Tuesday 15th of June 2021

Performance under pressure: Flexing your performance muscle

With the new eventing season just weeks away, no doubt you’ve put the hours in with your horse, but what about your own preparations?

Sarah Heseltine talks to top performance coach Sara Milne Rowe about the key steps required to raise your performance under pressure by building your own personal pressure package.  

Sara Milne Rowe

I first met Sara on a business accelerator programme for female founders last year and was bowled over by her workshop on The SHED method – put simply, we need to look after our SHEDs! Sleep Hydration Exercise and Diet….but it’s more than just a few early nights away from the latest box set binge.

As Sara explains….”If your shed is out of order, it’s harder to get the tools out, hinges go rusty and things start falling apart. Maintaining your shed, like fuel in the tank, has huge benefits to both your mind management and your performance under pressure.”

Source: Pinterest

The key to dealing with pressure positively is that is has to be practised, says Sara, anticipated and drilled as much as say, the dressage test, so that it becomes part of your conscious preparations.

Back to Sara…

“All high performers whether on a business platform or sporting stage have a way of getting in to a high performance state. When I work with people, the first thing I ask them is to tell me about when they performed at their very best – no matter when it was. This could be a speech, a competition or a moment that needed inner strength.

When they reconnect to the feelings that this amazing performance gave them, I often see their body language and breathing change as they reconnect to it. We then interrogate the ingredients and the impact of that performance and work it into a repeatable routine.”

So readers, think of a time when you have performed at your very best, it doesn’t have to be riding related, but bank that feeling when things went really well. We’ll need it later.

Sara uses the theatre as a good analogy for building your pressure package and the way in which actors deal with preparing for a performance.

First you read the lines, then you try and say them without looking at them, then the director will block the moves on stage with the lines, then without the lines, then there is a dress rehearsal and most probably a preview night, all before the curtain raises for the first real performance. Bit by bit the pressure has been increased and by the first night, everything has been drilled down and practiced to maximise success. The same goes with competing. If nerves are your worry, or forgetting your test as you trot in to the ring, practicing Sara’s pressure package BEFORE your first event, will set your mind at rest.

“What we often find with people approaching an important event, is that they haven’t stretched the pressure muscle enough beforehand and it has to be practiced in order to stay strong and work when you need it.”

Whether it is an event you have been to before or are competing at for the first time, the patterns and changes in your body need to be recognised in order to set you up to perform at the very best of your capabilities.

If you’re running late, had terrible traffic, weren’t able to walk the course enough or likewise if things are running smoothly and all seems to be under control, and then the nerves kick in, these all have bearings on what your body is doing before you can perform. It is important to recognise these physical changes and how they affect your posture and breathing before you enter the ring…and have a pressure practise to manage them.

©️ The Gaitpost

Breathing is incredibly important to your high performance state – you may not be a 4* elite eventer but you need to be as prepared as one so that you can perform. It’s important to practice pressure breathing – find a position that you are comfortable in, nice and neutral and breath out, feel everything relax and repeat 4 or 5 times.

Now it’s time to power up your success with these 3 steps:

©️ The Gaitpost

1. Firstly, remember we asked you to bank a positive thought earlier, something that you had done well, now is the time to retrieve it.  Start thinking about how it made you feel, that you can do it, that you know how to do it, and recall your self when you had these positive feelings.

©️ The Gaitpost

  2. Now we need a trigger to help you connect quickly to that success and make you feel strong. Sara tells us about a high-powered lady in the City who hated presenting at board meetings. She chose to wear a ring that her mother had given her and every time the nerves used to raise their ugly head, she would touch the ring and feel empowered by her mother’s faith in her ability that she could do it. Choose a trigger that makes you feel strong, it could be a memory, or a picture in your head, a snapshot of your first pony that launched your passion or it could be a memory, a glance at someone in the audience watching you that you love, but the crucial part here is that you have to practice this in advance. You need to practise your pressure package in training so that you know how to do it in the real thing. Like the actors analogy above, this has to be drilled in before you need it.

My trigger: Where it all began…me & Tango (won’t reveal the date but the collars are a giveaway!)

 3. Finally, you need a performance mantra – some words that you can say as you enter the ring to get you in the mind set once you have done steps one and two. It could be “Head Up, Look Up, Positive Plan Time” or “Enjoy The Moment, I’ve Got This” but every time you feel small, or are worried what other people are thinking, or that you will forget the moves, say your mantra, use your trigger and think of something motivating that reminds you of feeling great and why you love doing what you are doing. This automatic drill technique will kick in and get you off to the right start and most importantly in the right frame of mind.

Another great piece of advice from Sara is to connect the reason you are doing what you are doing with a purpose greater than self interest – make it about something that you are not the centre of. This can be a great driving force for success. For example, in order to plug in to your power of purpose, try thinking of the fun you will have out on cross country and that the dressage is just the stepping stone to get you to the fun bit.

Or if you are worried about your dressage marks, focus on what you want the judge to see, pause the inner doubt in your head and think of the long term goal. It could be that you want to prove people wrong, that you are riding to win not just survive and by warming up your head space in this way, your performance will be raised.

Bert Bolton riding Purple Sands ©️ The Gaitpost

Sara’s experience in helping others deal with pressure stems from her former career as a school teacher. She recalls teaching at a very challenging school when a student shouted out “This lesson is F-ing boring.”

“There I was stood in a class of pretty unruly teenagers, my heart pounding and the anxiety levels rising. I couldn’t lose face in front of these kids, and it was my breathing that rescued me. When I was younger I danced at Sadler Wells and we were taught breathing for both our dancing and nerves. That day in the classroom, my body knew what to do. My pressure muscle was flexed and it meant I could have a conversation with the pupil rather than sending him out of the class, and turn it to my advantage. Dealing with pressure, with practise, needs to become an automatic drill technique.”

We really hope Sara’s advice helps you prepare for your first event of the season. Sara’s new book, The Shed Method – Making Better Choices When It Matters – is a brilliant read – it has helped me re-think how I approach every day things from dealing with stroppy teens, to steering my business goals in the right direction and encouraged me to get out there myself with my lovely horse and stop making excuses.

BUY HERE, RRP £12.99



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