CONTROLLING SHOW NERVES, OR SHOW NERVES CONTROLLING YOU?
Show nerves are not uncommon and they can deter a rider’s performance as quickly as a horse spooking. Show nerves can affect even very seasoned competitors, causing them to lose focus, awareness, and confidence. While all competitive equestrians would likely agree that without controlling and managing a horse spooking, performance will be impaired, they may not spend as much time attending to their own performance anxiety. A rider’s performance anxiety may not be as obvious as a horse spooking; however, it is no less damaging to competitive performance. There are several reasons for this. Unabated anxiety can cause the rider’s attention al style to change, memory to decline, and confidence levels to plummet. Not only can an unrestricted amount of anxiety cause cognitive changes, but many physical changes, such as impairments in proprioception (sense of body parts in space), balance, coordination, and reaction time occurs as well. Riding is not known as a slow moving sport, so clearly, impairments in things such as reaction time can have a catastrophic effect on performance. Failing to make an important adjustment to a fence, or falling to cue accurately for a tempi change can both be results of impaired reaction time. So how is a rider to tell if show nerves are controlling her, or they control her?
To answer this question, first consider these: Do you ever feel that your performance declines when you go to a horse show? Do you ever feel that the errors you make at a horse show are not errors that you would make at home? If you answered yes to either of these questions, then you m ay benefit from the information in this article.
Let’s first look at the different effects that unabated anxiety can have on a rider’s performance. In order to be clear, I am using the term unabated to describe both the type and the amount of the anxiety. To be sure, anxiety in itself, is not a bad thing, unabated anxiety is. Unabated anxiety basically means anxiety that is not controlling, and thus overwhelming to the person. We all need a cer6tain level of anxiety in order to perform. Each individual has a specific level of anxiety at which she performs to the best of her ability. Below this level, boredom ensues, and above this level, performance errors increase. In either case, performance declines. So it is therefore important for a rider’s to be able to identify her specific level of anxiety at which she performs best. Riders often make the mistake of thinking that all anxiety is bad, and trying very hard to reduce their anxiety, instead of harnessing it to actually improve their performance. So now tat we know what unabated anxiety is, let’s look at what actually happens to performance when anxiety is unabated.
One of the first things we notice when a rider’s anxiety is unabated is that her attentional style will change. Attentional style is the rider’s specific method of focusing. Some rider’s employ a broad attentional style, that tends to look at the big picture, while missing the minute details, while other’s a narrow attentional style, focusing very intently on one or more small details of the performance while missing the larger picture. Every rider has a specific attentional style that is most commonly used in learning and performing. While this style can be somewhat flexible during the learning and performing process, each rider will have one that they tend to use more than the other. When anxiety levels become too high, the rider’s attentional style will change. For example, the rider that typically rides the horse very straight to the fences, may fail to keep the horse straight, as she has lost focus of this small detail (narrow attentional style), and instead is focusing on maintaining a consistent pace around the course (broad attentional style). Or conversely, the riders who normally is very good at maintaining a consistent pace around the course (broad), may miss that the horse is speeding up, as she is focusing on the fence right in front of her (narrow). So when a rider’s attentional style changes, her performance changes from what is normal for her. This can be particularly damaging because the rider may not be aware that her attentional style has changed, i.e.: she may not realize that she has become fixated on a fence, and lost her consistent pace. Therefore, learning your specific attentional style, and the ways that anxiety can change it is integral to learning to control your attentional style, and indirectly, your anxiety level.
While attentional style can have a very pervasive effect on a rider’s performance, a indirect, and often more noticeable, effect of unabated anxiety are impairments in memory. We have all witnessed the rider that misses a jump, goes off course, or forgets a part of her dressage test. These are all effects of memory impairments. When anxiety levels are too high, the amount of activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain is too high to support the process of memory. An example of this is trying to memorize a phone number while carrying on a conversation. While you may recite the number to yourself and retain the information for 10-30 seconds, as soon as the conversation is over, you have lost the number. The reason for this is that the activity in the prefrontal cortex, used for planning, inhibition, and memory, is preoccupied with carrying on a conversation. Carrying on a conversation involves both planning (what you are going to say) and inhibiting (what you think, but do not say), which takes the brain away from the task of retaining the phone number you are trying to remember. So, much like when carrying on a conversation, in the case of anxiety, the brain is preoccupied with both the tasks of planning and inhibition. When anxiety levels are too high, we begin to predict the future, and make plans accordingly. For example, we may think, “The horse is going to spook at the flowers in the corner, and I’d better keep my left leg on”. Both of these thoughts involve planning and inhibition, and may damage memory. Therefore, the rider described above may be so preoccupied with planning for the horse to spook, and inhibiting responses to the spook, that she forgets that she is supposed to ride the diagonal line out of the corner, not the straight line. So becoming aware of the specific way that anxiety works to increase the amount of predicting and planning for the future, can be integral in helping the rider to address her anxiety, and improve her memory. Learning to notice the increases in predicting and planning immediately can also help the rider identify her specific level of anxiety at which she performs best. Without a certain amount of planning and predicting, she will be ineffective as a rider, however, with too much planning and predicting, her memory will be impaired, and performance will decline.
While both attentional style and memory impairments can have significant, and immediate effects on performance, a perhaps more insidious, and lasting, effect on performance is noticed when the rider’s confidence levels decline. Declining confidence levels can have many effects on a rider’s performance, and maybe the most prominent is that they cause the rider to lose trust in herself. When this happens, she may begin to second guess herself, and ride indecisively. An example of this is the rider who plans a particular ride to a fence, let’s say a forward ride, and then changes her mind, collects the horse’s stride, and then changes her mind again, pushes the horse forward, does not make the distance, and chips at the fence. We have all witnessed this, and the result of this indecisiveness can be as small as a chip, or as large as a refusal and a fall. Whether the result is minor or major, indecisive riding causes the rider to continue to lose trust in herself. The more this happens, the more trust she will lose, and the more indecisive she will ride. Loss of confidence can be a vicious cycle, causing a downward spiral in riding performance. Tasks that were once very simple now seem overwhelming. Surely, we have all heard even very good rider’s bemoaning things like, “I can’t even do a lead change right.” Losing confidence and doubting oneself can not only make the simplest tasks difficult, but can also cause the rider to lose enjoyment in riding. Once this happens, correcting the rider’s confidence level is essential. Without a healthy confidence level, fear of failure will take over, and it will be impossible for the rider to enjoy riding. In order to address a loss in confidence, it is therefore imperative that the rider notice her indecisiveness immediately. If she finds herself changing her mind on her way to a fence, or while performing a dressage movement, she should address this immediately. Noticing indecisiveness as it happens, will help her prevent further losses in confidence, and beging to ride more decisively again. Not only this, she will most likely enjoy riding more, when she is more confident.
Enjoying riding is the underlying goal of all that we as equestrians do. While showing can be thrilling and rewarding in many ways, show nerves can make the experience overwhelming and unpleasant. The difference between these two extremes is whether or not the rider is controlling her show nerves, or they are controlling her. Learning to notice the changes in attentional style, memory, and confidence and address them immediately will help the rider manage her anxiety, to improve her performance, and enjoy her riding more.