Everything Else Everything else More...

Sports Psychology Workshop with Jo Davies.

Here are my overview notes from the workshop, held at @bandweventing’s parents’ lovely place near Cambridge, for a group of #twittereventers.

Screen shot 2014-02-09 at 20.17.42

Get the psych side of things right, and you can be this confident!

I’d highly recommend one of Jo’s courses, she dealt with every individual example raised, and had a great way about her. I think we all wished it could have gone on a lot longer!

The title was “Nerves and How to Overcome Them.”
(This work applies of course to riding competitions, but also to other pressure situations too, such as interviews.)

Through this, [] brackets are my own thoughts, and
? at the beginning of a sentence indicates that it’s something YOU, the reader, should stop and think about or do, and maybe make notes on, as we did.

Somatic Anxiety (The Physiological Symptoms of Nerves)
Quickened Heartbeat
Surge of Adrenalin
Feeling Sick
Butterflies in Tummy
Increased Perspiration
Clammy Hands
Tense muscles


Cognitive Anxiety (The mental side of things)
Negative thoughts
Negative Expectations
High distractibility
“What if…” thoughts.

The more you can be self-aware about these, the better… the quicker you can re-focus.

? So, how do pressure situations affect YOU personally?
How can you overcome anxiety?
How can you boost your confidence?

Jo explained, and we worked through, the three Rs of combating anxiety:

1. Recognise
2. Release
3. Refocus

So, you can plan HOW/WHEN to release anxiety.


? What’s YOUR pressure situation?

(e.g. Dressage warm-up? Fences with big ditches XC? Your personal bugbears…)

Other factors:
Trying too hard
Not wanting to mess up the horse’s record

? When do YOUR nerves start?

Negative thoughts can start way before the event, and gradually rise as it gets closer and closer.
Physiological changes will begin much closer to the event, and rise more steeply.

Negative thoughts can fluctuate a lot during the 3 phases of an event.

Your own perception about x (ditches, warming up amongst Pros, etc) brings about nerves.
If the perceived demands of a situation are greater than our individual resources, this leads to NERVES.
(Someone else can be in the same situation, and have no nerves.)

Recognise your Unhelpful Thoughts, e.g. thinking “Don’t tense up”.

The mind has a limited capacity, all at one time. If you’re worried about something, there is less scope to concentrate, plus lower efficiency of performance, etc.


Recognise how physical tension can affect performance.

Horses detect and react to our:
Mood States
Body Language
Tone of Voice
Physiological State – e.g. heart rate.

So, a tiny aid becomes a big aid… just think about how that affects the horse!!!
[This was a real lightbulb moment for me]

Recognise how this all fits together and affects behaviour/performance.

In ordinary circumstances, the Parasympathetic Nerves System governs the Pre-Frontal Nervous System.
So you are able to Plan, Rationalise, etc. But under stress, you can overreact.

? What’s YOUR typical response, out of Fight/Flight/Freeze?

Fight :  take on the threat.  e.g. Chase the horse to the fence, or get too busy, and fluster the horse.
Flight: run away from the threat. e.g. Turn the horse away from the fence, or refuse to ride, make an excuse to go home.
Freeze: do nothing. e.g. Being an unhelpful passenger, just sitting there and not reacting.

[I fight, definitely! I find it’s very helpful to know this, to realise WHY I am doing certain things only under pressure.]

When nervous/excited, we get a state of arousal, a release of adrenalin. This increases the speed of our reactions. 

Over-thinking hinders performance. It means we are not doing things automatically any more.

The physiological arousal level can be completely changed by labelling it differently in ones mind:


Screen shot 2014-02-09 at 20.22.39

Supreme confidence in each another.

Anxiety/nerves, William Fox-Pitt quote: “it’s normal.”

Anxiety can HELP, it can put us ‘on our game.’

The EVENT itself does not make us nervous… our PERCEPTION of it does.

We are all UNIQUE in the level of physiological arousal that helps us to perform at our best.

Think about YOUR trigger situation(s).

? Do YOU need to be physiologically alert, or alternatively completely relaxed, to be READY to do your best?

It may help to think of a time when you have coped with your trigger situation.

