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Control your nerves

Posted in Mind Matters

Human Performance Coach, John Haime, explains how to control your nerves and boost your confidence

controlling your nerves whilst competing

At every top-level competition, you’ll see wonderful displays of skill – riders trying creative things in the ring, taking calculated risks, and expressing their riding abilities and those of their equine partners. It’s part of what makes elite riders so good – trying things that others may not think about. Being brave in this way takes confidence, which is something that many amateur riders lack, but that doesn’t have to be the case. And the good news is there’s plenty you can learn from these elite athletes to make yourself a better rider. 

A key area for any rider – whatever kind of riding you do – is confidence. Confidence is a rider’s bullet-proof vest. It is for the elite riders you relish watching at top competitions and it can be for you, too.

What is confidence?

Confidence really boils down to knowing in your heart that you can do something. It means you trust and believe in your abilities and decisions, and can express them in challenging circumstances.

You know the feeling of confidence – you’re riding well, your horse feels great and everything’s going right. There’s an easy belief in what you’re doing and you just know you can do it. You also know the other feeling – you don’t have it, your horse doesn’t feel right and nothing is going well. There’s little belief in what you’re doing and you’re not quite sure whether you can do it.

Is your confidence proactive or reactive?

Let’s begin with a concept that might be alien to you. Maintaining confidence is within your control and is more of a choice than you know. Accepting this helps you take responsibility for your own confidence and this perspective will really help you.

Great riders are proactive with their confidence. When they’re riding well, you can be sure they remind themselves that they’ve done it before and have built the foundation at all levels since they were young riders, so they’re able to handle any situation at the level they’re riding at. 

This kind of proactive confidence is a decision that you’ll be sustainably confident from all of the great, positive experiences you’ve had in the sport (and, if you think about it, there are many), all the work you’ve done on your riding, and the coaching and support you receive. This is the foundation of your belief in yourself as a rider. Proactive confidence is a choice to rely on a solid foundation and be sustainably confident. It means your confidence won’t be shaken by small, unavoidable cycles when you’re not riding at your best.

On the other hand, some riders insist on sabotaging their belief in themselves. Reactive confidence is a decision that one small collection of challenging circumstances or difficulties will overcome your successes and support, and crack your riding confidence (the foundation). In this scenario, you declare that your confidence is shaken by small failures.

I’ve lost my confidence

Struggling to perform when it counts, feeling anxious, and not enjoying your time at shows are all signs of a loss of confidence. The first step is to think where your confidence has gone – many people can’t identify what happened for them to lose belief in themselves. Usually it’s because something small has triggered little doubts and the spiral downwards begins from there.

This is where riders get confused. Confidence requires understanding and work. Sport and life are about patterns and cycles – sometimes you have it and other times you don’t. This means it’s important to work on areas such as confidence and understand how to build it. The mental and emotional aspect of performance is like your physical practice (flatwork, jumping, hacking) – do the work and it’ll pay off.


Remember you can only feel one emotion at a time. Replace your anxious feelings with feelings of gratefulness – make the decision to change your state with a shift to being grateful for this great opportunity to participate in your sport.

Who’s in control?

Many times I’ve heard athletes declare after a stretch of poor performance that their confidence has gone. But where does it go? After a little down cycle it’s important to remember that reactive confidence is essentially a choice to lower your confidence, and allow challenges and other distractions to penetrate your foundation.

Does this sound familiar to you? Probably. I see it every day – even among the best athletes in the world. For some reason, they aren’t performing well and the foundation of confidence they’ve built over many years suddenly disappears, and a few mistakes become the basis for their confidence. The good news is that after being gently reminded that their confidence is about everything they’ve achieved and all the work they’ve done, there’s an ‘Ah ha’ moment and confidence returns because they make the decision to recover it. They take full responsibility for their confidence, knowing they have control over it. 

This is important for you to know. If you can feel your confidence slipping away, you have the choice to reel it in and not declare to yourself that you’re losing it. This is what the top athletes do.

Keeping calm whilst competing

Build it up 

It’s important to continually build your foundation so small, short-term failures don’t penetrate it. So what can you do to build your confidence? Here are a few key ideas that you can use to build the foundation and create belief in your riding ability…

  1. Preparation. There’s security in that feeling in the warm-up arena when you know you’ve put the work and effort into all parts of your riding to enable you to deal with the situations you’ll face in the arena. This means making your training functional and related to the situations you’ll face at competitions.
  2. Be proactive and allow all the great experiences you’ve had in your riding to be the foundation of your confidence. Decide that temporary low points will pass quickly and won’t have any impact on your foundation.
  3. Understand your strengths, limitations and triggers. It’s easier to win if you believe in something you understand. Know yourself well in order to understand what you can and can’t do when it counts.
  4. Get great coaching that matches your values and needs. The best thing a trainer can do for a rider is believe in them and in their abilities, bolstering the rider’s confidence. A great coach’s belief in you can matter.
  5. Create a clear, defined goal plan. If you know where you’re going and have the steps in place to get there it’ll create a sense of security that you’re on the right track. Knowing exactly where you’re going and how you’re getting there builds confidence.
  6. Create a positive, supportive internal voice. Your own voice may be the single biggest factor in determining whether you’ll be a confident athlete. It should be supportive and create a positive internal environment. A negative voice can erode confidence and create doubt in your capabilities. Be your own best friend and speak to yourself well.
  7. Focus on your good rounds, not the bad ones. It’s fine to reflect on poor performances or mistakes later, but your first task is to consider what went well and how you can build on this success. This will give your next round a more positive energy. 
  8. Focus on your development as a rider and the process of reaching the next level. Get a little better each day through disciplined work and practice, and focus on a solid process to lead to great results.
  9. Have fun! Great riders enjoy themselves in the ring and love their sport. When you enjoy something, it creates positive feelings and you usually do well at it.
Find the key

The key thing you can do to be a better rider is to understand and build your own confidence. Working on your confidence is an investment in yourself as a rider. This skillset is transferable to everything you do in life, from your career or business to relationships and any other performance activity you engage in. Consider it an investment in your future. Confidence may be the single greatest asset for you as a rider.  

Your Comments

One thought on “Control your nerves”

Sally williams says:

A brilliant article ,ive identified myself throughout reading this ,so,i will endeavour to follow the advice and get back the enjoyment i have lost ,thank you

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