THE SPORTING MINDSET – How to cope with nerves

Nerves or competitive anxiety is something that you will probably have experienced at some time during your riding career. It is defined as; negatively interpreted arousal – an emotional state characterised by worry, feelings of apprehension and bodily tension that tend to occur in the absence of real or obvious danger. The symptoms are individual to each rider but can generally be characterised as (1) cognitive symptoms – relating to thought processes such as fear of failure, loss of confidence, negative self-talk and poor concentration; (2) somatic symptoms – including muscular tension, sweating, increased heartrate, butterflies in the stomach; (3) behavioural symptoms – relating to patterns of observable activities such as fingernail biting, avoidance of eye contact, uncharacteristic displays of introversion or extroversion.

I would guess that most of you will have had those moments on competition day when you think you can’t do it, your stomach is churning, your heart is racing, you feel sick, you go quiet and wish you were anywhere in the world but in the lorry park. I feel anxious myself just imaging that scenario! But there are some key strategies that you can utilise to help you control your nerves and set yourself up for a successful ride.

1. Anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve
The key to controlling nerves is to accept that nerves are normal – they are an inherent part of competitive riding and they can actually facilitate performance. Try and think of the thoughts and feelings that you experience when you are nervous in a positive way. For example, “I feel nervous because the competition matters, it means my body is psychologically and physiologically prepared for competition, the adrenaline is pumping round my body, I am ready, bring it on!”

2. Losers quit when they fail, winners fail until they succeed
Rather than having a fear of failure, see failure as an opportunity to learn. After every competition take time to reflect on what went well and what you can improve on. Developing a growth mindset is absolutely key, the best riders in the world got to the top of their sport by learning from their mistakes not being afraid of failure.

3. My goal is not to be better than anyone else, but better than I used to be
The most common goals riders set themselves are outcome orientated, for example to achieve a particular score or placing. That’s great, but outcome goals are often out of your control, your horse might sustain an injury, the weather could be dreadful (we do live in Britain after all), your preparation might not have gone as well as you would like. So, set yourself some process goals that you can control, for example to ride an accurate dressage test or to give your horse confidence in the water jump.

4. W.I.N?
If those negative thoughts start to creep in to your head, rather than fighting them take a deep breath and ask yourself; What’s Important Now (W.I.N)? This will help you clear your mind, relax your body and focus on the task in hand. For example, rather than having the internal battle of “I can’t do this – yes you can” acknowledge what you are thinking and feeling and accept it, then ask yourself W.I.N? Try saying to yourself; “I don’t think I can do this, I am too nervous – that’s ok, nerves are a good thing, it means my body is ready, What’s Important Now? I need to get my horse tacked up”.

Lindsay is a chartered sport and exercise psychologist, senior lecturer at the University of the West of England, Bristol and a competitive dressage rider. If you would like to know more about how to improve your riding through developing your mental skills please have a look at her website

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