In such a highly competitive sport, we can often find ourselves in situations where there is a lot riding on our shoulders. It is not uncommon for trainers and parents to put quite a bit of pressure on us. Personally, I find that I put more pressure on myself than any parent or trainer combined ever could.
Pressure can do funny things to us, make us irrational, make us stop in our tracks, and lead to serious mental health issues. Pressure negatively affects our coordination, our focus, our judgement, and creates unwanted tension, all of which negatively impact our performance. Not only does this affect your performance, but it severely affects your mental health and hinders the enjoyment you feel surrounding your sport.
Take for example, the unfortunate tale of talented young jockey Avery Whisman. Avery was a remarkably successful young jockey who battled long and hard with mental illnesses which were a result of the pressure of being a competitive jockey. Unfortunately, Avery took his own life earlier this week. We as a community and an industry need to make sure that no member of our community or industry ever feels like this, especially not due to pressure or stress associated with the sport we should. Please, if all you take from my article is the simple phrase “HAY How are you?” then I will have done my job.
It is so easy to compare yourself to others and pressurise yourself to be at the same level as others, but nobody’s circumstances are the same, and the only thing you will get from comparing yourself to someone else is upset. I know as well as anybody how difficult it is to stop yourself from looking around you and wondering why you are not competing at the same height as somebody else, or jumping as many clear rounds as another, but the reality is that no two people are ever on an equal playing field and these kinds of thoughts will not be helpful to you. Physically some people might be spurred on by this and become determined to get to that stage, but mentally there is potential for total mental ruin.
Everybody has their time to shine, we all reach this stage at different points of our lives. Do not rush the process just because you feel you should be doing something. I can understand that occasionally these thoughts will drive you to improve, but 99% of the time this sort of self-inflicted pressure does you absolutely no good.
Performance stress is something that is unavoidable. The nervous feeling you have in your stomach is totally normal and is something you will probably never be rid of, no matter your experience or the level you compete at. Labored breathing, dizziness, and muscle tremors, however, are not normal. These are typical indicators of anxiety, which often is a result of being in high pressure or high stress environments.
So why, in a sport which we all love and enjoy, do we add an element of dread to show days. A grey cloud which is perpetually hanging over our head? We as a community and as individuals should treat ourselves as kindly as we treat our friends. I myself am as guilty as anyone of directing negativity towards myself and speaking of myself in a way I would never dream of speaking to anyone else, not even my worst enemy. This kind of negativity and undue pressure will never benefit you. We as a whole need to take steps to keep ourselves as mentally fit as we keep ourselves physically. Positivity and kindness are key.
As equestrians I think we have enough to think about before heading into the ring without adding another layer of pressure. After all, pressure is for tyres. As competitors I feel it is important to show our support to one another and a simple “How are You?” can go an exceedingly long way to putting somebody at ease.
It is so important to look after your mental health so applying pressure to yourself in these situations will only damage it. Remember that everything works out in the end and rushing yourself or pressurising yourself will not be helpful to you in the slightest. Imagine speaking to your best friend, your sibling, or 10-year-old you the way I bet you speak to yourself often. You would never dream of it. So, the next time you have the urge to put that extra pressure on yourself, or speak with negativity or distaste, picture saying that to someone else. Picture their faces dropping. Imagine the pain you will inflict on that person. That is what you are doing to yourself.
I used to be a big believer in the saying “Self-Praise is no Praise” but I definitely have been converted since realising how quick people are to pass judgement on themselves regarding their mistakes, but how rarely they would speak about being proud of their accomplishments. Remember too that not everybody’s achievements will look the same.
If you are feeling down about anything at all, please please please don’t hesitate to reach out and get help. Campaigns like HAY, How are Ya, have been set up specifically to create awareness around mental health in the equine and agricultural industries.
Follow the lead of Top equestrian sportspeople, such as Rachel Blackmore, AP McCoy, Danny Mullins, and all the leading equestrian bodies in Ireland to support the HAY Campaign. Be The Change.