Remember, it depends on the horse’s temperament too! [It is easier to stay relaxed and confident on a very reliable horse, for example.]


leading to Smarter Thinking.

Helpful Thoughts: “I’m ready for this”, “I can do it”, “I believe we can do this”, “I deserve to do well”…
Positive attitude, motivational.
Cool, Calm and Collected.

Avoid “Must” thoughts in your head, e.g. “I must go double clear”… be rational. Where is the logic/evidence? Why MUST you?
Be pragmatic: Is this thoughts helpful?

Turn “Must” into “very strong preference.”
e.g. “I really want to get a double clear, but if I do my best, it’s okay if I don’t.”
(to lift the pressure off yourself).


Mary King: “Do your best, and hope that’s good enough to win.”

1. Outcome: (of the competition), that usually involves comparisons with other performers. e.g. Win the event.
2. Performance:  A performance mark/score that can be achieved independently of other performers. (e.g. Jump a double clear.)
3. Process: Specific actions/steps taken towards 1 and 2.
e.g. Can be:

WRITE DOWN YOUR PROCESS GOALS. They feed into the other two (Outcome and Performance).
If you get the Process right, the other two look after themselves.

RELEASE your Don’ts and change them to Do’s.

It really helps to PLAN YOUR FOCUS WORDS.

 They can be

Self-instructional                                                or                      Motivational/Holistic

e.g. Look Up                                                                                                 Rhythm
Elbows In                                                                                                       Elastic
Sit Tall                                                                                                  We Can Do This

but these can lead to ‘choking’                                                these work far better.

Have the Motivational/Holistic words SOMEWHERE VISIBLE.

These lead to:

Improved technique
Increased focus on the task in hand
Over-riding the negative thoughts
Confidence around the task

Words should always be interpreted POSITIVELY.

[Personal lightbulb moment. I used to have a very reliable horse in the dressage, and could totally concentrate on my ‘focus words’, and this led to very good dressage scores, routinely. Now I have a more difficult horse (and I’ve been injured so am hyperaware of any possible wonkyness) I can end up being self-instructional, which leads to tension and ‘choking’ – so, I need to Release it!]

Release: Turn it into a positive challenge.

You cannot change the Pressure situation, but you CAN change your REACTION to it!

Change “I hate the pressure of…” e.g. I hate the pressure of riding in front of other people.
“I love the challenge of…” e.g. I love the challenge of putting into practice how our training has progressed.


Your Interpretation of events is vital, and can have profound effects on subsequent confidence and motivation.

Situation        ->         Interpretation        ->   Thoughts at next event.


Sub-30 dressage
can be seen as              Positive or Negative

Positive – “we tried hard for this and I rode for every mark in the arena”, which leads to

“I’ve prepped well again, and we can do this!”

or, Negatively – “The judge was kind, and there were no Pros in the section”, which leads to
“We won’t be so lucky next time.”


Eliminated in SJ
can be seen positively as
“I know we can do better. I will work on X, Y, and Z…” which leads to
“Now we can practice what we did at home.”

or negatively as
“I’m not good enough”, leading to
“Oh no, here we go again”.

So, you can see everything in either a positive or a negative light.

e.g. Lucy Wiegersma – goes to sleep before the XC.
Julie Tew – sits down to watch a DVD, “I go into a trance, going through everything in my mind.”

Yawning is a common reaction – it releases anxiety.

Nerves are a WELCOME sign – show that you are alert and ready to perform.

Chest vs Diaphragmatic Breathing.

This shifts our focus onto a controllable action.
Slows down the heart rate so we can regain composure.
e.g. holding breath in the SJ.
Take in a really deep breath, from the BELLY.

You can’t do deep breathing when tense <-> if you are doing deep breathing, you can’t be tense!

Breathe in through your nose on 5, out through your mouth on 5.

[I do a huge SIGH on a double beat, “Ah…ha…”]

Progressive Muscle Relaxation – Google it, there are techniques spelled out. It teaches the body to recognise tension, by deliberately tensing and releasing different muscle groups.
Start at one end of the body and work to the other.

