Riding Relaxation? Forget About It!

Liz hyperventilates on the eve of her equitation classes, but goes on to do well. Her concerned parents seek relaxation techniques for their daughter. Here's how sports psychologist Dr. Janet Edgette responds.
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Liz hyperventilates on the eve of her equitation classes, but goes on to do well. Her concerned parents seek relaxation techniques for their daughter. Here's how sports psychologist Dr. Janet Edgette responds.

The Call
A dad phones, worried about his daughter. He's spent several weeks standing helplessly by, watching Liz shake and jitter and hyperventilate on the eve of her equitation classes. She always goes on to place well, but then she needs three days to settle her somersaulting stomach. Dad wants Liz to feel more confident and less nervous. Could I teach her some relaxation techniques or something?

The Consult
I meet with Liz and her dad and learn that she worries a lot-about how many classes to enter at each show, about disappointing her trainer and parents, and about doing at least as well as she did the last time she competed-which, because she usually does very well, means she has to do very well or better than very well (!?) every time she goes out. I was beginning to understand why Liz spent her pre-show days all aquiver.

Did Liz's dad know why his daughter was always raising the bar on herself? "No," he replied, sadly. "Her mom and I have been trying to help Liz to appreciate her efforts more than her placings. We tell her just to do the best she can, and that we love most seeing her enjoy riding. Isn't there some kind of technique she can learn to relax?"

Relax?, I think to myself. Relaxing to a tape at home the evening before a show isn't going to help this kid manage what's going on in her mind the next day.

"It's really not about relaxing," I begin to explain. "Liz doesn't need to learn how to relax. She needs to learn how to problem-solve about her show program, and how to let 'good' be good enough. She's nervous as all heck because she demands the world and then some from herself."

Sport Psych Isn't Relaxation!
Sport psychology has been yoked to relaxation techniques for longer than I can stand to think about. Some people think teaching relaxation is all a sport psychologist does. But I can't even remember the last time I did anything remotely like that with a client. Why? Because, as I explained to Liz and her dad, there are so many better things to do-such as helping you to...

  • appreciate that maybe you're not supposed to be all that relaxed for a competitive event. Shows do involve riding in front of a lot of people, with two or so minutes to do it right, with no "do-overs," with a judge watching... Hello! I know being nervous doesn't feel good, but I've always found it easier to accept show nerves as part of the predictable show experience. A cop-out? No way. Know why? Pretty soon being nervous becomes like background "white noise": You don't hear it.
  • direct your attention to learning to ride well in spite of show nerves. If being nervous makes you tight, try practicing staying loose in one critical part of your body (e. g., shoulders, elbows). Don't try to "relax" your whole body; that's too much... too hard... too unimportant. Save it for the spa. If being nervous makes you timid and tentative, make a point to keep reminding yourself to ride more aggressively ("Keep your leg on yourself!" I told one rider who rode too quietly whenever her nerves got the best of her).
  • make changes in how you manage your show day, or in how you think about winning and losing. In Liz's case, problem-solving meant approaching her trainer and coming up with a better plan for showing. And letting "good" be good enough meant that she learned to measure her worth as a rider not by just her last class but by everything she's ever put into her riding.

The only riders I've known who were really "relaxed" while competing got there by accident--either thrown into a class at the last minute or riding under some other unforeseen circumstances that made their expectations, well, soft. But once something matters, everything changes--including your anxiety level. This isn't odd; it's human nature. And the less we fight it, the less it interferes with our riding.

The funny thing about show nerves is that they're a problem only if you think you shouldn't have them.

Equestrian sport psychologist Janet Edgette thanks all the readers who write her through HeadsUpSport.com. She regrets that she can't answer all letters individually--but she reads them all, and they all help her know what's on readers' minds!

This article first appeared in the October 1999
issue of Practical Horseman magazine.