My anxiety around competition was never really just about competition. It was a fear of the unknown, of lack of control, of new things. It started when I was a small child and if I was anxious about something I would feel sick and nervous. Things like exams, trying new things, bus trips. Over time it got worse and I was anxious before things I was actually looking forward to. The anxiety in turn caused illness as I have a sensitive stomach anyway so it got to the point that I was anxious of being anxious. I missed a lot of things because of it – sleep overs, the first day of pony camp, scouting trips. I was afraid to look forward to anything. My poor mother was tormented by it and had the patience of a saint at times especially when it came to high stress events such as the leaving cert (which I did on three Valium and about seven packs of polo mints a day). I managed miraculously to compete on horses as a teenager and adult. It was hard going – I used to meditate on the way over to try and calm myself down (yeah I was the odd ball), couldn’t eat and would be white as a sheet before a competition and exhausted afterwards.
As an adult things didn’t improve hugely. In 2003 at the Dublin Horseshow I only made it on to the horse thanks to the mentor I had with me (to be honest I probably wouldn’t have competed in pony or riding club at all only for her support.) I was so nervous the morning of the championships as I was riding a mare who had thrown me off at a qualifier. In an attempt to keep me occupied I was brought to some of the games stands. I was to throw a dart at a balloon but unfortunately my hands were so shaky that I missed the stall owners head by inches and was asked to stop. We went on to win the team championship which was fantastic but I was exhausted by the stress in the run up to it.
The truth is once I was on the horse and in the ring I was fine. I always excelled as an underdog and would ride any horse that was known to be a bit quirky or difficult as I felt some affinity with them. I never ever failed to deliver when under severe pressure on teams or at championships. In fact I tended to perform best when I was up against it and my determination was usually what got me around. Ironically my issue wasn’t my riding when it came down to it and once my bum hit the saddle I would feel some odd sense of calm. It is the reason my mentor allowed me to compete her horses in spite of my anxiety about it – she knew I would be fine once I was in the ring. My issue was the days and weeks heading up to the event and the dull ache in my stomach and sleepless nights were taking their toll on me – I would be dreading what others looked forward to. Afterwards I was always exhausted – adrenaline rushes followed by relief and then crash afterwards are not fun.
I didn’t compete in show jumping for years as the waiting around was just torture on my head and stomach. I managed to compete at showing and dressage as these tend to run a little more to time. It is only in the last 3 years that I have managed to get all of this under control. I am back competing, not at any great heights or levels but as an all-rounder and finally starting to enjoy it again. What made me write this post was a comment from a friend on how I looked ‘very composed’ at a recent competition. I was amused as under the surface the composed swan was pedalling like f**k to stay afloat! However it was this comment that made me realise that I am finally winning the war against worrying. The fact that someone talking to me didn’t think I was mentally incapacitated or in need of sedation was great news. What made me write this piece was something else, I have seen a few posts online from friends recently and have had people say to me about being nervous. It is totally normal to be nervous – it is fine to be nervous and it is good to talk about it. The points below are things that massively helped me when I was struggling and they still help me today. They may not and probably will not work for everyone but I hope it will be of help to some.
- Understand what you are afraid of
When you say you are nervous or anxious before competition people tend to misunderstand and incorrectly assume that you are afraid of doing badly or not winning or of falling off. The trigger for anxiety is different for everyone and you can only try and understand your own. For me I am not afraid of the result what I am afraid of is a) not being good enough and b) the physical effects of being anxious and how to deal with them. The not being good enough doubt is one that haunts me throughout my life so it isn’t specific to competition but as I am someone who always wants to give 100%, to do my best and not to fail it is highlighted in competition or exam situations. I have several qualifications that I would love to do but the fear of failing the exam or test has to date prevented me from doing so. In terms of competing with horses, now that I understand what I am actually afraid of, I am more able to manage it. I have also realised and learned that being nervous is not a sign of weakness – in fact it is often a sign of respect for the task ahead. Say what you like about nervous riders but one thing I am never ever guilty of is underestimating what I have to do.
- Be yourself
The truth is I am naturally a bit high. I think fast and talk fast and when I am bricking it I am either suspiciously silent or chattering like a toddler after three cans of coke. If friends or family head off for an hour and are gone for three and don’t answer the phone ill assume they have been murdered by a serial killer or been in an accident. I can read an average book in a day as my brain just goes that fast all the time, I cant help it. I cant write legibly but can type so fast that my colleagues in work laugh when I don’t leave the mic on mute in a conference call as they can hear me rapidly banging the keyboard. If I am flying somewhere ill be utterly convinced that ill miss the bloody plane until im strapped into my seat ordering drink. I am naturally anxious and alert and thinking ahead. I refuse to beat myself up about it. Trust me if a disaster happens you want me there. It is one of the reasons I volunteered to be a first aider in work and on the yard – sure I’ve already imagined the worst scenarios so I know what to do!
