Winter is often a period of downtime for riders, but for some the focus on competition goals continues throughout the winter season. With the Baileys Horse Feeds JAS & JT Championship and the BD Winter Regionals fast approaching in February, you may be one of those riders preparing to compete at a championship event. It’s natural that these types of events create pressure because competitions are designed to test your skill and ability. In sports psychology, we call competitions “open environments” because your performance is open to judgement and assessment by others.

It is the increased pressure of the competition environment – being tested, watched and assessed – which causes an increase in riders stress level, which often leads to nerves and anxiety. This impacts rider performance as an increased stress level means many riders are unable to ride as well at competition as they do at home or in training.
Learning how to cope with pressure is essential for rider confidence and performance at competition. Your mindset is crucial in helping you deal with pressure and respond positively rather than descending into a negative spiral of nerves and stress. Because how you think affects the way you feel and the way you feel affects the way you ride.

So how can you cope when the pressure is on? There are two main types of coping strategy that make riders more calm and resilient under pressure:
1. Change your perception to reduce the pressure you feel
2. Change your response so you can reduce your stress level and control how you respond under pressure.
These are fundamentally simple strategies; the secret to success is how you put them in to practise. How you apply these strategies will depend on your mindset, your horse and your preferred routiines/rituals at competitions. It’s often difficult to work out how best to apply these strategies, so here are my top tips:

Early intervention: whilst you may feel pressure is most intense when you arrive at the competition, it is often the build-up to the competition that creates nerves, anxiety and stress. Thinking about what the competition means to you in the days and weeks leading up to the competition often creates a feeling of pressure. It’s also very common for riders to start worrying about what might go wrong or worrying about some of the uncertainties of the competition environment, e.g. what the warm-up will be like, what your horse might spook at. The earlier you notice pressure building, the more able you’ll be to deal with it. Using a relaxation technique or focusing on your preparation for the competition will help alleviate pre-competition nerves and anxiety.

Manage your expectations: often riders feel under pressure because of the expectations they impose on themselves. Many of the riders I work with describe themselves as perfectionists and in a competition environment, the drive for perfection can create overwhelming pressure. Riders start focusing on mistakes and what isn’t going well rather than focusing on staying in the moment and riding positively. So it’s important to make sure you have realistic and reasonable expectations of yourself.
I also recommend you set a clear goal. When I ask riders about what they want to achieve at competition, many of them will tell me that they want to do well. This is a very vague statement which means it’s difficult to know immediately what you need to do to achieve it. Because its meaning is ambiguous – it could mean anything depending on what motivates you. For example, it could mean being placed or it could mean riding to the best of your ability. To help you set clearer goals, I recommend you imagine that you’re at the end of the competition and you’ve done well. Think about all the things that have happened that have made it a successful day. This will give you insights into what you want to achieve and therefore what your competition goals are.

Control your focus: this is crucial for managing pressure because whatever you consistently focus on you’ll get more of, so if you consistently worry about what might happen or worry about what you can’t control, that’s what you’ll get. Thinking negatively leads to negative focus which can make you feel under a lot of pressure when you compete. Controlling your focus so you consistently think about what you can control and what you want to happen will reduce pressure and make it more likely that you’ll ride positively and ride better. Because it will direct your focus on to the job you need to do as a rider and keep you grounded in the present moment. Which will make it easier to deal with pressure.

Plan and prepare: Thinking ahead about how you can deal with the uncertainties you may face at competition will help you feel more prepared and reduce pressure on the day. Many riders worry about what might go wrong and instead of mentally rehearsing for success, they mentally rehearse for problems. If this sounds familiar, then I recommend you think about what you can do to reduce the risk of something going wrong. For example, if you’re worried that your horse will nap when it’s time for you to ride from the warm-up to the arena to jump your round or ride your test, start thinking about what you can do to prevent that from happening or what coping strategy you can put in place if it does happen. If you’re worried about your horse spooking, start thinking about how you can keep your horse’s attention.

A great way to prepare for these types of challenges is to simulate them at home, in training or mentally rehearse them, imagining yourself riding positively and taking action that will get your horse focused on you. Planning ahead and preparing for the challenges you may face at competition is a good way to create more confidence and certainty, which will reduce pressure and help you stay focused.