MEN­TAL FO­CUS

A U.S. Olympian shares how you can re­di­rect your at­ten­tion to im­prove your rid­ing.

Dressage Today - - The Clinic - By Allison Brock with El­iza Syd­nor Romm

For most of us, there is lim­ited time each week to de­vote to our rid­ing, even though it is very im­por­tant in our lives. We have se­ri­ous goals and we all hope to im­prove each year, per­haps dream­ing of the FEI arena one day with our beloved horses. Many peo­ple have one les­son per week, a mere 45 min­utes. If we count that up for the year, that is less than 40 hours. So how can we make the very most of our lessons? Here are five tips I can of­fer you:

1. Pick an Ap­pro­pri­ate In­struc­tor

You must have a good sup­port sys­tem around you to be in the best state for learn­ing. Find an in­struc­tor who fits with your tem­per­a­ment, ca­pa­bil­i­ties and goals. It’s im­por­tant to watch whomever you want to train with teach other stu­dents and to watch them ride and com­pete. Spend the time to see if the teach­ing is sys­tem­atic, easy to un­der­stand and what kind of emo­tional state the stu­dents and horses fin­ish the ses­sion in. I per­son­ally pre­fer an in­struc­tor who is very di­rect and clearly states when I have done some­thing cor­rect or in­cor­rect. I also want some­one who is so­lu­tionori­ented and op­er­ates un­der the premise that he or she knows I am try­ing my best to do what he or she is ask­ing of me.

2. Be a Re­cep­tive Stu­dent

One of the skills I had to learn is how to be a re­cep­tive stu­dent. The in­struc­tors we choose to learn from are there to guide us and help make us bet­ter rid­ers and horse train­ers. It took me a long time to learn how not to take what they were say­ing per­son­ally. The con­struc­tive crit­i­cism they are giv­ing me is not a per­sonal at­tack on me. They are try­ing to raise my bar and push me out of my com­fort zone so I can grow. If you can start mas­ter­ing this skill in your rid­ing lessons, I find that it usu­ally trans­lates into other parts of your life as well.

Be­fore you even get to your les­son, it’s good to take a mo­ment to get into an open mind­set. I tell my­self when I go into a train­ing ses­sion that what­ever hap­pens, I’m go­ing to try to be open-minded to what­ever my in­struc­tor tells me. Be OK with some­body talk­ing about some­thing new—experiment a lit­tle. Rid­ing is not a static state. We have to know the the­ory be­hind what we are try­ing to achieve and ul­ti­mately we are look­ing to achieve a standard that will de­velop the horse to his high­est emo­tional and phys­i­cal state and pro­duce 10s in the show ring. Be will­ing to be cre­ative and flex­i­ble about to how we get from Point A to Point B. Horses do not nec­es­sar­ily fol­low the text books in their de­vel­op­ment.

3. Film your Lessons

While all of us would love to have a trainer help­ing us to learn ev­ery day and push­ing us to im­prove, we don’t all have that lux­ury. Many of us live too far away from our trainer for reg­u­lar lessons or can af­ford to spend only a cer­tain amount on our ed­u­ca­tion each year. But ev­ery­one can use video to make the most of their lessons or even their rides

Whether you’re cop­ing with the pres­sure of rid­ing down cen­ter­line at the Olympics or want­ing to make the jump from First to Sec­ond Level, learn­ing to fo­cus and deal with your emo­tions each day is key.

at home with­out a trainer. When I take lessons or school at a horse show I al­ways film it. Don’t wait to watch it. Re­ally try to watch it as soon as you can. We all have to get de­sen­si­tized to look­ing at our­selves on cam­era. The best thing is to watch it im­me­di­ately after you’ve taken care of your horse, while the ride is still fresh in your mind. You need to com­bine what you feel in your les­son and what it re­ally looks like. Vis­ual backup is good con­fir­ma­tion, as a lot of times it looks bet­ter than it feels. This will re­ally help you max­i­mize your lessons.

4. Learn to Be Present

Whether you’re cop­ing with the pres­sure of rid­ing down cen­ter­line at the Olym- pics or want­ing to make the jump from First to Sec­ond Level, learn­ing to fo­cus and deal with your emo­tions each day is key. I have ben­e­fited greatly from train­ing with a sports psy­chol­o­gist. It has been life-chang­ing for me, as it meant fi­nally hav­ing ac­cess to tools on how to deal with my own neg­a­tive emo­tions and un­der­stand the source of them.

When I think about be­ing fo­cused for train­ing, it means be­ing as men­tally and emo­tion­ally present and in the mo­ment as pos­si­ble. I’ve learned over the years how to get my­self into a state where I am not con­cerned about what hap­pened be­fore or what’s hap­pen­ing next, but just be in the mo­ment. That is like a mus­cle that you have to ex­er­cise and build. Com­mit to the fact that you’re “there” for your 45-minute rid­ing les­son and if your mind starts to drift off, ask it gently to come back to the present mo­ment. Just like you can learn to ride shoul­der-in, you can learn to im­prove this abil­ity in your­self.

