Stage fright occurs in over 80% of the population. The lightheadedness, and butterflies-in-your-stomach are common symptoms. Whatever your fear is, remember that you can overcome it.
There are a wide variety of methods available to help you cope with your fears including:
- Relaxation Techniques
- Cognitive Approaches (educating yourself)
- Conditioned Response Therapies
among others. Different therapies work for different people. I tend to utilize a combination of Affirmations, Relaxation, Visualization, and Conditioned Response methods.
This article will focus on these methods. Although I will not cover biofeedback, if you have the resources and the will to try biofeedback, I highly recommend it. Please check with your sports psychologist, or doctor prior to employing any particular method.
What is Fear?
In order to overcome fear, I believe that understanding the physical responses is imperative.
If you’ve been around horses, I’m sure you’ve encountered a horse that spooks. They can spook at the smallest things that are insignificant to us. For example, I’ve been on horses that spook at paper cups, plastic, etc . . . Why do they do this? They do this for the same reason that we get fearful: the fight or flight response.
During the fight or flight response our adrenal glands (located above the kidneys) go into action. Adrenalin is passed throughout the body increasing the body’s oxygen intake. In essence, your body is preparing itself to either run or physically fight. Your heart begins to pump faster, you begin breathing more rapidly, etc. Your body also puts itself into this “crash” mode by keeping the blood away from areas not necessary to run or fight such as your stomach.
Symptoms of the Fight or Flight response include:
- Nausea/indigestion (“Butterflies”)
- Dry mouth/difficulty swallowing
- Blurred vision
- Aching in the shoulders, neck, and/or back
- Rapid breathing
- Palpitations/tight chest
- Frequent need to urinate
- Excessive sweating
Counteracting Fight or Flight with Relaxation Techniques
Since it is physically impossible to relax and be anxious at the same time, we can turn to relaxation techniques in order to alleviate the symptoms of stress.
When you start feeling symptoms of the Fight or Flight response, you should use relaxation techniques to counteract them. Try the following:
- Breathe deeply through your nose, and out of your mouth. Consciously attempt to slow your breathing down. I often close my eyes when doing this do avoid other sensory input.
- Slowly stretch your body, particularly your back, neck and shoulders. I exaggerate my body movements while doing this and try to put myself in a “sleepy” state.
- Smile. Smiling doesn’t only report that you are feeling happy to other people, it actually releases chemicals in your body that help you feel happy.
Do all of those things at the same time. You may want to start with slow, deep breathing, but don’t stop it when you start stretching, and then smiling. Remember to do all of these at a slow pace. Try it now. It’s a great feeling even when you don’t think you are tense.
If you are inclined, you may wish to practice Yoga. Yoga employs similar relaxation techniques, and the more you practice it, the more automatically you will be able to relax yourself.
Positive Thinking and Visualization
Practice replacing your frightening, non-productive thoughts with positive ones.
When I started riding lessons, one of my objectives was to learn to jump. I began daydreaming about jumping. The daydreams would take on different angles. When I found myself really visualizing myself jumping, I could feel my stomach getting tense as images of myself crashing into 5 foot fences shot into by head. As soon as I caught myself doing that, I knew there would be a problem unless I turned those images around.
As soon as you feel your visualizations or thoughts turning negative, stop right there and pull yourself away from the image. Collect yourself by using the relaxation techniques described above (remember to smile – this will help you imagine a positive outcome more easily.) Now rearrange the picture . . .
You are not at the show ring jumping, you are in the field. You are totally in control, and decide you want to jump a fence. You easily canter up to it, and feel the wind run through your hair as your mount gracefully flies over the fence. Remember to smile and keep your relaxation techniques going while you envision this.
After a few images of playing in a relaxing setting (like the field), slowly take the same vision to the show arena. Imagine yourself guiding your horse to each jump with a big smile on your face. You are a wonderful rider, and can control your reactions.
If you find yourself thinking about your horse spooking in a corner, refusing a jump, or whatever, you may tend to go into the arena with a negative attitude.
First try to get in the habit of recognizing negative thoughts and then stopping them immediately. Negative thoughts may be as blatant as “I am the worst rider, and will get thrown off my horse when he spooks” to subtly negative thoughts like “I’ll have to use my crop to get him over that jump.” Both of these thoughts are negative. You are expecting the worst.
You may counter me with “but saying I need to use my crop is preparation, not a negative thought.” In return, I’ll tell you that you are right . . . you are preparing to fail. I’m not saying you won’t have to use your crop, but if you are well prepared, your muscle memory will know to use the crop without your conscious help.
Make sure you are ready to show by practicing, taking lessons, and training your body. Those things should be rote prior to getting into the show ring. When you are at a show, don’t let those things creep into your mind anymore. Don’t try to over-control what should be automatic now. Instead, your job is to perform with confidence and a smile.
Tell yourself things like “I am a fabulous rider who can handle any situation.” Reaffirm your positives and those will shine through automatically.
Being Prepared and Conditioned Response Techniques
The last place you want to put yourself if you are not ready is in front of people judging you. Make sure you are well prepared at least several weeks, if not months, before the show.
When riding, stop when something has gone right, even if it’s the simplest thing. If you’ve had a rough day, don’t stop there, do something you excel at with your horse.
Get to know your horse and trust him by getting a horse games book and trying things like laying back on your horse, or touching his neck; whatever verifies your trusting relationship with him.
Don’t rush yourself into anything that makes you uncomfortable. Take it slowly, and you will be able to build a solid foundation for when more complicated conditions arise.
Don’t pressure yourself by cramming for a show. Give your muscles time to strengthen and learn pathways at a natural pace.
If you prepare yourself properly long before you show, you will feel more confident in the show arena. Your job at the show is not to keep memorizing things that you should do, but instead to stay relaxed and happy. Keep the show a positive experience. Imagine greatness instead of failure. Relax, stretch, and smile if you start feeling tense. Allow yourself a great experience!