It’s an emotional state that most, if not all of us, have experienced many times that often interferes with our ability to make our best runs. Anxiety is that dreaded condition that goes by so many names: nervousness, worry, concern, uneasiness, fear, angst, apprehension, fret, and disquiet, among others. The fact that so many terms have been developed to describe the small variances between these facets of anxiety signifies its influence on our lives. However, anxiety need not be a foe to be vanquished. Instead, finding ways to maximize how anxiety can operate for you rather than against you can be a powerful tool toward becoming a stronger competitor.
Most people are acutely aware of how large amounts of anxiety can interfere with performance. When anxiety is high, we are physiologically and cognitively aroused, which can manifest as rapid heart rate, increased sweating, muscle tremors or shaking, hyperventilation, distractibility, decreased concentration, and changes in reaction time. While this is a short list of potential symptoms of anxiety, they can translate into mistakes in your run. You might cue your horse for the barrel too soon or too late, you might not aim appropriately for your pocket, you might be behind leaving a barrel, you may cause your horse to become nervous and lose focus, or you may just forget everything you know about how to run barrels. Anxiety is the enemy, right?
Wrong! Without some degree of anxiety, you would not be able to perform at your best either. All emotions have a purpose or function and anxiety is included in that list. Anxiety serves as a warning sign that you need to be prepared for something and helps ready your body and mind so you can execute the task. According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which has been empirically supported by multiple experiments over the last few decades, performance is best with moderate physical and mental arousal (aka anxiety). When anxiety is too low or too high, you are unable to perform your best. Of course, the optimal anxiety zone is also related to task difficulty. As tasks become more difficult, your optimal range of anxiety becomes lower.
Let’s use test taking as an example. For a test with average difficulty you would do best with moderate arousal or anxiety. If you have very little arousal, you probably could care less about how well you do on the test, so you may rush through it and make many mistakes if you even show up to take it. However, if you are extremely aroused, you are likely to be distracted by sounds in the room, read and re-read questions because you can’t concentrate and second-guess the majority of your answers. This also translates to making more mistakes. However, you are likely to obtain the best test score if you are aroused enough to want to do well and concentrate, but not aroused to the point you are fidgety and worried about it.
However, if the test that you are taking is very difficult or extremely important to pass, you would have your optimal performance with a lower level of anxiety. We require more focus when we are doing something difficult and too much arousal can overwhelm us in these situations. Conversely, if the test is very easy or unimportant, we need more arousal to hold our attention and help us persist in completing the task.
So, what all of this really means is that we need to be a little anxious to make our best runs and that our optimal anxiety level is related to the difficulty or importance of that run. If you are practicing at home or exhibitioning a colt that is pretty green and you do not have many expectations, chances are that you’re not very anxious. Do you make your best run? Probably not. You may have a nice pattern or accomplish your goal for the day, but chances are that you did not make the best run you could have because you were not trying to do your absolute best. Similarly, if you are very nervous for that important run with tough competition and you start shaking and second-guessing your plan, you are overanxious and probably will not have the best go that you could.
Make anxiety your friend
In order to embrace anxiety and use it to your benefit, first identify and track your anxiety levels in various situations, such as training at home, exhibitioning colts, running at arenas you know, running at new arenas, running with local competition, running with professional names in the draw, etc. Realistically rank your anxiety on a scale of 0 (“I couldn’t care less about this run.”) to 100 (“I’m having a panic attack.”).
Now, create and employ strategies to reduce or increase anxiety so that you are at around 50 (for a run with average difficulty or importance). When you are at 50, you should experience some muscle tension, a slight increase in heart rate, increased focus and concentration on you and your horse, decreased attention to distractions (like what song is playing), and a sense of readiness to make your run. Similar sensations will correlate with lower levels of anxiety in more difficult situations (e.g., 30 when your competition is tougher) and with higher levels of anxiety in easier situations (e.g., 60 when you are pretty sure you’ll be hard to beat that day).
There are a multitude of ways to increase or decrease your arousal and anxiety. However, many individuals struggle more with lowering existing anxiety than with increasing initially low arousal. Therefore, the next two articles will describe in detail some specific ways to decrease anxiety.
In the meantime, be creative and see what works for you, since every person is different. You can capitalize on your anxiety level when you become familiar with what optimal anxiety in a given situation feels like and how to attain it. Anxiety becomes a thermostat that you get to regulate instead of something uncontrollable. Your horse will also learn what your optimal anxiety feels like and will respond by being prepared to do its best. When you intentionally place yourself in a consistent state of appropriate anxiety when you run, whether it’s at home or at a big rodeo, you can practice the same way you compete.
As always, all of this takes time and training. Be patient with yourself and the process. I’ll try to do the same.
Meet Dr. Kathy Korell-Rach
Dr. Kathy Korell-Rach, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and owns Country Counseling, LLC in Loveland, Colo. For more information, visit www.countrycounselingllc.com. She competes for Bar Three Stables by running homegrown horses sired by nationally ranked barrel horse sire Smoke N Sparks.
Disclaimer: This information should not be considered a therapeutic intervention and no client-therapist relationship is established by reading this article.
Email comments on this article to [email protected]