I’m wondering why I can warm up for Show Jumping with no stress but get me in the ring and jumping a round and everything I know freezes and my brain shuts down! This happens particularly with heights of jumps I’m not yet truly comfortable with. I feel reasonably comfortable now with 1.05m, but
1.10m and above, I doubt my ability to meet the jumps at right stride. It is fine at home but when out competing the pressure comes on. What can I do about this?
Hi Jessie, thanks so much for your question! Interestingly, I was having a conversation around this particular topic tonight, and I was talking about how my approach has changed over the years from trying to apply solutions “in the moment” to looking to work with systems and plans that actually give you mental strength and allow you to deal with any outside pressures and distractions that may come up at any given moment.
There are two parts to it that I want to break up individually. The first and most obvious thing that springs to mind in relation to your question is the shift in focus that you will be experiencing in the warm-up compared to when you are out there in the ring actually competing, and this in turn affects your processes. Let me explain what I mean.
When you are warming up, you are primarily engaged in a training situation. Your focus may be on making sure that you are holding form over the jump, or that your striding is correct, that you have your horse in front of your leg; all of the processes and actions that you need to take care of to ensure that you and your horse are jumping to the best of your ability. If you make a mistake, then what most likely happens is you repeat the exercise and you look to correct it. In other words, everything that you focusing on is very much action based and within the realm of what you can control and what you can influence. You are dealing with what is directly in front of you and you aren’t getting too far ahead of yourself.
What commonly happens when you enter the ring, however, is your focus shifts; it moves from how do “I take this jump this in this particular moment” to “I want to get a clear round” or “I am looking to create “x” result”; obviously we may not be thinking precisely those words but in essence, our focus shifts from a very practical, process based platform, to a results and outcome based one. In doing so, we are directing our focus towards that which is outside of our control; obtaining a specific result or even getting a clear round is not something we can necessary control. Feeling the burn, our brain responds to the pressure in an unfavorable manner for the task at hand; on a physiological level, our body becomes adrenalized and consequently the part of our mind responsible for measured and rational thought is ignored in favor of the very primal parts that are revving up to get us out of the situation as quickly as possible. The need to have a good handle on your arousal state- your body and breath control- becomes really important at this point so you can maintain your heart and respiratory rate to a range that allows you to think clearly and easily.
On the flipside, what we CAN control are the specific actions or things that we need to pay attention to in order to maximize our chances of producing the result that we want- just as we were in the warm-up ring.
Secondly, you have highlighted that these feelings are particularly strong when it comes to dealing with heights that you aren’t totally comfortable with, which makes perfect sense. This is where we need to strategy, on the one hand to get you to a level where you feel confident jumping the heights you are referring to (so dealing directly with competency, skill level and time in the saddle at those heights) and then managing your emotional framework so that your self-talk, your focus and the way you are holding and using your body supports a confident mindset. The first is time dependent, but the second is able to be cultivated instantaneously provided you have the tools and are able to make an ongoing decision to constantly redirect your focus to the most empowering context.
I referred to the need to also create mental strength; to me this is the only way to deal with the ongoing pressure of competition, especially as you begin to move up the grades. Practices like focusing on what it is that you want as opposed to what it is that you are trying to avoid, ensuring your self-talk is positive and supportive, and reading or watching books or videos that motivate and inspire you on a daily basis all allow us to update our mental software and fortify us against outside pressures and distractions.
Thanks again for your question, I hope that helps!