RELEASE – music, to calm, or to get pumped up.
Gentle music for dressage warm up: plan your sound track, use the same tunes as you use at home. Familiarity raises confidence, and calms the nerves.

Faster rhythms increase physiological arousal (some riders use really pumped up tunes before the XC, for instance ‘Firestarter’ by the Prodigy!)

RELEASE: Summary.

Cognitive (mindset) anxieties are released via:
* Rationalising unhelpful thoughts.
* Re-wording unhelpful thoughts / focus words.
* The bigger picture – threats/challenges.

Physical tension is released by:
* Deep diaphragmatic breathing / sleep
*Progressive Muscle Relaxation


Trust your capabilities and your horse’s.
Trust that you’ve prepared as well as you can.
Boost your resources – do your preparation.

Close your eyes.
Imagine performing your feared activity / riding in your pressure situation.

How vivid was the image?
Was it just sight? Sounds? Feelings? Taste?
Did you experience success, or defeat?

IMAGERY – mimics real experience.

The same neurophysiological processes underlie:
Imagery of a task
Actual performance of a task.

The same brain centres light up, smaller, but still strengthening those neural pathways.

? Shut your eyes… Imagine a lemon.
Look at it, smell it, cut it, bite into it.
Did you show a physical reaction?

(We all had to do this as a group, most of us grimaced as we imagined biting into the lemon.)

Why use IMAGERY?
Confidence / self-belief
Images should always be POSITIVE.

Skill acquisition – strengthening the neural pathways.

Motivation – e.g. Image making progress. Setting Personal Bests.

FOCUS – e.g. on relevant aspects of performance. e.g. Warming up, Jumping course.

Sharon Hunt – always uses visualising beforehand, so that when she goes in to ride a round, it’s “not the first time I’ve done it”.

Sarah Cohen – visualises “my dressage test, how my horse is going, where I’m going to prepare in the arena, and the same through to SJ and going XC.”

Use the pictures of the XC course (usually available online beforehand, or take photos of each fence on your phone as you walk the course, perhaps) and do a full run-through of the entire course in your head.

Pippa Funnell, famous for her work with a sports psychologist, said that before, she used to have sleepless nights, exaggerating the size of the fences in her mind, making them unjumpable.
Now, “I sit down and ride the course in my mind in a positive way, visualising jumping every fence very well. I do have to be disciplined not to let my mind drift.”

It’s a skill that takes practice.

[I do this at every event. If I can’t get any peace, I lock myself in the loo for 5-10 minutes to do it!]

Think about the whole process of riding through a given movement.

You can do it from an internal perspective (through the athlete’s eyes) or from an external perspective (as if watching yourself on video camera).

How to make your imagery more useful:
Aim to have it as lifelike as possible.
Wearing the right kit, being in the right setting, in the right posture even, will help.
Make it as life-like and accurate as you possibly can.
[Then, when you go into the arena or out on course, it’s as if you’ve already done it all before, this will give you AND YOUR HORSE lots more confidence!]

Imagery should mimic actual performance i.e. evoke the same thoughts, feelings and actions as when performing, but always POSITIVE ones!

If you’re well skilled at it, run the image in real time, otherwise, consider slowing the image down.

Your imagery should always correspond to your current stage of learning.

Imagery can enhance your planning, focus, confidence and performance.

And finally… REFOCUS: Close your eyes and imagine performing your feared activity again. [We all did this, a lot more happily than we had before, I think!]



Big thanks to Jo for coming and running the Workshop, and to Nikki and her parents for letting us all use their lovely facilities.

Jo’s website is HERE.
I’d recommend one of these courses to everyone, I think we all got a lot out of it!

Her credentials: Jo Davies BSc (Hons) MSc MBPsS provides sport psychology coaching to help athletes of all abilities to achieve their goals, and enhance sporting performance and personal well-being. Having worked within the international eventing arena and previously represented GB at student world and international events, she appreciates the challenges and pressures of equestrian sport and specialises in working with riders.  

Jo is running a similar workshop on 1st March in West Sussex, in association with British Eventing. More details available here:


Photo of Michael Jung at Badminton 2013 by Will Baxter.

Photo of Nicola Wilson at Burghley 2014 by Kerry Weisselberg
















About the author