Staying in the moment could make the difference between winning and losing

As a mental performance coach I often see dressage riders who are struggling to remember their test and to perform at their best when in the arena. They tell me it’s because of their nerves, but just what is it that causes us to forget the test and what can be done to make sure we remember it and make the difference between winning and losing?

I remember at the national dressage convention in 2012 a member of the audience asked Carl Hester how he controls his nerves, he looked rather bewildered and answered,

“I’m sorry I can’t help you with that, it’s not something I suffer from”.

This is very revealing, he was bewildered because at the time the question was asked he was absorbed in the training of the horse and he found it difficult to break out of that and talk about himself. It is likely that he doesn’t suffer with nerves for similar reasons; during a test he is absorbed with the partnership with his horse; reacting instinctively in the moment, he is operating completely in the present almost in a trance, performing at his very best. This is a common phenomenon for sports performers; they call it ‘the zone’. The zone can only be accessed from the present, as soon as the performer thinks beyond the moment their ability to continue to be at their very best is lost, they break out of the zone.

Dressage is a subjective sport, we invite judges to comment on our performance, this could be the very reason why riders experience anxieties or a loss of confidence. The rider forgets about all the hours of training and worries about what the judge will think, whether the horse will behave and if it doesn’t behave how that reflects on the rider, because of course the judge decides whether we win or lose; or do they?

It is worth understanding what causes this behaviour in the very complex human brain. Whether we like it or not we are designed, for our survival, to live in a community and because of this we are pre-programmed with a need to get on with others, when we are amongst friends and family we are secure, but when we are amongst strangers there is a need to be accepted.

This animal instinct is what takes over in the dressage arena and instead of operating in the zone we are worrying about what the judge thinks, what the spectators think, what other riders think, will we look good or stupid? Our instinct is to be liked, to be part of the community.

However it is this very instinct which may make the difference between winning and losing. Whilst the rider is allowing these thoughts to enter their mind the horse is reacting to the resulting physiology of the rider who is now displaying classic fight or flight symptoms and so the horse also prepares for fight or flight and starts to look for the threat – with my own horse this once took the form of a tall man in a wide brimmed hat – he now believes any man wearing a wide brimmed hat is a potential threat!

What can we do to reverse the process?

Take our lead from Carl and become completely engrossed in the detail. Imagine you are in your arena at home and begin with what is happening now. Maintain your focus on your horse and how he is moving and performing. Link each movement to the next through your preparation, make every step count and immerse yourself in concentrating fully on your partnership. Mistakes may happen but if you linger you will already be in the past, if you worry what others think you will be transported to the future. So stay in the present and enjoy the moment.

Debbie HillAhead For Life