Ever get nervous before you walk into the ring?

confidence mental skills Jun 11, 2019
Photo of Indie and me on the start line by Rich Knecht.

Some amount of heightened energy is a good thing, but when your nerves get in the way of you being able to perform at your best, it’s a problem that deserves attention. 

One night in my group obedience class, my instructor was talking about managing ring nerves and how it impacts our dogs. She made a casual comment, something to the effect of, “Everyone gets nervous before they go into the ring, except maybe Julie.” I chuckled and accepted the comment with a smirk, knowing it wasn’t exactly true.

Everyone has performance jitters of some sort. I think of it as a continuum from uber focus and excitement to full-on anxiety, all of which can also be thought of in terms of the energy we generate around performing under “pressure.”

Ring nerves – what are they, where they come from and how to overcome them – is such a huge topic that I am putting together a whole Masterclass on the subject (coming soon!). But in the meantime this is the first in a mini blog series, and we are going to begin with the awareness you need to determine the source of your “nerves.”

What are “ring nerves?”

The feeling of nervousness is certainly fear-based – I think that point won’t take much convincing. When I ask clients to share WHAT they are thinking about when they feel nervous, most responses begin with, “I’m afraid that …” Fear. Not only are we standing at the gate actively thinking about all that could go wrong, but through that act we are visualizing exactly what we don’t want. And do I need to mention that we are sending all of those thoughts and feelings right down the leash? A wonderful animal communicator and coach once told me, “You’re standing at the gate basically telling your dog that he should be afraid of what’s in [the ring].” Or even worse, you’re disconnected from your dog entirely.

When I ask clients WHY they have these fears, the responses are more varied, yet there are consistent themes. They are afraid that something that happened before will happen again. They are afraid they won’t be successful. They are afraid something (they can’t control) will go wrong.

Let’s contrast a fearful competitor with someone who is looking forward to going into the ring. What is she feeling? Excitement, confident, ready, even joy in doing something she loves. Can this person fail? Absolutely!! Will she see it as failure? Disappointment maybe, but probably not failure. The excited person may also need to learn to control her energy a la Goldilocks style (not too much nor too little), but her perspective is that it’s all feedback in a quest to improve.

Moving toward confidence

It’s certainly a lifelong journey of becoming a confident competitor, but the first step is to look your fear in the eye and journal about WHAT and WHY you are nervous. Be specific and follow your train of thought wherever it may go. If you are fearful because of a past experience, your journaling may go like this:

  • You may start with the what: I’m afraid my dog will leave the ring.
  • Then the why: Because he’s actually left the ring before.
  • Is this likely to happen again? Maybe.
  • Have you worked on it? Trained for it? Oh yes! We’ve been working really hard at our connection, etc.
  • Isn’t it just as possible then your dog stays in the ring and works? Yes.

Obviously I am shortening the exercise, but I want to face your fears so that you can address them and see that they are less likely than you may think AND to be able to turn your thoughts around and focus on the positive instead. Our actions follow our thoughts so let’s invest in the right set of possibilities.

Next time we are going to talk about pressure – both internal and external – and how we work with or against pressure in the context of preparing ourselves to walk into the ring. Not all pressure is bad – some of us need some pressure to get focused (any procrastinators out there?) – but there is an optimum amount of pressure that each of us needs to manage.

Personal tale: How my nerves “look” from the outside

Before a competition, let’s say while walking the course in agility, I’ve absolutely been told I appear to be: unapproachable, aloof, serious, rude, have resting bitch face, or am actually a bitch. Now, for the record, I don’t want to be thought of in these ways, however I am working very hard in those moments to shut the world out and focus on our plan. Headphones in, baseball hat pulled down, in my own little world. My outward appearance in these moments is absolutely up for interpretation, but I really do not mean to offend – I’m just doing what works for me.

As a matter of fact, the more nervous (or serious) I get, the quieter I become. Some people get chatty when they are nervous (I’m reminded of out of sight stays and how some handlers talk for the entire three minutes). Totally cool, it just doesn’t work for me.  There are a LOT of monkeys in my mind that are trying to steal my attention away in any given moment and it’s work for me to stay focused. But now I know that when I’m with other handlers in an out of sight stay, each of us has her own coping go-to.

I’m not sharing all of this to explain my resting bitch face next time you see me, rather it’s to open your mind to how you and your fellow competitors might be processing life in that moment. We all have our rituals and coping habits so let’s allow others to do their thing 🙂

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