Can You Feel The Pressure?

Oct 2, 2010 - 3:38 AM
Michael Jung and La Biosthetique Sam will not only have to contend with all of the fences on the WEG cross-country course, but also an enormous amount of pressure.

Michael Jung and La Biosthetique Sam produced one of the best dressage tests in eventing history to head the World Championship field today. He is an experienced horse and Michael is now one of the best event riders in the world so he must have good chance of holding onto his lead in the cross-country phase today. But will he cope with the pressure?

World Championships do not come around every day and with the failure of the normally all-conquering German dressage team to win Gold or Silver medals there is additional pressure on Michael to bring home the Gold…not to mention the pressure of the 60,000 spectators that are expected to line the cross-country course today. 

Many will attribute his success or failure on the day to luck. They will agree with the narrator in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:This is a story of an ordinary little boy named Charlie Bucket. He was not faster, or stronger, or more clever than other children. His family was not rich or powerful or well-connected; in fact, they barely had enough to eat. Charlie Bucket was just the luckiest boy in the entire world.”

All the research looking at the ability of high performance athletes would suggest that success on the big occasions is not down to luck. Yehuda Shinar, the Israeli life coach who worked with the English rugby team that won the World Cup in 2003 has made this a focus of his work and has studied elite performers from all walks of life. His conclusion was that “there was absolutely no correlation between the level of talent or intelligence a person had and the likelihood that he would deliver in his job. What the successful people did share, however was one quality – the ability to maximize one’s potential even under pressure and in competitive situations.”

As a result he and others have evolved training techniques to help performers to Think Clearly Under Pressure…hence what is called T CUP training. There is a real need for this as we all know how many times our brain seems to fail us when under pressure. Everything from forgetting names to saying silly things to crashing the car! In addition our good positive thoughts and self-esteem can quickly disappear in these situations. Frighteningly the evidence shows that most of us are only able to use only about 30% of our brainpower when under pressure. Certainly we tend to think more slowly under pressure and this can be very costly for a cross-country rider who has to make split second decisions based on a stumble or slightly bad stride to a fence.

Features of today’s cross-country courses are the number of combinations that demand great accuracy and fluency. For example, the first water complex requires a very precise line and stride length to the second part, a ‘skinny’ in the water just three strides away. If a horse jumps in bigger or smaller than expected immediate reactions will be needed to go slower or faster or slightly change the line to jump the skinny well. While with the second water by the main arena the main challenge is a massive Normandy Bank placed in the centre of the water. There are only six or seven strides on a bending line from the brush vertical to this bank so any loss of fluency or loss of the rider’s position will demand quick thinking and reactions, as the longer route may be the sensible choice. Any delay in taking this decision will undoubtedly be costly.

Most of the longer routes on the course are very time consuming, so with one penalty for every second over the time and with less than 15 penalties separating the top 30 riders there is huge pressure on these riders to take the direct routes and save the seconds. However William-Fox Pitt, currently in 12th place on Cool Mountain, thinks that the long route at this second water is not hugely time consuming and may be worth taking to avoid jumping the Normandy Bank. It will be a wonderful fence to watch.

Of course William has had a huge amount of practice of taking decisions under pressure and is unlikely to be phased by the course or the crowd. He puts himself in a bubble of total focus that eliminates the crowd and allows him to not only think but feel what is happening underneath him, enabling those split second small reactions and corrections before there are major problems.

Last night no dressage rider in the Grand Prix Freestyle could have had the experience of riding in the heady atmosphere of the floodlit Lexington arena in front of a sell-out crowd of 25,000—a crowd that participated in every test and made a very significant contribution to probably the best competition in dressage history.

For Spanish rider Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz and his 12-year-old grey stallion Fuego XII the atmosphere and occasion was dressage heaven. Juan Manuel’s brain was fully in gear as every move was calculated to win over the crowds and try to squeeze out those extra few marks to win the medal he just failed to achieve in the Grand Prix. It was a deliberate strategy to use the wonderful sequence of one time changes just before entering the arena to get the whole crowd on his side and from then on every extra little pat and one handed flourish won our increasing support.

Juan Manuel narrowly failed to convince the judges and win his first medal, much to the displeasure of the crowds, but he marked himself out as a rider who has the coolest of heads and ability to ride under pressure. As Edward Gal began his test on the Grand Prix sensation Totilas there were many who thought the pressure was going to be too great as he broke in his first extended trot and then hesitated in two piaffe-passage transitions which are normally so perfect. Many thought that it was possible that we were going to see the king of dressage dethroned by the diminutive blonde rider Laura Bechtolsheimer, and that Britain was possibly going to win their first ever Gold Medal to cap an extraordinary World games for them.

However Edward and Totilas regained their composure and gained their third Gold medal. The sport of dressage was also a winner and WEG 2010 suddenly became everything that the state of Kentucky and the USA horse world had hoped for. The horse was also a winner because there is no doubt that the general public have adopted Totilas and his medal rivals, Mistral Hojris, Ravel and Fuego as heroes and personalities in their own right.

These horses seem to cope with pressure. Part of this is training but a significant part, possibly the majority, must also be genetics. The same bloodlines appear to consistently produce horses that can perform on the big stage and cope with the pressure. As Michael Jung goes out on the cross-country today he can take great heart from this fact as his horse, La Biosthetique Sam, is by the same Irish TB sire, Stan The Man, as Shear L’Eau, Leslie Law’s great grey Gold medallist from the Athens Olympics in 2004.


William Micklem is an international coach and educational and motivational speaker. He is a Fellow of the British Horse Society and author of The DK Complete Horse Riding Manual, the world’s top-selling training manual. He found Karen and David O’Connor’s three Olympic medalists Biko, Giltedge and Custom Made and breeds event horses, including Karen O’Connor’s Olympic horse Mandiba and Zara Phillips’ High Kingdom. He is also the inventor of the Micklem Bridle, which is now approved for use in dressage by the FEI.



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