What the Olympians Know About Riding Under Pressure

What the Olympians Know About Riding Under Pressure

How amazing is it to watch the horses and riders in Tokyo canter down that centerline or gallop up to the first jump on course? Gives us goosebumps every time. 

It also gives us tumbly belly. Because can you IMAGINE the pressure that comes in a scenario like that? When I think about it, it literally makes me feel ill (yes I’m a grade 1 empath). 

I have to remind myself that they’ve built up a tolerance to this kind of pressure over time through competing in lots of other high-stakes environments. You don’t go from the local 2’ short stirrup class to the Olympics… they’ve had practice. And whether they know it consciously or not, they’re case studies in handling pressure (even if they have a bad round, which can be due to so many things when you’re talking about horses). 

Dr. Susser is the queen of all things sport psychology. She’s the former USET team sport psychologist and has a real talent for turning science into practical and easy to understand lessons. In her latest Masterclass, she breaks down the science of pressure and how it affects people differently. In this article, we’ll share some highlights from her class. 

1. Excitement and fear are the same. Kinda.  Top athletes have gotten comfortable with experiencing this discomfort - it’s a feeling they know well. 

Team GBR winning gold in Tokyo. From Left: Oliver Townend, Laura Collett, and Tom McEwan. Arnd Bronkhorst photo. 

As Dr. Jenny explains, feelings of excitement and fear actually have the same physiology; the difference is their context. For instance, think about the feeling you might have on a first date (excitement) and the feeling you have before entering the ring at a show (which might induce fear for you). They’re kind of similar, right? Heart rate goes up, maybe more trips to the bathroom…

And importantly, we have a tipping point where our excitement turns into fear. “To perform well under pressure, we have to find a middle ground,” explains Dr. Jenny. This middle ground means that you’re in a heightened state where you can perform at a peak level, but you’re not overcome by the physiology of being in a high stress state. But on that note...

2. You don’t have to love performing under pressure to do it well. “When I was early in my sport psychology days I used to do this stupid thing called ‘Falling in Love With Pressure’. Ridiculous. I don’t know that it’s actually possible. But what I’d love for you to do is fall in love with your response to pressure… can you be in charge of the things you need to be in charge of so that you can perform well?” (By the way, Jenny gives you the tools to do this in her Masterclass and it’s pretty great.)

3. You have to do it. A lot. Athletes who perform well under pressure have adapted to that state. To the point I made earlier, you don’t get on a horse one day and go to the Olympics the next. They’ve had so much repetition that they’ve built this muscle of performing under pressure just like any other muscle. Using mental training tools along with the repetition of being in a high-pressure environment helps you get there faster, but you can’t learn to perform under pressure if you never do it. 

To learn more about how to perform under pressure, check out Dr. Jenny’s Masterclass on the topic. And, if you want to watch ALL the equestrian action from Tokyo, we have an article with all of those details here

Feature photo: Individual gold medal winner, Julia Krajewski (GER), dominating the XC Course in Tokyo. Arnd Bronkhorst photo.