Getting My Head in the Game: How I Learned to Live with Competitive Anxiety
In some sports they call it the “yips”, when a player is suddenly unable to throw the ball accurately or sink a simple putt. The “yips” manifest in a player’s brain, and makes them suddenly doubt their ability to perform in a game they have played their whole life. Some refer to this moment - when stress mounts and a player crumbles - as "choke". No matter how you refer to this mental freeze, the source is the same: anxiety.
I was born competitive. Every contest, race, or game was a way for me to set myself apart. My parents would probably tell you I was a bulldog: unrelenting, stubborn, motivated. I have also been my harshest critic. No one has ever needed to get after me when something goes wrong because I’m the first one there. I am always fighting the vision in my mind of what “perfect” should be: perfect horses, perfect appearance, perfect college, perfect life.
"The work on my mental game doesn’t stop on the good days."
At some point I felt a shift. The excitement to get in the show ring turned into paralyzing fear at the ingate. When I was on ponies, and through my first children’s hunter, my competitive drive was unparalleled. I believed I could win every class. At some point, things began to change. I don’t know what triggered it. It might have been my quest for perfection or a few trainers who weren’t very supportive, or something entirely different. Small mistakes in the ring began to seem like the end of the world. That fear translated into my everyday life. I was so afraid to make any choice, whether it was between two answers on an exam or what distance I saw in the ring. I was so afraid to answer a question incorrectly or say the wrong thing. I felt isolated and trapped in my own head, especially because it seemed to me that I was the only one facing these problems.
By my sophomore year of high school, I was trying anything I could think of to calm myself before heading into the ring or taking a big exam. I ate stress-relieving chocolate (which, in retrospect, seems like it might have been a scam), took natural supplements, and wore lucky outfits until their luck ran out. The one stone I left unturned was working with a mental coach.
When I started to try my hand in the equitation ring during my junior year of high school, the big eq classes did nothing to quiet my mind. If anything, they added to the pressure I was already putting on myself. With no place else to turn, I broke down and started working with a mental coach. I had been so resistant because recognizing my struggles with anxiety made me feel weak, like I was letting people down. I did the whole nine yards: I talked to a sports psychologist every week, worked hard to implement new techniques, and crossed my fingers that I would be “cured” by indoors. Indoors came and went and, though not 100%, I was feeling better. I could head into the ring and have a modicum of confidence that it wouldn’t be a complete disaster. As I started to feel a little better and my riding improved, I stopped talking with my sports psychologist. I figured if I was winning classes, our work was done. I was finally finding the success that had eluded me since early in my riding career. I won classes at Spruce Meadows, I jumped bigger, and I felt that the time I put into practicing and riding my horses was making a difference.
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College threw a wrench in my carefully achieved equilibrium. School wasn’t easy, and riding seemed even harder. Despite the success I had the summer heading into my first year, I came back rusty after spending almost no time in the saddle at school. Once circuit started, I would fly to Florida on the weekends, hopping off a plane and driving straight to the barn, each time hoping I would find the feel I had lost over my first semester. Unfortunately it refused to materialize that season. There were times I actually breathed a sigh of relief when I had a jump down or a time fault, because there was no jump-off to worry about.
"There were times I actually breathed a sigh of relief when I had a jump down or a time fault, because there was no jump-off to worry about."
Although I tried to push my nerves to the back, the fear kept growing. There were definitely some high moments but, in my mind, they were overshadowed by the mistakes. There were a lot of tear-filled car rides and long nights in hotel rooms. I felt broken, as if there was a piece of me missing that everyone else had. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t overcome the nerves, or let go of the bad experiences and allow myself to move forward. By that May, I hit a fork in the road. I was at a horse show and my horse spooked off the side of the ring. Although it was a nonissue, it completely broke me down. I realized I had to regain control of my competitive mindset or stop doing something I love and had been such a big part of my life.
Looking for help can seem scary. I’ve had people infer that it’s weak, and that a real competitor doesn’t need help. From the work I’ve done, I can assure you they are 100% wrong. It is entirely human to feel nervous and doubt yourself. Sometimes, it takes someone else kicking you in the pants to get you to recognize it for yourself. When I got back into speaking with a sports psychologist last May, I was initially tentative. I thought that my mental mental state was past the point of reversing and becoming confident again, and that it might be better for me to throw in the towel and quit riding altogether.
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What happened was the complete opposite. Talking allowed me to honestly put everything on the table, and off my chest. For the first few weeks, I talked and my sports psychologist listened. She created a safe space for me to grapple with the emotions I had been so scared to confront. She helped me tackle my doubts head on, slowly breaking down walls to allow myself to move past all the negative thoughts. I’m lucky to have an objective person in my life who doesn’t let me get away with lying to myself. Instead, she challenges me to think about why I so easily let myself fall back to a negative mindset. Perhaps most importantly, she has taught me to give myself permission to be human, to make mistakes, to get mad at myself in the right ways, and to learn from each experience.
Am I “fixed”? Far from it, although I’m much more confident in myself than I was a year ago. Some days I can walk into the ring knowing I can win the class. Other days are harder, and I think the first jump looks a little bigger than it should and that scares me. However, I no longer question if I should be doing this; I know I want to ride and compete. With help, I’m learning to accept fear as a bump, not a roadblock. It takes constant work, but the rewards are there. At my last horse show, I caught myself falling into old habits. I was frustrated. However, thanks to my work I’ve done, instead of letting the stress ruin my trips on my next horse, I walked into the ring and jumped one of my best rounds to date. It was exactly what I’ve been working toward. Even though there was a time fault (or three), I didn’t beat myself up and I took the positive from it. I was able to turn around what started as a bad day and deliver a much better round than I would have in the past.
There are no deadlines, expiration or completion dates for getting your mental game on track. I thought when I aged out of the juniors, I would stop feeling the stress and anxiety that plagued me for years. They don’t go away, but, as an amateur, I’m finally learning how to do things the right way. I’m learning to be kinder to myself and allow for mistakes, because perfection doesn’t help you grow. The work on my mental game doesn’t stop on the good days. Instead, I need to work twice as hard on those days to prepare for when things don’t go the way I plan. My mindset didn’t change overnight, and it still takes work. I try to remind myself that riding is a privilege and something to enjoy; even on the days when things don’t fall into place, there’s always something good to learn from it.
All of the work I’ve done has been grounded in five big takeaways, and I hope they can help someone else as much as they’ve helped me: no one cares about your mistakes as much as you do, celebrate your victories, allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to possibilities, be open with people (and don’t read into interactions), and, when all else fails, just breathe.
Read this next: I Took Action to Improve My Show Ring Anxiety and You Can, Too