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Conquering Ring NervesA-Step-by-step Program for All Dog Sports
By Diane Peters Mayer
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-4972-3
Chapter OneAnxiety: A Force to Be Reckoned With
No pressure, no diamonds. Mary Case
IN THIS CHAPTER
Fear vs. Anxiety
The Nervous System
Parts of the Brain
The Autonomic Nervous System
Fight or Flight Response
Beginning to Face Your Ring Nerves
Jane had been showing for almost a year in competition obedience with her Springer Spaniel, Goldie. Jane signed up for basic obedience classes and Goldie proved to be eager and smart; she loved the training. Jane was hooked after the first few lessons and knew she wanted to become a competitive handler. As the first show approached, Jane was hit with a case of nerves such as she'd never experienced before. She was in a panic, and Goldie, picking up on Jane's anxiety, vomited in the ring during a heeling pattern. And it was downhill from then on. No matter how much she and Goldie trained, each show became one mortifying experience after another. And Goldie, once so keen, now had her own case of canine jitters.
Anxiety is a normal and important facet of being human. However, anxiety has negative connotations. Many people spend time and money trying to eradicate it. Certainly, it is an ever-present and necessary component in the competitive dog show arena. We need that tension to be able to succeed and reach our personal best. Anxiety must be present to have the spark and vitality in competition, but we need to channel it into a great performance.
When anxiety becomes severe, debilitating and chronic, it breaks down the handler's ability to transfer her training from class to the competition ring. It can limit or block any chance for success. And the pressure is intense! Handlers are "on stage." Handlers are seen, compared, evaluated and scored. They depend on their canine partner to come through in tricky and tough ring situations. From Agility to Obedience to Breed, Flyball, Rally-O and Freestyle, competing can be very intimidating.
FEAR VS. ANXIETY
We often use the words fear and anxiety interchangeably, but they have two different definitions. Fear is something specific and describable. For example, you get out of your car and turn to see a truck hurtling toward you at 60 miles an hour. The fear of being hit, hurt or killed can be explained in specific terms. You react by trying to jump out of the way. Anxiety, on the other hand, is nonspecific and intangible in nature. For example, you get out of your car at a competition site, and when you see the building where the show is, you recall the last time when your handling was miserable, you panicked in the ring and your dog did not qualify. You become anxious, convinced that this scenario will repeat itself, but you can only imagine what might occur. Not being able to prepare for the unexpected makes our feelings of dread very difficult to cope with. Throughout the book, we will be using fear and anxiety in place of each other, because many handlers do.
Ring nerves affect handlers in various ways. Many have given up competing, even though they love working with their dogs. Others still show, but are unable to achieve high scores and titles. Some may be getting the scores, but do so without enjoyment. New handlers are often fearful to begin competing.
Let's look at Jane again. Jane is actually a composite of three handlers who had either stopped competing or who were contemplating quitting before they entered the Ring Nerve Program. These handlers now compete in a variety of dog sports. We'll follow Jane from chapter to chapter, charting her progress from nervous wreck to confident competitor.
The following is an example of Jane's preshow anxiety and how it leads to ring nerves. Anticipatory anxiety is often worse than the actual experience because imagination can run amok. For example, the moment Jane thinks about competing, two things occur: She remembers her last appalling performance, and in the same instance begins to worry about what might happen in the future, weeks or months before she will even step into the ring.
Entering the Show
Jane decides to enter a show and immediately feels some trepidation. She's experienced anxiety in past trials. Chronically low scores and NQs plagued her in the past. Jane relives humiliating past show experiences in her mind as if they were taking place now.
At the same time, she worries that history will repeat itself, and the "what ifs" begin:
What if Goldie throws up again?
What if I feel like throwing up when I'm in the ring?
What if people I know are there and I mess up?
What if my nerves are ruining my dog?
As these thoughts and worries continue, her nerves build inexorably toward the day of the show. Jane will be a nervous wreck, taking another hit to her already low self-esteem and feeling incapable of ever winning.
Anticipating the Show
This increased anxiety permeates every aspect of Jane's life up to the day of competition and manifests in a variety of symptoms:
Difficulty sleeping and/or having nightmares
Loss of appetite or overeating
Chronic headaches and stomach upsets
Feeling tired and irritable weeks before a show
Inability to concentrate
Training sessions fraught with anxiety
In dog training classes, Jane compares herself to other handlers and their dogs. These crushing negative mental tapes are playing all the time now:
I'll never be successful in the ring.
I always fail.
Goldie can't measure up.
Why am I doing this?
As the show date approaches, Jane questions why she pursues competing, because it's just too painful. Her symptoms have intensified, creating terrible stress for Goldie. Jane thinks she'll have to give up competition, which she is passionate about, because the anxiety is killing her.
The Night Before
The night before the show, Jane's symptoms spike. She has stomach problems and a persistent headache. She can't eat, is irritable and feels tense. She's never been to the show site, and that's making her even more anxious. Jane rechecks the directions and map compulsively. Her stress increases.
Packing for the show is an enormous physical strain. Jane has been binging on junk food over the last week and her clothes feel tight. She can't find anything to wear and thinks she looks fat and ugly.
Jane goes to bed early, but can't fall asleep. She mentally replays the last show with all the embarrassment she felt about her performance, unable to shut these thoughts off. Since she has to rise early for a long drive, Jane worries that she'll be competing on no sleep, so she watches the clock off and on most of the night. Jane manages to doze for a few hours and wakes with a sense of dread.
