Dealing with Anxiety at competitions (Show Jumping)
As a person who has Depression anxiety and PTSD I have had to train myself to cope at competitions. It is still a work in progress but here are some tips to help you on the day and leading up to it.
I personally find the more organised I am the more settled my anxiety is because there’s less I have to think about on the day. I don’t just mean be organised by having all your gear cleaned and sorted. I also have a list of what classes I am in and in what rings at what times.
Nothing stresses me out more than feeling like I don’t have enough time and when I feel time pressure my anxiety runs riot with me. All the ‘you’re not good enough, you’re going to fall off, your clients are watching and you’re going to make a fool of yourself etc etc’ are going through my head if I’m feeling time pressured. I sometimes get laughed at for how early I get to places but if it means I have time to have a coffee, walk my horse, go through my plan and keep myself relaxed it’s definitely worth waking up that extra hour early for.
Take time to walk your course. Walk it how you are going to ride it. I often walk my course to the point of: ‘In this corner I am going to take a big breath in and a breath out.’’ On this corner I need more outside leg…’ and then I think of how I am going to ride each turn and corner and where I am going to breathe and relax.
This is something you need to train at home along with your body scan. It’s another reason why I like being early. I like to take a moment to just sit and breathe. Often I do this after I have walked my course if I have the time. I sit quietly and breathe and run through the course in my head. More often then not my brain will envision me falling off and hurting myself so I have taught myself to breathe through that and replace that image of me falling off to one of me flying over the jumps with a big smile on my face. Breathing is also my first part of my body scan and I practice my breathing at home. Often when I hop on my horse the first thing I do is spend a couple of minutes just making sure my breath is long and deep before I even pick up the reins to walk on. I then automatically do this at competitions as well.
Along with my breathing once I hop on my horse I do a body scan. Be aware of your body and where you may be feeling tense, afraid, frozen. Anxiety can bring up a lot of different feelings and emotions. It differs so much per person. A body scan is not just to feel where in your muscles you may be tight but also how your emotions are going. I have fatigue, depression and PTSD as well so just because I am feeling a certain way one competition does not mean I will feel the same feelings the next competition. As I breathe I work my way through my body. I work out where I am feeling tension and I envision making those muscles jelly. I work out where in my body I may be feeling fear or anxiety, or even exhaustion and I try and breathe those feelings out and replace them with other positive emotions and feelings. All of this takes practice. When I started it would take me ten minutes to do a body scan. Now it takes a few breaths. To the point I can even do a quick body scan mid-course if I have too.
Sometimes things don’t quite go to plan. You’ve done all your prep and all your breathing and body scans and you feel ready to do your round and all of a sudden you find yourself waiting in the ring because the judge is either doing paperwork or getting handed their lunch. Well hello, anxiety rears its ugly head whenever it can! So, my back-up plan is to use something physical to draw my attention away from my anxiety. I draw a figure of 8 with my finger on my leg. People can barely see you are doing it so it is a subtle way for me to focus on something other than my own negative thoughts.
Some days just getting in the warm-up or the ring may be your achievement, other days it’s going up a height class. The thing with things like anxiety and PTSD and depression is they can vary so strongly from day to day and are so different from person to person. Some days ‘mind over matter’ or practicing all the techniques in the world just don’t work. And those days are the most important days to acknowledge even the smallest achievement. Don’t beat yourself up for doing things wrong or having a panic attack. Acknowledge all the little or big steps you made and be proud of them. Don’t give up just because one day doesn’t quite go how you wanted it. Training your anxiety takes time. Do the practice at home so that when you go to competitions your breathing and body scans are automatic. The more you practice at home the easier it will become when you are out.
Kyrie De Jong Show-jumper, trainer and instructor.