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Performance Anxiety? A User Manual for Managing Show Nerves

A test or an important appointment are approaching. We start worrying about our performance and skills.

  • Will we be able to meet expectations?
  • Can we perform as well under pressure as we do at home?
  • Can we win?

Your heart starts pounding, your hands are sweaty, relaxation or sleep are elusive – performance anxiety is taking hold. All of us know this feeling: riders and non-riders, pros and amateurs, competitive and non-competitive riders. There is no secret weapon to avoid it. But: There is a way to manage it. Even better: You can turn performance anxiety into something positive, namely into increased focus and channeling the extra energy into peak performances.

How to Turn Nervousness Into Something Positive

First of all, it’s important to understand what is happening in your body during stressful situations and what matters most. When we get nervous, our bodies have evolved to switch to “stress mode.” In the Stone Age, this was an important survival mechanism. In the face of danger, our ancestors needed to be prepared for “fight or flight” at a moment’s notice.

In “stress mode,” the body is getting ready (even today) to be able to react quickly and instinctively. The amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus acts like a command center, activating the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals to the adrenal glands which responds by releasing the stress hormone adrenaline into the bloodstream. This immediately causes several physiological changes: The heart beats faster, pulse rate and blood pressure go up, breathing gets more rapid. Extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. On the other hand, processes that would hinder a successful fight or flight reaction are reduced such as digestion, thought, and the immune system. If the brain continues to perceive danger, the hypothalamus also initiates the release of another stress hormone, cortisol.

What is an excellent survival mechanism in truly dangerous situations, likely more often encountered by our Stone Age ancestors, regularly gets in the way of modern-day humans. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

The first step to positively utilize your nervousness is to not try to hide it but to accept is as a temporary state. Furthermore, it’s important to interrupt your circling thoughts, they are not constructive. Don’t think about what negative things might happen or what you and your horse cannot do well. It takes up too much energy. Instead, use your energy for your performance and imagine what will go well and think about all the things you and your horse have already learned and achieved as a team.

Good preparation – both long- and short-term preparation – helps you to feel positive. Long term, you should optimally prepare for your test. Short-term preparation relates to the planning and timing leading up to a test or appointment. Avoid having to rush because you didn’t give yourself enough time, for example for the warm-up.

Jessica and Benjamin explain how they handle show nerves and what role rituals and mental training play in this process in the following video: Performance Anxiety? A User Manual for Managing Show Nerves

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