Going to the Show
Jane's stomach is a mess; she can't eat but drinks her usual two cups of coffee to wake up. In the car, Jane's negative thoughts are running at full speed. She puts on music to relax but it doesn't help. On the way she makes frequent stops at fast-food restaurants to use the bathroom.
As anxiety mounts to the day of the competition, its physical and mental symptoms become very difficult to control. Jane's ring nerves have intensified to such a degree that she has a feeling of impending doom, knowing another disaster is about to happen.
Entering the Show Site
Jane's stomach knots as she pulls into the parking lot. She tenses her body to push away the fear and grips the steering wheel to gain some control before she exits the car.
As she enters the building, the noise and commotion hit her. Her stomach churns and she feels nauseous, but she gets her number and begins to set up. Jane contemplates scratching and leaving, but that will only make her feel worse, so she grits her teeth and stays.
Jane checks out the rings and judges, but just watching the other competitors only heightens her anxiety. She looks at the running order, sees that it's almost time and begins warming up Goldie. Goldie is inattentive, and Jane's apprehension increases even more, reinforcing what she already believes: they don't have a chance and will NQ as usual. In the on-deck position, Jane finds it difficult to breathe. Her legs tremble and her heart pounds. She feels out of control and at any moment may lose it.
When the judge asks if she is ready, Jane's nerves send her into a panic attack. She seizes up and can't concentrate. She has difficulty hearing and understanding the judge's commands. Jane emotionally shuts down to cope with the panic, disconnecting from the event and from Goldie. Jane fulfills her prophecy-they NQ.
Jane is heartbroken and can't see a way out. Her fears have eroded her self-confidence and belief in her abilities. This is her last show. She stops competing, but continues to check out listings for a "Show and Go" or something equally nonthreatening. But there is no safe event, because even just thinking about going into a ring starts her panic. It's at this point, feeling isolated from the sport she loves and depressed about her situation, that Jane takes the first steps to turn herself around to get back into competition.
Summary of Jane's Experience
Jane's case is typical of severe ring nerves. Readers may see some of their own experiences in her story. Competing is difficult. It takes time, patience and discipline. Unless handlers can cope with performance anxiety, ring nerves will block their road to success.
Ring nerves also have a powerful impact on your canine partner. The dog observes the handler's physical, mental and emotional state. If a handler is cheerful and excited in training sessions, most dogs think: Wow! This is great! I love it! Let's keep doing it! But when show time comes, if instead of that wonderful smile the handler flashed in training class, a grimace covers her face, the dog thinks: Whoa! What's the matter with her? If things look this bad, I'm out of here!
WHAT'S HAPPENING TO ME?
Anxiety affects every aspect of our mind and body. To get the most out of this book's exercises and techniques, you need to understand how it works. You'll need to know a little about the nervous system and why you just can't "think" them away. Understanding and accepting performance anxiety is a major step in combating it.
THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
The nervous system is the body's complex organizer. It controls every aspect of living from movement of limbs, organ function and breathing, to thinking, emotions and reactions to our environment. It is divided into the central nervous system, which consists of the spinal cord and the brain, and the peripheral nervous system, which is found outside of the brain and spinal cord and consists of two major divisions: the somatic nervous system, which sends sensory information to the central nervous system, and the autonomic nervous system, which automatically performs basic human functions (such as muscle action of the heart) without conscious thought. The autonomic nervous system is influenced by emotions; for example, anxiety about competing can get your heart racing. This system is divided into three parts, two of which, the sympathetic and parasympathetic, we will examine a little later in this chapter. A closer look at these two systems will give us a greater understanding of how ring nerves function.
The Central Nervous System
The central nervous system is divided into the brain, which is located in the brain cavity, and the spinal cord, located in the vertebral cavity. It is home to over 100 billion neurons (nerve cells) that carry information throughout the body by receiving and transmitting electrical impulses. Let's look at these two divisions.
The Spinal Cord
The spinal cord, made up of nerve tissue, is protected by the vertebrae of the spinal column. It is the major pathway for information between the brain and peripheral nervous system. Messages in the brain are transmitted by spinal nerves to muscles and joints, which affects movement, and to glands that secrete hormones, including epinephrine and norepinephrine, which may elicit the "fight or flight" response.
The extraordinarily complex human brain weighs approximately two pounds and has the enormous task of communicating to and controlling every organ and bodily operation. It communicates and controls the human body through hormones and electrical impulses that run down the spinal column.
This human supercomputer consists of:
The brain stem (reptilian brain), where our "fight or flight" survival response is found, controls automatic functions such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and functioning of internal organs for digestion, urination, etc.
The cerebellum has two hemispheres. It is located behind the brain stem and controls and regulates movement, posture and balance.
The cerebrum, the largest part of the brain, controls our higher functions, including thought, logic, language, voluntary movement and perception. It is divided into two hemispheres: the creative right side and the logical left side. The cerebrum also contains the limbic system, whose main function is the control of emotions with another of its sections, the hippocampus, governing memory.
The Peripheral Nervous System
The peripheral nervous system, linked to the central nervous system by cranial and spinal nerves, has two branches.
The somatic nervous system carries sensory information to the brain and spinal cord via neurons that are contained in blood and lymph vessels, internal organs and sense organs, as well as muscles, tendons and the skin. The information these neurons carry communicate to the brain what is going on internally, as well as what's happening in the external surroundings, so it can prepare an appropriate response.
The autonomic nervous system operates unconsciously and controls and regulates involuntary body systems and organs, such as heart rate, blood pressure and respiration, by sending out hormones and electrical impulses.
Excerpted from Conquering Ring Nerves by Diane Peters Mayer Excerpted by permission.
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