QUESTION: Hi Jane, I find warming up in a busy area (particularly showjumping) quite off putting! Any ideas on how to calm nerves as obviously it’s a situation that I cannot avoid or change!
The beauty of competition and the situation that you are describing is that you know that it is coming, and as a result, you can plan for it in advance. There are two strands that I would pay attention to in this instance; the first is how to create a mental fitness plan that will fortify you against the pressures and distractions created by the competition environment. The second is developing awareness and understanding of the breath so you can consciously work with it to effectively manage nerves and anxiety.
Managing the warm up ring is obviously not something that is within our control; the only thing thatis within our control is what is going on inside our heads. When we immerse ourselves in a competitive environment, the emotions, pressures and distractions of everything around us becomes interspersed with what is going on inside our minds. When these two forces combine, any number of potential scenarios can result. Depending on our mental skills base, what manifests on the outside would be anxiety, fear, or loss of focus- or it could be confidence and clarity. It all comes down to the ability to consistently direct your focus in a way that empowers you and have the mental strength and skills that will enable you to harness the energy and use it to your advantage.
In order to do this, we need to develop a mental training plan that builds the muscles of our mind in the same way that we pay attention to our physical preparation. Just as you would visit the gym, or hire a personal trainer to create optimal physical fitness, creating the type of mental strength we need to deal effectively with competition requires some pre-training and pre-planning. You get out what you put in. Expecting to ride and perform at your optimum without training your mental muscles means that you are launching off an unstable foundation; sometimes it will work and sometimes it won’t.
Secondly, working with and consciously controlling your breath will yield instantaneous results if you are dealing with an acute bout of nerves! Whenever we are experiencing a stress response, we are in what is known as sympathetic dominance- our nervous system flicks into fight or flight mode and we experienced an array of physical and mental symptoms as a result (a nervous tummy, dry mouth, sweaty palms to name a few!). The inhalation portion of the breath is linked to our sympathetic nervous system, whilst the exhalation is linked to the parasympathetic nervous system. Consequently, we want to work with a breath that allows us to move into parasympathetic arousal- meaning we need to focus primarily on the exhalation.
The 1:2 breath ratio is one of my favourite techniques that I share with riders. In practical terms this means that if you have an inhalation of 4 counts, you want your exhalation to be 8 counts. If you have an inhalation of 6 counts, your exhalation will be 12 counts. You are doubling the length of your inhalation comparative to your exhalation. You can use this breath technique as part of a pre-warm up ritual, or as a means to redirect your focus and calm your nerves in the warm up ring.