The question of “mental toughness” as it pertains to equestrian sport is one which has been of increasing interest to me in recent years, for several reasons. First, as the coach of an intercollegiate riding team, I have often noticed that what seems to separate those who win from the rest is not simply equitation skills; of course, you must find your fences, but equally important is the rider’s ability to maintain focus and self-confidence. Secondly, as an instructor, I have seen so many riders whose progress is stifled because either they don’t believe that they are capable of being better than they are, or they don’t care to be better than they are. Finally, “mental toughness” is an area that I find that I now personally struggle with as a competitor. Nerves plague me far more today than they ever did when I was younger, and these jitters sometimes turn into a level of anxiety which causes me to feel utterly exhausted before I have even set foot in the stirrup. The question of how to build a rider’s “mental game” is one which has intrigued me and prompted me to begin investigating the topic further.
This summer, I was fortunate to be able to participate as a rider in a clinic focusing on “pressure proofing your riding” with equestrian coach and sports psychologist Daniel Stewart. The clinic was hosted by Lauren Atherton Eventing and was held at our facilities at UNH in Durham, NH.
Prior to the clinic, I was moderately familiar with Stewart (he has been a frequent guest speaker at the USPC Annual Meeting) and had read his first book, Ride Right, which focused a bit more on combining physical exercises with mental imagery. His new book, Pressure Proof Your Riding, was just released this fall, and after riding in the clinic, I found myself pre-ordering a copy.
As it happens, the book arrived as the fall semester was beginning, and it was moved to the shelf, waiting for that mystical “free time” in which I would “focus” and “really absorb” the book. Hmm….
A few weekends ago, I was able to hear Stewart speak again, this time at the Area I Annual Meeting in Northampton, MA. The lecture he gave was similar to the one he provided at the clinic this summer (and a hearty “atta boy” to Stewart for being able to maintain the same high octane energy level and enthusiasm he did presenting this lecture, which he must have given at this point on countless occasions), but it did help me to reconnect with some of the important concepts that I learned about in July. As we continue to move forward into the Year of Gratitude, it seems like a good opportunity to “focus” and “really absorb” some of his key concepts, even if I don’t actually get to that “free time” where I will sit and read the book from cover to cover.
Developing a Solution Focused Mindset
One of Stewart’s first points is that being nervous means that you care about what you are doing, and overall, nerves are a good thing! However, nerves can get out of control, so learning to manage your nerves is a critical skill to master. To quote Stewart, “Perfect position won’t help you if you can’t focus”.
Stewart also discussed learning to develop a “solution focused mindset”, as opposed to a problem focused mindset. Of course, this can sometimes be easier said than done. Therefore, he proposes several unique yet interconnected strategies to help riders learn to control their arousal level and thereby maximize their performance.
We all know that music can affect our emotional state—so why not use this to our advantage? Stewart suggests choosing several songs which you personally find “pump you up” (if you need that type of encouragement) or “calm you down” (if you are someone who tends to get hyper under pressure). Look up those songs’ lyrics—do any of them contain motivational messages? You are basically looking for positive affirmation sentences within the lyrics. Stewart then says you should narrow your play list down to just one or two songs whose anthems really help you get into a positive and focused mental state.
Listen to your music at the beginning of the week before an important ride or competition, and imagine yourself having the ride you are hoping for. Stewart likens this to creating your “personal highlight reel”. You can listen to the music on your way to the barn or in the aisle as you groom. Spend some time really feeling your ride as you let the positive motivational messages seep into your psyche.
Stewart points out that when under pressure, it is easy to forget what it is you are supposed to be doing—does anyone remember watching David O’Connor looking for the next jump when the Olympic gold medal was on the line? He calls this “stress induced amnesia”.
We all know that there are certain pieces of our riding that require extra focus—maybe you need to keep more weight into your heels, or look where you are going, or establish a forward canter with your horse before the first jump. But add a bit of pressure, whether as intense as competition or as basic as someone you want to impress starts to watch you ride, and those skills go out the window.
To help riders stay focused and motivated, Stewart suggests coming up with a personalized “cue word”. A cue word is a three to five letter acronym which triggers your long term memory about important information. He gave several examples—STAR (Sit Tall And Release), LUCKY (Look Up Cluck Kick Yell), there were more… but you get the idea. This cue word will help you to remember the one or two most important physical or mental things you can do to ensure your success. Most of the words he gave as examples also carried a positive message or image in and of themselves.
