It’s All In The Mind
To say I was looking forward to this was an understatement we all know how horses can be great levelers but sometimes our nerves do get the best of us. So what can a performance psychologist offer you? How about they can help you perform at your best, ride more effectively in competition and also help you thrive and enjoy yourself at shows! This has to be better than getting so stressed and spending most the show at the toilets or smoking 100 cigarettes before you even arrive at the show hasn’t it!.
Things are often defined in black and white the problem with this is that it becomes too easy to fail creating a negative emotion when really we should look at the stops, runs outs or eliminations as character building – sure you have all heard that before I know I have.
One of the first things we were asked to do was to think or write down on a piece of paper the words that would best describe you at your worst and you at your best then review how you horse might describe you (this I have to say did make me giggle). What I saw on paper was two completely different riders but I also saw things I could take control of and things I couldn’t. So if I know what I was like at my best then it will be easier to recreate. I mean how many of us come out of the ring on a good day and write down or think about all the things we did well?? But I guess we all come out and focus on the bits that went wrong!
Sports psychology gives you presence of mind which will help you and your horse compete at your best the top riders aren’t winning by chance as it doesn’t happen by accident; they anchor back to their best performances which gives them the confidence and self belief instead of getting tense or being preoccupied by previous mistakes.
As you know I used to be a gymnast and I somehow never got as nervous as I do when eventing and I often wondered why that was. Were our coaches just better at training us psychologically as well as physically but after this course I realized that actually no they weren’t. Like the army in gymnastics nothing was left to chance everything was broke down so before we learned a new move all the preparation work was done and before we entered a competition our routines were tweaked and tweaked perhaps new moves were removed till we were more confident in performing them, therefore going to a gymnastics competition was fun stress levels were low, why? Because we had trained solidly for them from nutrition to homework books etc why would anything go wrong how could it and if it did then it was just bad luck we came back and got on with making sure it didn’t happen next time. Our performances were analysed each one of us was recorded and then we sat down with our coaches and discussed how to improve. I had solid belief in my coaches there was no doubt in them despite them learning with us as we developed so did they but we always knew they wanted the best for us.
Language is key be careful how you talk about events and shows when things don’t go to plan as its all communication to your brain and ultimately will affect your emotions. We tend to get tense when we are out of control so start and look at the things you can control and create a positive environment. For Instance do you control your performance or does your performance control you?
Competitiveness can be a positive attribute and a negative one depending on your attitude as you will either focus on what you can control or the things you can’t for instance the weather – it’s windy, its wet, the grounds bad etc Professional riders channel that adrenalin rush created by competitions into positive energy for what they can control for example – how the horse makes its transitions, the fluency around the show jumping course the accuracy of the dressage test or the cross country lines.
So the three things that ultimately affect the way you perform are – strategies, mindset and identity. Identity I hear you say?! Well in Eventing for example you may well be competing against professional riders or Olympic riders and you automatically put yourself at a lower skill level (we forget that these guys are on young inexperienced horses sometimes) however the horses don’t like this as you will ride differently for example how are they supposed to know that’s Charlotte Dujardin over there?! Allow permission for you to be yourself and don’t copy others: find your own way.
Positive thinking and positive doing is always a good motto to follow but train your-self off the horse as well as on the horse. For instance why or how would you use it on the horse when you need it the most in the most nerve heightening environment if you don’t do it at home in the comfort of your own home or facilities?. Visualize your goal be clear in your mind about what you want if you don’t you will cut corners and perhaps won’t even bother riding.
So one thing we need to look at doing as riders is breaking things down for both you and your horses. This way the outcome of shows or training will become your driving force not the red rosettes (they just become a bonus!) You will also be able to measure your success better so have little goals that will help you reach the bigger goal in question and I would insist that all this is better done on paper rather than in your head. I mean face it buildings like Cathedrals, Houses and Schools are all designed on paper first then built block by block if they weren’t then imperfections would occur and ultimately the building could fall down! We can often get overwhelmed with under-confidence this is why it’s important to focus on one thing at a time which will help you get that ‘tunnel vision’ people talk about. We were told a story at this point and it was in regards to two boys playing cricket and every day they would go out into the field and play however the younger brother would be batting and the older one bowling. The older brother was a prolific bowler and used to bowl out the younger brother constantly till one day the younger brother hit the incoming ball and gave himself time to do the runs not only that he took that time to review what he done that made him hit that ball. The answer to that was that he watched the ball all the way onto the bat and kept his bat straight. From that day on He solely concentrated on those two things and over time he got better and better and he started to hit the ball more and more until it got to the point where he beat his older brother and guess what his older brother no longer wanted to play but the younger Child s motivation to keep playing was to get better at hitting the ball not just to win – the latter just came with the progress!
Now if you think to your-self Inside out confidence and imagine three circles . The inside one being the process, the middle one being the measure and the outside one being the outcome. If you concentrate on the inside one which would be your plan your preparation and your strategy then you will push outwards through circles improving the measures of scores, clear rounds and personal bests till you get to the outside circle which would be recognition, reputation , winning and possibly team selection. You see the pressures come from the outside circles and we can all get fixated on these measures and outcomes which in turn affects our process. If you notice riders like Mark Todd , Andrew Nicholson and Carl Hester they are ultra calm and they make everything look so easy they communicate well with their horses and the horses respond appropriately (well 99.9% of the time!) . We have to realize that nerves are normal. At the end of the day you can only be the best version of you and work to your own set of standards. Don’t judge yourself by what others are doing or by what you think you should be doing just be your own person and concentrate on your own standards.
You need to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. We all have a logical function to our brain and a not so no logical function called the emotional function!. What you need to do is perform in your bubble! So pick certain things you are going to focus on at the show and work on improving those. The external factors will still be there but hopefully not as prominent but to help you to stop focusing on the external factors you need to be able to identify them and have a plan as how to overcome them.
So as you know when we tense we restrict our breathing a lot in fact if you are me you might not even take one breath whilst jumping the show jumping course and come out looking like a beetroot! Your heart rate at competitions or in a stressful situation will naturally increase accept this it’s the way are heart works and it is just the parasympathetic nervous system kicking in. There are ways to manage this : one is to focus on your breathing – in through your nose and out through your mouth for a count of 5 seconds on each part, you will find this very calming and it will help you let go of interference.
Though lets for forget all these breathing exercises or rescue remedy or putting your lucky socks on if you get it in the mindset that the judge doesn’t like you and always marks you badly. You should never get on a horse unless in a coherent mind state as horses are one of the most coherent animals and become hypersensitive.
When things don’t go to plan just take a deep breath what can happen in 0.5 seconds? This deep breath and half a second will help you regain focus.
Remember nerves are normal and relate to an increased heart rate with additional blood pumping to the brain and the muscles. Coherence is a clear, relaxed, alert state of mind. Coherence can be achieved with or without nerves therefore it is not nerves that stop us from performing well, it is our inability to think clearly DESPITE the nerves.
If you can do all this then your performances will not happen by chance you will start to enjoy the shows and will become motivated by the little things you didn’t even know existed before you started.
To discover more about this and how it can help you contact: Charlie Unwin
Credit to Charlie Unwin – Sports Psychologist
Wrote by Lisa Smith Eventing
The Video attached is brilliant if you watch it to the end as it demonstrates the purpose of training and getting the little things right. Very Inspriing! so if you have a young jockey who wont make their bed make sure they watch this!
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