I know many amateurs who get anxiety just thinking about filling out an entry form. They don’t sleep the night before a show. They can’t eat the entire day before they show and the only thing crossing their minds before they go into the ring is how badly they are about to embarrass themselves. They focus on all the things that can and will go wrong.
I know this feeling. I’ve gotten myself so worked up before a class that I almost puked. I blame my anxiety for my drop from 4th in the warm up(right in front of George Williams and horizon: My claim to fame.) – down to 14th (last) in the 2011 USEF Markel 4 year old championships. (Yes, I have to write out the entire class name. You know. Pride.) I couldn’t get my head on straight that day. All I could think about was how I didn’t deserve to be there with all of those huge names on beautiful imported warmbloods whose papers alone cost more than my car. I knew it was going to affect me because I have never gone into the ring with that attitude and not been chewed up and spit out at least 5 times before leaving the ring. Add to that, the fact that my horse is half thoroughbred and can read my mind and you get my most embarrassing moment to date. For those of you who don’t know, these young horse classes are scored by 3 judges who announce their opinion of you over a microphone for everyone to hear. People were there from all over the nation to compete and to watch the future of dressage. I wanted to crawl in a hole and die.
I could have decided that I suck. I should quit being a professional. That I don’t have what it takes. And I did for a moment, but that’s not how I work. When I get knocked down, all I can think about is how I can redeem myself. I focus on how my next move is going to make people forget about my failure. The reality of that is that it is hard. People tend to focus on the negative, so I most likely will need 5 positive events to cover that one negative ride. It puts a lot of pressure on every ride, but I have faith. Faith that I can do better. Faith that I am better. Faith that even if I fall, I can still rise another day. Before I go into the ring, I try to focus my anxiety into excitement. I’m so excited for my chance to win. To show everyone my talent. I’m excited to improve upon my last ride. That doesn’t mean it always turns out as good as I hoped, but I’m not ready to puke before I go into the ring.
I think many people believe that if they don’t hype themselves up that they won’t have to deal with the disappointment of failure. When have you ever come out of the ring after a bad ride and thought, “well, that’s cool, I knew I was going to suck.” You’re still disappointed. You’re still embarrassed. The reality is that you set yourself up for failure. You’ve stamped into your head that you aren’t capable – and so you aren’t.
People often despise cocky people like Donald Trump – “It’s going to be great! It’s going to be Huge!” Or Rhonda Rousey whom they were so excited to see finally knocked out by Holly Holmes because she was an expert shit talker. What they don’t realize is that they are announcing their affirmations out loud, to the world. That’s brave! If you’re over 30 you probably remember Stuart Smiley from Saturday Night Live: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it! People like me!” Yea, we laughed because it sounds ridiculous, but it works! Ask any successful person. Their affirmations may be subconscious, but they definitely never tell themselves they can’t.
Believing in yourself is not some special talent that only certain people were given. It’s a learned habit. Some people have learned to question their talent. It’s understandable. When you first started riding, maybe you thought you were good. Until something happened that convinced you otherwise. Maybe in your younger years you could compete and win, but now you just aren’t as good. At some point, you told yourself that you could do it and you failed. You lied, right? And maybe you still thought you were ok, but then you failed again. Lied again. If a person lies to you more than once, you probably question everything they say from that point on. Eventually, you will think everything they say is false. Additionally, what happens if you are always around someone who tells you you aren’t good enough? Someone who ridicules every single mistake you make over and over? It would be hard not to believe.
What if you changed your perception? What if you forgave your mistakes? What if, instead of looking at your mistakes as a failure, you see them as a gift? What? That’s like wrapping up dog poop in a pretty box and calling it a gift! Well, if you turned it into fertilizer, it could be! The fact of the matter is, no successful person got where they are WITHOUT making mistakes. What made them successful is what they did with those mistakes. Those who choose to beat themselves up don’t grow, in fact, they shrink. Those who choose to use those mistakes and build another step on the ladder grow more with every oops!
My mistake during the 2011 USEF/Markel Young Horse Championships (yes, every time) was doubting myself and trying to change my ride as a result. I didn’t get there by mistake. It’s good to improve a little with every ride, but what was I thinking trying to look like Edward Gal and Totalis overnight when I got there looking like Melissa Wanstreet and Petite Belle? I had many trainers who hated my attitude. My first dressage show, I wanted 70’s which I was told was impossible. My dreams were always too big and needed to be dumbed down. The one time I decided to see myself the way they saw me, I became just that. Incapable.
So here’s my call to action: What if you told yourself how great you are? What if, before you entered the ring, you visualized your excellent ride, over and over? When you are learning your course in the jumpers, imagine your approach to each jump. Imagine your horse moving forward and straight, you finding the perfect distance, waiting, jumping with balance and precision as you plan your next jump. When you are reviewing your dressage test, imagine your prep before each movement, imagine executing each movement precisely. Imagine a balanced and steady ride all the way through. Imagine it 10 times over before you go into the ring.
If you’ve gotten this far and you think this is all a bunch of cheese, good for you, go back to hating yourself. I was just trying to help. But if you think there is even a 1% chance that this could help you, what do you have to lose? What could you possibly lose by complimenting yourself? What could you possibly lose by envisioning yourself winning? Try it, and if it turns out to be the worst experience you’ve ever had, you can come back here and comment about what a idiot I am.