This week I had an opportunity to speak with Mental performance coach Dr. Nicole Folland. I asked her how she works with athletes, specifically equestrians, to help them overcome difficulties with competition and training with their horses.
- Are competition nerves the main reason people come to you for help?
They usually come to me to get help with their levels of confidence both on and off the horse and for nerves both before the show and at shows.
- Do you work with other athletes as well as equestrians?
I have worked with Olympic level athletes and international level athletes as well has high performing young athletes in the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) and the OHL ( Ontario Hockey League)But I specialize in equestrians.
3. Is there a difference in working with equestrians because you are dealing with a partnership between a human and another species…..the horse.
Yes absolutely! The normal tools for controlling attitude and preparation go out the window with a horse. You don’t know how they will be on the day. Wondering about the unknown and wondering “how am I going to do “ is normal but there are added unknowns with a horse as you don’t know how they will be reacting. Unknowns add to competition nerves. Also you have a lot of highs and lows with a horse because you have an emotional bond with the horse. They can be like a member of the family so the highs and lows are even higher and even lower.
- What are the most common causes of anxiety and nervousness in competition?
Not knowing what the horse will be like on show day makes it difficult for us to prepare mentally. If you are running a 60 meter sprint then you know what will happen: the gun goes off and you go. But the horse makes it a completely different situation. On top of that riders get concerned about what their coaches will think and what other people will think. It is very hard not to worry about the judgments of others. A lot of riders also put the added pressure on themselves of not letting the horse down. This happens especially with adult amateurs who have a trained horse. The rider feels they are not living up to what the horse can do.
- How do you help the athletes that come to you?
My doctorate is in psychology and neuroscience and I look at the body, the brain and the behavior. I start by asking questions and help the person to understand how their body handles performance. The brain is the location of the survival center and this produces anxiousness if we feel challenged. I help people to understand how their body handles performance. Anxiousness feels uncomfortable but the more we can understand it the better we feel. Focusing on breathing or taking a long walk can help and step one is learning what happens with stress in the body. Do you sweat, have an upset stomach, shortness of breath? Do you get short tempered with your coach or the people around you? The more we can understand the better we can control our body. If the brain goes into the negative thought pattern then the body tends to go into overdrive and we may feel hot or cold, nauseated, not wanting to eat, back aches, not wanting to talk to anybody. I help people to understand and identify how they react and then we can work on ways together to control those stressors and be more relaxed. I give people relaxation techniques to use in training. For example when you sit on your horse take a deep breath and relax your wrists. If you wrists are relaxed your arms can relax and your connection with the horse will be better and more relaxed.
Negative thoughts affect a lot of things and as a counterbalance I encourage riders to think about positive times they had with their horse.
- How do you handle a situation where it appears that a coach or a parent is pushing too hard?
That is tricky. We all have a hard time if we are taking things personally and at a show it can be ten times worse. Communication is Step One. It is important to have a conversation with the coach as to how you feel at shows and talk about how you feel the coach views you. I think it is best not to do this at the show but at a time after the show, at home, when the emotions of the competition have had a chance to settle down. I believe the coach wants you to do well and every coach has a different way of pushing. If it isn’t working for you then talk with the coach about a different way of talking and coaching at a show.
How do you feel it is the best way for you to be relaxed? Do you like to be talking and laughing with friends or being quietly on your own. You need to let the coach in to that side of you. Everyone handles stress and pressure differently. Coaches normally take the information and will gear to what is best for the student. Communication is the best thing and the rider must know what they are like at shows and be aware of how they react and how stress and pressure affects them.
This is all normal. We are wired to push ourselves. Really it is about perspective. If you feel your heart racing and you can look at that and say “this is my body reacting” and then you can react by saying “ I can’t do this” or “ I am ready to do this”. Is your body preparing for a challenge or heading for a crisis? Frame your perspective. It is a challenge not a crisis!
If you are an equestrian you have to do the same thing with your horse. How does your horse react in his brain, his body, and his behavior?
The biggest things is gaining confidence in the brain and body. Handling shows and gaining confidence those are the two big things that I help athletes with.
Thank you Nicole for taking the time to speak with me. The issue of confidence both at home and in the show ring are critical to being able to really enjoy time with your horse and I think many people will identify with what you have shared with us here.
For more information on Dr. Folland here is her official biography. You can also see her website http://allthekings.com/
Dr. Nicole Folland specializes in motivating aspiring and elite athletes to maximize their athletic performance and push their boundaries. Dr. Folland’s passion for transforming the lives of athletes led her to complete a Ph.D. in Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour. She has helped countless athletes at the Olympic, professional, JR/YR & amateur level unlock their potential and turn dreams into reality.
She has worked with athletes in a wide variety of sports including equestrian, hockey, swimming, track and field, dance, gymnastics, lacrosse, soccer, golf and tennis. Although, Dr. Folland holds a special place in her heart for equestrian riders as she herself trains and competes in dressage.
For nearly two decades Dr. Folland competed on both national and international stages as a professional dancer winning accolades such as North American Performer of the Year. In 2006, she represented Team Canada at the International Dance Organization’s World Championships of Dance in Riesa, Germany. With a 6th overall finish, Dr. Folland was the first Canadian female to advance through all rounds of competition and earn a spot in the finals. Her ongoing commitment to competitive sport has helped shape her understanding of the physical and mental demands of elite sport. After transitioning out of competitive dance, Dr. Folland embarked on fulfilling her lifelong dream of becoming an equestrian dressage rider.