Our mind is like a stream­ing ticker tape of chat­ter in the back­ground. You must fig­ure out how to ac­knowl­edge the chat­ter and let it pass through with­out it over­tak­ing the main fo­cus of your at­ten­tion. Horses are won­der­ful for teach­ing us to stay in the mo­ment and be present. They de­mand our full at­ten­tion to ride ef­fec­tively and safely. Many ac­ci­dents in the sad­dle hap­pen be­cause the rider’s at­ten­tion has strayed else­where and he or she was un­aware of what the horse was pre­par­ing to do.

5. Quiet Your In­ner Critic

Al­most all of us deal with an in­ner critic in our heads who can take us from the present mo­ment of learn­ing and push us into re­liv­ing the past or wor­ry­ing about the fu­ture. When I’m hav­ing the neg­a­tive back talk in my brain, I’ve learned to sit there and chal­lenge and

ques­tion what I’m say­ing: Is this a fact or a feel­ing? Am I ac­tu­ally a fail­ure or do I feel like a fail­ure? Feel­ings are not nec­es­sar­ily facts.

A lot of the things we say to our­selves can be so in­cred­i­bly neg­a­tive, but much of the time it’s not a fact or truth. If I’m hav­ing neg­a­tive thoughts in the rid­ing, I look for out­side feed­back and rely on my in­struc­tor to tell me if I’m just think­ing neg­a­tively or over­re­act­ing to what was said or what hap­pened. Lis­ten to your out­side feed­back. Your in­struc­tor will be a mir­ror with which you can check your re­flec­tion.

Be con­scious of what the voice in your head is telling you and what you say out loud. I try to be very care­ful with what I’m telling my­self about my­self and very aware of what con­ver­sa­tion I am hav­ing in­ter­nally. It’s one thing to make a mis­take, but it’s another thing to make a mis­take

and ques­tion your self-worth. Again, stick to the facts, not the feel­ings.

Our in­ner critic can of­ten tempt us into spend­ing a lot of en­ergy wor­ry­ing about sit­u­a­tions or ex­pe­ri­ences. I pre­fer to be as pre­pared as pos­si­ble for what­ever may hap­pen ver­sus wor­ried about some­thing that hasn’t hap­pened yet. Wor­ry­ing is lit­er­ally like liv­ing through a bad ex­pe­ri­ence twice. Rely on your in­struc­tor’s ex­pe­ri­ence to help you pre­pare for dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tions.

Learn­ing can be a very re­ward­ing, as well as a very un­com­fort­able and frus­trat­ing, jour­ney at times. It can put us in a vul­ner­a­ble state, es­pe­cially when we are at­tempt­ing new skill sets, and it’s re­ally im­por­tant that you trust your in­struc­tor. Vul­ner­a­bil­ity means un­cer­tainty, risk and emo­tional ex­po­sure. Rid­ing forces you to re­ally ex­pose who you are on the in­side, es­pe­cially as you are the part­ner for an emo­tional horse who of­ten mir­rors your own emo­tions.

Emo­tions can be a prob­lem for all of us when we ride—es­pe­cially anger or frus­tra­tion. When you are work­ing on some­thing that’s very hard or you’re be­ing pushed a lit­tle too far out­side your com­fort zone, these emo­tions can present them­selves with­out in­vi­ta­tion. My best ad­vice if you’re strug­gling and start to get an­gry is to lit­er­ally stop and drop the reins. Breathe. Take a walk break and go back to fact-check­ing your in­ner critic. All rid­ers deal with this. But you can ma­ture into a state of be­ing ef­fec­tive with­out be­ing emo­tional with good in­struc­tion and ex­pe­ri­ence. When train­ing horses and rid­ers, we must be sys­tem­atic and not make emo­tion­ally driven de­ci­sions.

The End Goal

Over time you will be able to bring your­self into this fo­cused mind­set more eas­ily and for longer pe­ri­ods of time. I don’t ex­pect some­one to be fo­cused all the time or the horse to be fo­cused all the time. You can con­cen­trate for short bursts and then link those bursts to short walk breaks.

Dres­sage rid­ers are of­ten per­fec­tion­ists. Peo­ple most of­ten struggle with per­fec­tion­ism in ar­eas where they feel the most vul­ner­a­ble. Per­fec­tion­ism is ex­ter­nally di­rected ( What will peo­ple think?) as op­posed to in­ter­nally di­rected ( What do I want?). When we are able to quiet our minds and be fully present, we can in­ter­nally di­rect our­selves and strive for ex­cel­lence rather than per­fec­tion. Per­fec­tion doesn’t ex­ist and it cre­ates a ter­ri­ble trap for many of us try­ing to achieve some­thing that is lit­er­ally unattain­able. A “10” is de­fined as “ex­cel­lent,” not perfect. I ex­pect ex­cel­lence out of my­self and my stu­dents, but not per­fec­tion.

Lastly, prac­tice grat­i­tude. Ap­pre­ci­ate when it’s up and be re­al­is­tic when it’s down. Progress doesn’t fol­low a straight line up­ward, no mat­ter how much we wish it would. En­joy your jour­ney and train­ing with your horse, wher­ever it may take you!

Try to be very care­ful with what you’re telling your­self about your­self and very aware of what con­ver­sa­tion you’re hav­ing in­ter­nally.

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