I recently had the pleasure of teaming up with up-and-coming cutter Louisa Murch White, who writes a popular blog about her life in the horse business. I love her honest take on competing and its ups and downs. Recently, she applied some of my top Performing Edge tips to her show prep and agreed to share her process with the world. Here’s her story:
Hello out there Internet! My name is Louisa, and I am the creator of “With a Western Twist” (www.withawesterntwist.com). With a Western Twist is a lifestyle blog that celebrates and shares stories from the cutting horse world and beyond. Not only do I focus on seasoned competitors who share their wisdom, but I share my own trials and tribulations of being a beginner/novice competitor in the very tough equine sport of cutting in a series I call “A Beginner’s Guide to Cutting.” I began the series, which is heavily dipped in sarcasm and satire, so that other beginners could laugh and share in their own experiences alongside me. One of my biggest pitfalls, aside from the fact that cutting is a sport for millionaires only, is that I’ve struggled with big time nervousness that has completely gotten in the way of my love of showing. That is where June Stevens came in! I reached out to June to see if she would write a column for the series, aptly titled, “Ask June.” The first column tackled my aforementioned shortcoming that many competitors have in the show pen – “Overcoming Nerves In The Show Pen” and you can check it out here – http://www.withawesterntwist.com/2017/03/the-beginners-guide-to-cutting-ask-june.html.
June, who I am convinced is secretly a very smart unicorn/genius, gave me some remarkable advice that really turned around my mental processes and nervousness and I wanted to share some of that experience with you today. First, a bit about what I was going through. My nerves were pretty unfounded and irrational. I work full time as a loper for a cutting horse trainer, so I am very lucky in that I get a lot of saddle time and learning experience. My horse is very nice albeit a little less experienced than horses we show against. I’ve shown her for a year already and am pretty comfortable with her. At least I thought I was, until one day that all started slipping away. The first year of showing I brushed away a lot of my bad shows as “just trying to learn to show,” when in reality a lot of what I was going through was my nerves getting in the way of me being able to think clearly and communicate to the best of my ability with my equine partner. So, when I began my second year of showing her, I felt that would all go away because I was no longer a very new beginner. Instead, it started getting worse and worse and the nerves began building and building until I found myself in the show pen not being able to think, not being able to hear my help and then leaving the pen not being able to even communicate what had happened in there. It was getting worse and worse, and my nerves were beginning to cripple me, when realistically I KNOW I’m a good rider, I KNOW I can handle myself in the show pen, yet I couldn’t communicate that to myself.
The biggest break through moment I had with advice that June had given me is that I needed to retrain my mind to re-evaluate nervousness. She told me, “what you can do is learn to embrace the nervousness and work through it. You can also train your mind to view nervousness as a sign that you are ready to do your best.” She explained to me that elite athletes tend to experience physical signs of anxiety, but not mental ones. They tell themselves that the physical feelings are just part of being “psyched up” to perform their best. My nervousness and anxiety over showing was getting to the point that when I would even THINK about showing weeks before a show, I would start to feel the physical signs of nervousness – anxiousness, sweating, pulse racing, etc. I began my mental work there, when I started feeling those thoughts I would quickly tell myself, “this is good, this means you are excited and you are ready to go show at your very best. This is your body telling you that you are ready.” Whereas before I would have told myself, this is your body telling you that you are nervous and you can’t do it. For some of you, this may seem too simple to combat severe anxiousness, but I can tell you, it works.
June gave me three key tips that top performers use to get a handle on their nerves. The first was to practice visualization, which she told me to start three weeks before my next competition and to mentally rehearse every step of my ride bringing all five senses into the equation. A lot of people I talk too tell me they have a hard time focusing enough to mentally rehearse their visualization. I was the same way and so at first I took the time to write down my visualization. I incorporated everything in a very detailed manner and wrote it out almost as a story. I would then re-read that story often and regularly before my first show.
The second was to practice deep abdominal breathing, in and out through your nose. I utilized this technique anytime I felt any inkling of nervousness. I would stop and tell myself, “you are ready” and then I would go through this breathing exercise. I actually did this immediately before I went into the show pen and I felt it snapped me out of any negative thoughts I may have been having because I’d already been practicing and using this technique weeks before my show. Finally, June told me I needed to reset my mind and interrupt the negative thoughts with short phrases and I’ve told you guys already that I utilized this technique the most and found it the most helpful.
I’m happy to report that my first show was a massive success. The two biggest differences after using these techniques was that I was able to hear my help and I was able to enjoy myself probably for the first time ever. I was even smiling and relaxed through my run, where usually I’m stiff and worried about what’s going on. It felt amazing, and I felt like I had really become a mental guru, I was pretty proud of myself you guys! Now, I need to share the last piece of June advice that I really didn’t fully grasp. She told me that I will likely need to repeat her techniques many times and that working on my mental game wasn’t just going to be solved overnight. Well, even though June is a unicorn and I listened to all her other techniques, I foolishly ignored this one. Going into my second show I was very busy and took no time to even think about my show coming up. I kept telling myself that I should work on my visualization but I ignored it – I was too busy, I was a mental guru now, I didn’t need it! I was heading to a show pen that I have notoriously struggled in and I think my nervousness was creeping back in and instead of FACING it like I knew I should have, I buried it down and told myself I didn’t even want to think about it. Well, you can probably guess how my show went? Disastrous. I realized as I entered the warm up pen that any mental game I had acquired through my last show was gone. I was worried, I was anxious and I dug around for my mental game but of course, it was nowhere to be found because I hadn’t worked on it and I hadn’t positively visualized. So when I tried to snap myself out of my anxious cycle, I couldn’t, because my mind kept telling me, “you didn’t prepare us for this!!” It was almost worse in a way because my mind and body knew I could have done better and that I failed myself.
So, my last two show experiences have been wildly different, but they have resulted in the same conclusion for me. I am a rider that struggles with anxiousness and nervousness. I put so many hours of time into my riding and my sport; I’m so committed that I’m almost relentless. BUT I don’t put the same effort into my mental game. When I do, I am unstoppable. When I don’t, I am weak, nervous and anxious. So, I have recommitted myself to working on my mental thought processes, and to ensure that I’m always ready to tackle any anxiousness that comes up in and outside of the show pen. Remember, elite athletes tell themselves that nervousness is what they NEED to compete at the highest level and at their most best – so that’s what I tell myself too, and with that knowledge I know I’m on the path to becoming an elite athlete in my sport too! All in thanks to the unicorn known as June Stevens.