In the first of our blog series on gaining confidence, we started with ring nerves and their tie to the fears we take with us into the ring. This time we are going to look at pressure, where it comes from and how we can tackle it for what it really is.

“Pressure” in this context is has to do with outside forces, influences or urgency. We talk about the “pressures of life,” or someone who does well “under pressure.” It’s one of those things that’s hard to describe, yet you know it when you feel it.

In a competitive situation, we can also put pressure on ourselves – pressure to perform, to secure a crucial Q, to finish a big title, to dodge the pressure of time closing in. As a kid riding horses, I often felt pressure from my parents, yet today with my dogs the pressure is self-imposed.

Sources of pressure

Most of the time pressure is internally created when we only have the outcome, or result, in mind. We aren’t focused on the process of a smooth run or a connected pattern, rather our success hinges on the outcome. What’s interesting is that we are actually creating a threat and putting our bodies and minds into a state of feeling under attack.

When you think about it, it’s a super weird thing to do to ourselves. Those who “thrive under pressure” are really just benefitting from the heightened focus and responsiveness that fearful situations bring forth.

But for most of us, the fear response as a result of the pressure we place on our performance only gets in our way. In truly life threatening situations we might fight or take flight, yet these responses aren’t particularly helpful when you’re next to walk into the ring. Yet this response, this energy, has to “go” somewhere so we do all sorts of weird things.

We might obsess over part of the course; we might lose our temper; we might grab a donut or not be able to eat at all … you get the point. Your body and mind are trying to alleviate this feeling of danger and the outputs can get pretty crazy!

So what’s a girl (or guy) to do?

STEP ONE: AWARENESS For starters, you have to become aware of what’s happening and catch yourself. Reaching for a donut when you know you don’t want it? Pause and ask yourself how you’re really feeling about your upcoming runs. Find yourself with a short fuse? Stop and step “outside” yourself and take a breath. Catch yourself doing or saying something out of the ordinary and see if you can’t find the real source. Most of time it’s hard to admit – even to ourselves – that we are feeling pressure to perform.

STEP TWO: TRACK IT DOWN Now that you know the pressure to perform is getting to you, invest the time in finding its source. Is it coming from outside? From someone else? Your breeder who suddenly came to watch? Is it self-imposed? Why are you creating this pressure for yourself to perform in this particular moment? You cannot hurry through this step. Basically, if you don’t address the root cause, it will just come back and bite you in the behind. Keep asking yourself, “But why?” every time you think you are to the bottom of your pressure.

Let’s walk down a simple example: Your stomach feels like gymnasts have taken up a Vegas residency > You realize you’re putting so much pressure on yourself and your dog to Q on this run. > Why? Because you need this for your title? > But Why? Because you’re not entered again this spring. > Is this truly the last chance? Well no, but I’d like to get it done and his breeder is here. > But why? I’m afraid we’re not ready … Keep going until you are at the bottom, the very depths of where the pressure is coming from.

STEP THREE: CHOOSE AGAIN Now that you know the source of your pressure, you can reframe the goal that is fueling it. In the example above, the pressure is based on an outcome goal – to Q. And let’s be honest, we want to Q pretty much every time we walk into the ring, right? The thing is, when we focus on the outcome, we tend to gloss over the pieces we need to execute in order to get to that desired result.

For example, in order to Q, I have to stay connected, place a little more attention on a technical part and make sure my dog is warmed up. If I don’t do those things, the Q is out the window. Yet if I focus on those three areas – process goals – now I have a chance. So reframe your goal away from outcome and to a process goal or two instead. This is especially helpful when we are worried our dog isn’t prepared or we are working on an issue, etc. 

You are in control

Remember, this pressure isn’t real. You made it up. You are not under attack, you are physically safe. Once you remind yourself that you are creating this horrible feeling, you will remember that you are actually in control of – not at the mercy of – this moment. You can step away and reframe while reminding yourself of why you started playing dog sports to begin with: You love your dog and it’s fun, damnit! 🙂

(Photo Chris Stefanac)