Stewart says that a “stress stopper” is a pre-competition ritual that can be used to regain focus when you have lost concentration. It puts your attention back onto something that you can control, and helps to stop the perception of stress. Apparently professional athletes in more conventional sports do this all the time—a particular dribble of the basketball before taking a foul shot, knocking the bat against a cleat before matching up with a top pitcher, etc.
In riding, a stress stopper can be as basic as taking deep breaths and smelling the “aura” of a horse or stroking a ‘lucky’ braid, even wearing a special pair of socks. It really is a personal ritual or action that you find gives your brain something to do, to calm down and re-focus when needed. Many of these rituals are almost superstitious, but they allow us to take our brain’s focus off of the pressure or nerves and onto something else.
An interesting concept that comes up a lot in sports psychology (and education, as well) is “flow”. When someone is in a state of “flow”, they are totally immersed in whatever task they are doing, and it is as though no time passes at all. They are focused, intense, and wholly engulfed in the work at hand. Stewart spoke of “flow” and that it is important for a rider athlete to be in a state of flow in order to “get in the zone”. When a rider is “in the zone”, they are able to focus on the present, and to identify solutions to problems by being aware of the skills that they have and what they are good at. The ride at this point becomes automatic.
“Targeting” is when you use an auditory target to help achieve a state of flow. In horseback riding, Stewart says that focusing on repetitive sounds such as you or your horse’s breathing, or the sound of the horse’s footfalls, works really well. This is a form of “cadence training”, where you focus your attention on the rhythm of your horse’s gaits (one-two, one-two), which can help you to achieve harmony with the movement of the horse.
Stewart explained that this type of auditory cue can almost become like a chant, a positive affirmation or a mantra that can help riders to maintain focus.
Focus for a rider really is everything—humans are not good at “mental multi-tasking”, says Stewart, meaning that in spite of what we might think, we cannot focus on two things at once. I know that I can’t watch TV and also attend to the person on the phone (so don’t expect an answer if I am watching one of my favorite shows), and I also know that I can’t focus on my placing in a class and my show jumping course, or wonder what score the judge just gave my centerline while still riding a balanced and flowing corner. The rider must choose what she wants to focus on, and that is why these techniques which can help us to “stay in the zone” become so critical.
Building Your Brand
Stewart’s final theme of the lecture was on “building your brand”, and my take away is that this is a way of combining all that you have been working on into one effective strategy to gain control of your focus. Actually, writing this blog is part of my own “building my brand” process. Stewart reminded us that up to 80% of what we hear in a day will be forgotten; to just sit in the lecture and not do anything with the material will not allow the listener to really absorb it. However, we DO remember 90% of what we teach to others—so in listening to the lecture twice and now summarizing it for you, I definitely feel as though I personally am beginning to internalize Stewart’s message. Whether you, gentle reader, will do the same is up to you!
To “build your brand”, Stewart says that you must take your four pieces of homework (music motivation, cue words, stress stoppers and cadence training) and connect them together. He gave many examples of how previous clients had done this; the only one that I really remember was the LUCKY girl, whose horse’s name was Lucky, she rubbed a horse shoe for luck before mounting, had the word “lucky” in her music, etc. By making all four of your pieces “fit” together, they become a system which is easy to remember and to apply.
Laugh Learn Love
In spite of our best mental preparation, things do not always go the way we had hoped for. And so, a final message from Stewart—and so relevant in this Year of Gratitude—is to remember to LAUGH (even if you don’t feel the laugh for real, faking it with ‘strategic laughter’ will still release feel good hormones, and since your brain can’t focus on two things at once it will respond as though you meant it), LEARN (when things don’t go your way, figure out what went wrong and look for the solution) and finally, LOVE—there is a reason we do this sport, after all, and I doubt for most of us it is for a $2.00 ribbon.
So what is my “brand”? I am not quite sure yet; actually, I don’t even have a clue. I do think that much of what Stewart is teaching really makes sense to me—and some of his concepts are ones which I have already (unwittingly) used. For me, it is all about being able to push the other thoughts aside and to find that state of ‘flow’; those moments when it is just you and your horse, and you aren’t worrying about what people think about your style of riding or whether you are going to embarrass yourself or make your horse look bad. I guess these are some of the worries that go through my mind, anyway. When I can just feel my horse, feel the rhythm, and really ride, all the rest of that goes away.