Q&A on Focus and Show Nerves

Questions:

  • In a competition, if you’ve messed up in a dressage move in a test or had a knock or a refusal at a jump, how can you train yourself not to fixate on what went wrong, and focus on what’s ahead? I find I can get distracted by what just went wrong, which negatively affects my riding. So instead of having one bad move and moving on, I end up with a bunch of mediocre movements after the error, too! 
  • How do I become more in the now? I always say I am not looking back, but I don’t actually think I am fully present with myself and in the now.
  • What is the best advice to help me focus 100% on my horse and what I’m doing whilst competing, instead of worrying about what others might be thinking or saying?
  • I have a problem with focus when I ride, especially whilst competing – my mind wanders off on its own!
  • How do I get myself to ride the movements of my test and stop worrying about what the next movement is?  I do it perfectly at home, but when at a show I seem to forget how to ride the movement correctly and am just riding for the halt at the end.
  • How do I work on making myself react quicker when I am having an issue when riding or jumping a course?
  • What is the best way to control my nerves before a competition, I tend to overthink quite a lot?

Answer:

Questions about focus can have many different facets to them.  Let’s briefly look at a few.

Preparation pre-event:  I’ve spoken to many clients who tell me their prep for an important event is often to not think about it until the last possible minute, because they are worried they will psyche themselves out too much, or get too nervous in the days before the event.  The result is often predictable: they forget to pack an important item of tack, run late and rush around frantically trying to borrow things at the last minute.  It sounds obvious, but this is NOT the most conducive way to hone your focus skills.  Spending time every day before your event visualising how you want things to go, and seeing yourself riding in a calm and professional manner can really help you to build confidence in yourself.  Also, scientifically, your brain doesn’t differentiate between imagining your ride, and actually riding the ride.  So by the time you come to the ride, your brain thinks you’re an old hand at it, and this really helps your confidence.  Also, make a list of all the items you need, and plan when and how you’re going to pack them.

At the event:

Whether it’s a show, or a clinic, or an important lesson, it’s really worth spending some time beforehand reminding yourself about what you can and can’t control.  Things outside your realm of control include: the weather, who is watching you, dogs running into the arena,  plastic bags flying around, other competitors, who the judge is, etc.  Remind yourself that you need to focus on the things you can control:  being on time, your energy level, your position and use of aids, your performance goals, how you communicate to others.  Start noticing when you get side-tracked by worrying about something that is out of your control, and gently remind yourself to substitute this thought with something you can control.  (“I’m worried my horse will spook if those people move around too much” becomes “ I’m going to concentrate on my seat and leg aids as I go around that corner to make sure my horse is paying attention to me and focused on the next jump/movement”)

In the moment:

Using cue words and checkpoints during your ride can bring you back to the present moment and remind you in that moment what your goals are for the ride.  If you tend to look down and forget to ride forward in a dressage test, for example, you can use a cue like, “open and free” to remind yourself to look up and kick on.  You may decide to use the four corners of the dressage arena as checkpoints to say those words to yourself. 

Whatever your personal challenge with focus, it is worth paying some attention to things that both help and hinder your ability to stay in the present moment, or the “zone”, as athletes call that place from which they produce peak performances.  The more you practice a “soft focus”, where you are able to notice things happening around you, without getting caught up in them; the more your ability to stay present and react quickly to changes in your horse’s performance will improve.

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