MIND OVER MAT­TER

Con­tin­u­ing last month’s dis­cus­sion

Dressage Today - - Content - By Jenny Susser, PhD

Jenny Susser shares tips for strength­en­ing your mind as a rider.

QThere is a very good trainer in my area who has a lot to of­fer, but she is in­tim­i­dat­ing and very blunt. I think there is a lot I could learn from her, but to be hon­est, I’m a lit­tle scared of her. Should I pur­sue rid­ing with her? If so, what are some strate­gies to help me cope with her harsh crit­i­cism?

AThis month’s col­umn is a con­tin­u­a­tion from last month, an­swer­ing the se­cond half of this rather com­pli­cated ques­tion from a reader. There is re­ally only one strat­egy for deal­ing with harsh crit­i­cism. By the way, this strat­egy ap­plies to more than just a dres­sage les­son. The strat­egy is sim­ple, but not easy. Mind­ful­ness, or con­trol­ling the mind, is how to deal with harsh crit­i­cism.

If you rolled your eyes when you read that, please read on. I know it sounds im­pos­si­ble be­cause con­trol­ling the mind is a long and ded­i­cated prac­tice that you get only marginally bet­ter at, so why bother? But in many ways, so is dres­sage. It takes years to get good at it and every time you look around, you can al­ways get bet­ter.

“Mind­ful­ness” is a big buzz­word these days, so let me ex­plain an easy way to think about mind­ful­ness. Har­vard So­cial Psy­chol­o­gist Ellen Langer de­fines mind­ful­ness as, “the sim­ple act of ac­tively notic­ing things.” Have you ever seen a sign that says, “Mind Your Step?” Mind­ful­ness doesn’t have to be about med­i­ta­tion or some new-age method of im­prov­ing your life. It is about be­ing present, be­ing aware and notic­ing what is go­ing on in the mo­ment. Hu­man be­ings have this ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­ity to learn from the past and pre­pare for the fu­ture be­cause of our com­pli­cated brains. While this evo­lu­tion­ary trait is sup­posed to help us, it ac­tu­ally causes prob­lems, too. For a lot of us, when we think about the past, an emo­tion is trig­gered that we then in­sert into the fu­ture, of­ten giv­ing the fu­ture no chance but to match the past.

Start by think­ing about what part of the harsh crit­i­cism it is that re­ally both­ers you. Is it the mes­sage (the crit­i­cism) or the de­liv­ery (the harsh­ness of it) that both­ers you? If it is the crit­i­cism, then you are most likely dis­tressed by where you are in your rid­ing. If this is the case, I imag­ine this is how that in­ter­ac­tion would play out: The trainer points out some­thing you are do­ing wrong and your mind speeds into the dark­ness of how you can’t fix the is­sue be­cause you’re not good at that or you weren’t taught cor­rectly or you don’t have enough time to ride to get good at it, etc. And then it all goes dark and you ride poorly.

If it is the harsh­ness that both­ers you, then your feel­ings get hurt quickly and you feel the un­con­trol­lable need to pro­tect your­self. You might even com­bine this feel­ing with the per­ceived cer­tainty that you can’t per­form and then you don’t ride to your po­ten­tial.

Ei­ther way, be­ing mind­ful is the way to man­age all of this. As a dis­claimer, mind­ful­ness is a prac­tice and a skill that is de­vel­oped over time, just like dres­sage. Af­ter all, no one is born able to ride per­fect pirou­ettes. But the time will go by no mat­ter what, so why not spend it get­ting bet­ter at some­thing that will help you?

The game to play with your mind is to no­tice what it is think­ing. This is mind­ful­ness. If you can hear your own thoughts be­com­ing neg­a­tive, then you have the power not to re­act to them. You might think to your­self, Oh silly mind, when I re­ally try and am not let­ting you fill me with doubt, my half pass is ac­tu­ally quite nice!

Use your breath as a start to ground you by paus­ing and giv­ing your brain some oxy­gen. When you “mind your step” you get to di­rect your feet so that you stay on course. When you mind your brain, you get to di­rect your thoughts so you can be bet­ter con­nected to your ac­tual abil­ity to ride and im­prove your rid­ing.

Ob­vi­ously, your mind will never go away, but your abil­ity to use it bet­ter can al­ways im­prove. Like al­ways, stay fo­cused, stay com­mit­ted and most of all, be kind to your­self.

Jenny Susser has a doc­toral de­gree and is li­censed in clin­i­cal health psy­chol­ogy, spe­cial­iz­ing in sport psy­chol­ogy. A four-year all-Amer­i­can swim­mer at UCLA, she swam on two na­tional teams and at the 1988 Olympic Tri­als. She has worked with ath­letes of all sports and ages—col­le­giate, pro­fes­sional, in­ter­na­tional and am­a­teur. She was the sport psy­chol­o­gist for the 2010 WEG South African Para-Dres­sage Team and the 2012 U.S. Olympic Dres­sage Team. Dr. Jenny is also a per­for­mance coach with Hu­man Per­for­mance.

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