10 am, August 2, 2012. Greenwich Park equestrian stadium. The London Olympics. I have arrived early and I am sitting in the stands waiting for the start of the Dressage Grand Prix. To entertain us there is an interviewer speaking with British Dressage star Carl Hester. We can see them up on a jumbo-tron screen. She asks him how he was feeling.
“I’m better now that I’m here,” he replied with a smile. “I’ve had friends calling me up and asking me if I was alright. ‘I’m NOT alright’ I would tell them. I kept feeling like I was going to throw up. But now that I’m here and with all the other athletes, all of whom are in the same position, I feel better.”
Carl Hester has ridden in multiple Olympics, and won numerous national championship titles. If he can feel nervous anyone can feel nervous. There is a bigger than normal pressure at the big championships like the Olympics or the World Equestrian Games when you are riding to represent your country, especially if your country expects you to do well and be on the podium. There are many dreams that are waiting for you to make them come true.
Being nervous and being excited are two very different things. Being nervous is not such a positive feeling. Being excited is. So when you feel like you are going to throw up or actually do throw up this is nervousness that is not positive. But butterflies in your tummy can be excitement and this can be a positive feeling that lifts you up to make a special effort for a special event.
When we look at the top dressage riders in the big championships they always look calm, and composed. But is that what is really going on? This is how Charlotte Dujardin, two time Olympian and gold medal winner said of how she felt going into her freestyle ride in the Rio Olympics on Valegro. Her coach is Carl Hester.This is an excerpt from her autobiography.
Usually the bigger the competition, the more I want to get out there: bring it on. This time my heart was pounding through my jacket and my legs were like jelly. ‘I can’t feel my legs.’I said to Carl. ‘I’m so nervous, I can’t feel my legs.’
“You’ve got nothing to prove,” he said. “You’re going out there for yourself. Just go and enjoy it.” Even that was enough to make me want to cry. I had tears in my eyes when I walked Blueberry (Valegro)in the ten minute box because I felt so nervous and worried and emotional.
The rider before her came out with a very good score that put her into first place. Charlotte now had to walk down to the main arena.
Carl gave me a pat on the leg……Then Robbie Sanderson, who was a friend of Alan’s (Alan Davies who grooms for Carl and Charlotte) said, ‘Go for it girl.’ And just like that the message got through. I picked myself up,held my head high, and as we came trotting round the outside of the arena it actually felt like Blueberry had taken hold of my hand. It was the most unbelievable feeling: like he was reassuring me and saying ,’We can do it.’
And they did! Charlotte and Valegro scored 93.857% to win the gold medal.
So, yes, even the big professionals can feel nervous about competing in the big championships. Next week at the FEI World Equestrian Games in Tryon there will be the best riders in the world competing. Once in the arena they will all look like it is easy and they are calm and confident. They are professionals. But in the warm up ring, or in their hotel beds the night before ….nerves may creep in and try to do mischief. But these riders all have learned ways to quell the negative nerves. They will all be able to enter the arena, hold their heads high and ride on! The horses and the riders will give each other confidence. That is the beauty of equestrian sport.