what you seek to accomplish through this undertaking.
- Worry only about what you can control.
When you set goals, choose ones that you can control. You have no control over the weather, your horse’s reaction to a new setting, who else is in your class, the judge’s mood or the time of day that you are scheduled to ride. You can however control how well turned out you and your horse is, your warm-up and preparations routines and (at least to some extent) the riding of the test itself. No matter where you place in a class, if you accomplish even a 75% of these “performance goals” you have been successful. Confidence comes from the accumulation of these smaller achievements.
- Learn to focus.
If you improve your ability to focus, you will help to overcome feelings of intimidation because you will gain control over your eyes, ears and thoughts. Decide what you need to focus on in order to keep your confidence up. For example, don’t watch others warm up if you think you might compare yourself unfavorably. Don’t listen to scores being announced if that makes yo nervous. Some people need to calm down before they compete and find it helpful to listen to soothing music. Others do better to “get pumped” by turning on energizing, upbeat tunes. Use positive self-talk, such as “I can do this” or “This is an exciting new challenge.”
- Monitor your inner voice.
To overcome feelings of intimidation, you must increase your awareness of how you talk to yourself. Believe it or not, most of what you are feeling is caused by what you are saying to yourself and may have very little to do with reality. For instance, it may be true that professionals will be showing against you; but does that necessarily mean that you will look bad? Do you react to such situations by telling yourself, “stay calm; I’m doing OK; this is a little scary but I can handle it” or by thinking, “For Pete’s sake, you fool, everyone knows you’re incompetent; just get through this and get out of her”? Which one feels better? Learn to be at least nice to yourself as you would be to your best friend.
Confident people can make mistakes-or even do something dumb or embarrassing-and can brush them off or even laugh at themselves. No matter where your confidence level is right now you can build it by learning to push yourself forward, a little at a time. Consistently take on small to moderate challenges, not overwhelming ones. Try not to compare yourself to anyone else and give yourself credit for all of your accomplishments. Soon you may even begin to enjoy the process.
Show me a person who has never made a mistake, and I’ll show you someone who has never really accomplished anything.
Now get out there and ride!
Dr. Pollock is a Clinical and Sport Psychologist based in La Jolla, California. She has worked exclusively with equestrian athletes from all disciplines of riding for over 20 years. In her practice she uses a variety of techniques including biofeedback, hypnosis, EMDR and TFT in addition to the basics of mental skills training.
Dr. Pollock is a lifelong horse owner, breeder, and rider and has competed for over twenty-five years, primarily in dressage. She has also competed in Hunter/Jumper and Eventing divisions as well. She can be found on her new equestrian athlete Sport Psychology at EQUExcellence.com