Fear Is My Friend

Apr 3, 2011 - 4:37 PM
Sinead Halpin and Manoir de Carneville, a.k.a. Tate. Photo by Kat Netzler

I have this memory from several years back. I’m sitting in a comfortable, warm office chair at Stonehall Farm, David and Karen O’Connor’s Virginia residence. The leather chair is the same warm brown as the wood floors and walls that are the canvas for decades of David and Karen’s memories.

Some of these memories are the “Oh s***!!” photographs that we “crazy event riders” take as much pride talking about as the pictures with the blue ribbons. And some of the pictures are championship moments that happen far less frequently than the previously discussed pictures.

I’m sitting there thinking about what pictures will be on my wall when I grow up (Not that I’m claiming to be even near grown up—this was quite a few years ago!) when the voice of the slender blonde woman in a USA jacket creeps back into being the focus of my attention.

The woman sitting across from me was Dr. Suzie Reiwald. She’s a sports psychologist that David and the USOC have used for many years. David had invited her to Stonehall to speak to some of the students. Obviously, given my paragraph above, my attention span has never been one of my strongest traits, but something we chatted about came back into my thoughts this weekend at Southern Pines II Horse Trials in North Carolina.

Last year I wrote what I remember as being one of my first really personal blogs. It was right before Southern Pines, and I had just realized that my, at that time, WEG- and Rolex-hopeful horse Manoir De Carneville (“Tate”) had a small injury and would be out for the season, and I was beyond devastated. It has been a year, and I was so fortunate to have Tate not only back to compete at Southern Pines this year, but he actually won one of the advanced divisions.

As I stood in the awards ceremony feeling so thrilled with my amazing horse, I looked around, and four of the top eight horses were not in the ring. The riders of these horses were on their second or third horse out in warm-up getting ready for the second of two divisions of advanced. And just like that, my feeling of being satisfied was replaced by a hunger and almost panic. As I was sitting there getting the blue ribbon, my competitors and peers were getting better than me one warm-up jump at a time.

This vicious mental cycle is what keeps competitors competitive, but my god, it can be exhausting! This is when Dr. Reiwald’s words crept back into my head.

I remember Dr. Reiwald asking me what major stresses and concerns I had about competing.

“I’m scared my horse might get hurt, I’m scared sometimes I might get hurt,” I said.

She proceeded to dive a little deeper into where these fears were coming from, and I repeated numerous examples of these exact fears happening. Then she said something that has stuck with my since then.

“Sometimes fear is there to make us aware of something, to let us know something needs to be taken seriously and be well prepared for. This fear, if we face it, can actually make us better competitors. It can highlight areas of concern so we can pinpoint where we need to improve.”

That thought process helped me customize my training so I felt prepared when I went to competitions. Now as I have gotten more mature my “fears” have changed slightly. I have accepted that sometimes people and horses suffer injury as part of being high performance athletes, although we must do everything in our power to avoid these instances.

But I realized in the victory gallop this weekend my fear has moved from actual physical to the fear of not being able to keep up with the competition that is improving at a rapid pace. The horses are getting fancier, the riding is getting more refined, the training is getting more intense. I realize now I must use the same equation that Dr. Reiwald gave me to deal with my earlier fears and focus in on how to make a plan so I feel like I am traveling at the same pace and maybe every now and then carry the torch that leads the way.

As I sit looking at the pictures on my wall, I see a lot of same similarities, almost all of them are of a beautiful chestnut named Tate. I realize that I am beyond lucky to have these photographs, but nothing’s wrong with adding some color to a room! In order to keep up with my competitors and peers that are exceptional, I need to make a plan to add some new pictures.



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