- If there is a physical problem, address it
My stomach was always my main complaint ever since I was a child. I was diagnosed at one point with IBS which explains why it goes bananas if I emotionally am not feeling good. I also in the past year got food intolerance testing done which has really helped as I know what I should avoid. I have found that if I can manage my diet before an event I am less likely to have issues before or at an event. I also carry a pack of medication with me everywhere in my handbag with painkillers and tablets for my stomach. Having these to hand makes me feel better. My family has asthma on both sides so it is no surprise that when my allergies (im allergic to grass pollen, tree pollen and dust so basically my ideal environment would be a bubble) flair up my breathing isn’t great. I carry an inhaler with me and give one to whoever is with me in case I need it. I usually don’t need it but know it is there gives huge peace of mind. Oh and toilet roll – always pack toilet roll people. When you are literally shitting it you need it.
- Over prepare (but don’t over cook).
I have a saying in life that you can simply never be over prepared or overdressed. If like me you worry about not being good enough to do something then train yourself to be proficient at more than what you need to do. Years ago I studied for my BHS exams and was worried sick that I failed Stage 2 (I hadn’t). So my trainer at the time trained me to stage 4 level for the stage 3 (he did not tell me this beforehand). It meant that when I was in the stable management exam for stage 3 it was easier than expected so I felt capable and confident. I took the same approach recently when I wanted to start back eventing. I trained every week for months doing dressage lessons and travelling to every cross country schooling track we could find. Knowing that I had done absolutely everything I could to prepare in training increased my confidence in what I wanted to do in competition. I have said don’t over cook because people sometimes tend to do too much for too long on a horse when they are stressed before something – this isn’t the same thing and won’t work. Give yourself time – weeks – months to prepare for what you need to do.
- Get the right trainer
I worked with the same mentor since I was in my teens. She has always believed in me and was the hand on my back whenever I wobbled. Always she says ‘you can do it’, ‘go and do it’ and in extreme circumstances ‘stop talking now and just go and do it’.
This year I also started dressage lessons with someone that I had so much admiration for that I was afraid to go to her for lessons for years in case I wasn’t good enough – this was fairly stupid logic on my part. A few lessons in and she looked me in the eye and said that my problem was my fear of failing or of not being able to ride a movement which in turn was tensing my body and making me unable to ride the movement. That’s the difference between just teaching and really coaching. Anyone can teach you the aids to ride a movement – a coach can get inside your head and tell you why you are not riding the movement. Trying to hide something from a really good coach is like playing poker with a card shark, they miss nothing. How she doesn’t kill me some weeks I don’t know but she perseveres and so will I. That’s the other thing about the right trainer /coach/mentor – they care how it goes, they care about your achievements and they care about you.
- Surround yourself with the right people
Someone I know says this to me all the time and they are right. A few years back when I was still paralytic with nerves before any competition I was competing a four year old pony in Dublin. My friend Aoife gave me a bed close to the showgrounds for the night before the show, she got up at 5am to go with me, she waited patiently while I went to the toilet about seventeen times before I left the house, she baked banana muffins because she knew I wouldn’t eat much else and when the time came to it she legged me up and told me I could do it. That’s the sort of people you need with you so seek them out and value them. Last weekend I was in the same boat I had someone coaching me in the warm up, someone cheering me on as I rode and someone Facebooking me to see how I was getting on and wishing me luck.
- Avoid the wrong people
This includes passive aggressive people, begrudgers and me feinners. A simple guide is to see how people react to the positive and negative events in your life. There are some people who will be great support when everything is going wrong but who won’t want to see you getting above yourself or out of your box by doing too well. People who can be happy for you when you are up are more valuable than those who are only happy to help you when you are down.
At competitions this also involves steering clear of people who love drama and negative people. The last thing you need when walking a course is hearing people saying how many people have stopped at X fence, how awful the filler is or how wrong a stride is. This doesn’t help.
- Stay busy
Having time to do nothing or having to wait around is rarely a good thing if you are worried. What I have found really helps is to create a list of tasks for yourself and keep moving from one to the other. Keep your hands and your head busy. I do this the morning of every competition and while it might seem insane to only give myself enough time to get everything done I find that if I get myself into gear and work through tasks one at a time I am busy and occupied and in the jeep ready to go before I have had time to worry.
