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When Performance Counts - Precompetitive anxiety

The competition is three weeks away, yet it goes with you to bed at night, holds your hand while you lie awake, and tears into your stomach right after breakfast. By the time you unload your horse at the show grounds, he has already picked up the wrong lead or shied at the judge's stand no less than a million times. You aren't a perfectionist are you?

Sport psychologists have worked hard to understand why some athletes get nervous and tense before a competition, or suffer from precompetitive anxiety. They've worked hard to understand what causes you to become overwhelmed by thoughts about a horrible performance and lose your ability to concentrate. And what these researchers have found is that how prone you are to precompetitive anxiety, how bad you'll have it, and how long it will last can be determined by a few personality characteristics: -

Perfectionism - Equestrians who set excessively high standards for their (and their horse's) performance can become anxious if they expect to uphold these standards the day of the competition. Neurotic perfectionists, as opposed to normal perfectionists, are usually less confident in their abilities, more worried about failing, overly concerned about mistakes, and extremely critical of their performance.

Motivation - Equestrians who attend competitions because they want to win prizes or outdo their rivals are more likely to perceive competitions as threatening. They don't really care that competitions give them a chance to revel in their accomplishments, gain experience, and unearth skills that need improvement.

Social comparison - Equestrians who focus more on comparing their skills to those of others than on improving their skills and performing their best are more likely to become anxious. These athletes thrive on comparing themselves to everyone else, yet frequently worry that their performance will be inadequate and are threatened by the thought of looking like a failure. They are filled with self-doubt and, at the same time, are overly concerned about the outcome of the competition and what will happen if they don't win.

Yes, you're right. Anxiety is a daily experience for some people; they simply worry too much about everything. And, yes, some competitions are more important or more challenging than others and some people know how to cope with anxiety better than others. But what type of perfectionist you are, why you paid the entry fee, and how willing you are to compare yourself to everyone else also has a lot to do with whether or not you feel the deleterious effects of precompetitive anxiety.

Johanna Harris
The Equestrian Athlete
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