- Take what works for you
There are shelves in natural health stores filled with various concoctions to calm you down or boost you up. What works depends on the person. What I absolutely swear by is a very inexpensive homeopathic remedy called ‘Argent Nit’ often prescribed for people with a fear of the unknown and a nervous stomach. This instantly freezes my stomach and clears my mind. Now here is the thing – people love to hate homeopathy and I have a pain in my face being told ‘oh its nonsense and only works in your head’. Let me clarify – I really really don’t care how or why it works for me I just care that it works. The problem is all in my head in the first place so if that solution lies there too what’s the issue? I really think we should never underestimate the placebo affect or the power of the mind. If it works for you take it and tell pass remarkable people to feck off, it’s your business. *on this note though I know people joke about dutch courage but getting half locked and competing really isn’t smart and won’t help you. **turning up really really hungover isn’t a good plan either, I tested that out years ago.
- Eat What you can
For years I wouldn’t eat anything before I competed at all. My friend Jandy and I had our first proper argument the infamous burger bustup a few years ago when she tried to feed me a burger in the summer heat before I had to ride side saddle on a big moving horse. I was trying to keep my head and couldn’t ride with a burger bouncing around inside me where as she was just concerned that I was pale and hadn’t eaten. What I have realised is that the problem is you need energy to compete and you owe it to your horse and yourself to be able to give it your best. Riding on a totally empty stomach is unfair to the horse as you simply haven’t the energy to give your all. Bananas are one of the best foods to get into you before competing. The potassium helps reduce muscle cramps and bananas will help your stomach if it is bad before you compete. If you really can’t eat much jelly sweets will give you a fairly quick boost of sugar energy and lucozade or glucose drinks will do the same. I swear by bananas and Lucozade personally.
- Visualise Success
One of the best ever pieces of advice I ever got about competing was from a gentleman called Tony Cox who taught us in pony club. He told us that to really know a course you had to go off by yourself for a minute, visualise yourself in the ring riding each fence and if you could see it all clearly then you knew your course, I do this every single time I jump SJ or XC. I just play a film in my head of me and the horse riding every stride. It is really calming and really helps to keep you on target. It also avoids ‘forgetting your course’ stress. For dressage, the night before as I am going to sleep I visualise myself riding the test a stride at a time around the arena. I am totally left and right dyslexic so I cannot learn off instructions or god help the judge I will be facing the wrong way so If I learn the test as a pattern to ride I don’t go wrong I just ride it a few times in my head the same as I would a course.
- Ride the right horses
Over the years I often rode horses or ponies who were a little quirky or required a lot of leg or encouragement but I love being the underdog and I knew if I got in and went for it it was achievable. They often weren’t the scopiest in the world but we never over faced ourselves and always always they were safe. I wanted to do more so I bought my own horse last year. He was green, he was uneducated and he was bolshy but he is safe and genuine. By contrast I do sometimes see people out on horses where they are genuinely afraid – either of having no brakes and crashing, of bad napping or rearing or of nasty stopping. There is no need in life to ride a (horse or human!) asshole. Get off and get on something genuine. We are amateurs not professionals and this is meant to be fun and achievable. If you work hard at a day job to afford to have a horse then make sure you have a good one – it costs as much to keep a bad one as a good one.
- Rip it off like a bandage
Anyone who knows me knows this is one of my favourite phrases. You can have all the preparation done, the best trainer, the best horse, the best team and the best plan but at some point it is sh*t or get off the pot time. Last year I had show jumped at 90cm for 20 years. I’d ride a donkey around 90 but a metre god no I was sick at the thought. So I did the training and the prep and everything else and still didn’t compete at a metre. So one day I gave myself no time to think or worry – I loaded the horse and went off by myself to a local SJI competition. I got on the horse, looked at the 90cm course, warmed up, jumped it and went straight back in and jumped the metre. I hadn’t even walked the course (I wouldn’t recommend this, I did mean to walk it at 90). It was such a tiny insignificant thing to anyone there but it was a huge personal achievement for me.
A friend thought I was mental and said he would have come with me. The thing is though I had to do it myself for myself. The only thing at that stage that was stopping me was me. I’d literally no excuse left not to do it. I had the horse, the training, the prep and the support but I needed to give myself a kick up the @rse and actually go and do it. I did it a few times and got confident. I fell off doing it a few months later and that really knocked my confidence and gradually I did it again. I am still horrified by showjumping and find it hard and dread jumping outside of my 90cm comfort zone but I know I can do it I just have to make myself. At the end of the day the only person who can make you do something is you.
I know Ill always be a worrier but now I control it rather than it controlling me
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