by Di Rowling

Appearing in August/September ’01 issue of Hoofbeats

The key to success in competition doesn’t have to be focused on ‘winning’ per se, but rather on developing the attitude and self-belief that will lead to success. For this issue we sought the expertise of US equine sport psychology consultant Tonya Johnston in looking at creating a positive state of mind, and learning techniques and exercises for focusing and relaxing during competition.

The Competitive Edge on sport psychology for riders deals with utilizing and harnessing the power of the mind, and the emotions, to achieve winning outcomes in sporting competition. ‘Goal Setting’ in the April/May issue dealt with the initial step in gaining the winning edge – goal setting.

For this issue we sought the expertise of US equine sport psychology consultant Tonya Johnston in looking at creating a positive state of mind, and learning techniques and exercises for focusing and relaxing during competition. Tonya deals with a broad range of clients from all disciplines, skill levels and age groups, who all have a common denominator: all of them realize they could be achieving more with their potential, and usually have a desire to use the mind to maximize their physical skills.

Common issues she encounters include clients who: want to pursue a specific long-term goal; need skills to handle nerves, anxiety and loss of focus in a competitive environment; want to leave old negative experiences and mental baggage behind; and want to feel more confident with a change in their riding program (new horse, more advanced division, higher level of commitment to the sport, etc.)

Tonya believes the key to success in competition, in reaching your goals, or indeed any horse-related endeavor, doesn’t have to be focused on ‘winning’ per se, but rather on developing the attitude and self-belief that will lead to success.

Positive ‘Self-Talk’

“Clients of mine usually realize early on that I don’t talk a lot about winning,” says Tonya. “Generally, if you are motivated to enter the horse show/event at all – you have the necessary competitive fire and ‘will to win’. What separates riders who all have the proper training and sound, willing horses is their ability to focus and believe in themselves. Therefore, when you dedicate yourself to putting all of those pieces together – the wining usually takes care of itself. Of course, believing you can win is important, but that belief only comes from focusing on all the physical and mental details that are required for riding well – NOT from simply ‘setting out’ to win.”

Tonya stresses that a positive state of mind is an essential part of achieving success at any level, and points out that a rider’s ‘self-talk’ is an important tool for building confidence. As we discovered in the last article (see Goal Setting, Vol. 22, No. 6), if you can’t put a goal, skill or desired outcome into words then it’s unlikely you’ll be able to change or improve it. It’s only when you’ve expressed something in words that it becomes conscious and real. By ‘talking things over’ with yourself, you can change a behavior, reinforce a behavior, or even give old, negative patterns power. That’s why it’s important to be positive in the way you talk to yourself – particularly in a competition scenario, or in a stress-inducing situation. Make sure to formulate positive, encouraging ‘self-talk’ – don’t be disparaging or negative. “It’s useful to maintain the same perspective you use to set your goals when you give yourself positive encouragement,” she says. “Remember, when you set your goals you focused on your performance (not simply the outcome of a competition), because that is something that is always under your control. I suggest riders steer clear of, “I am going to win today”, and instead say things to themselves like “I ride forward from the corner”, or “I am strong and focused.”

Focus and Relaxation

Staying focused and relaxed during competition, or in stressful situations, is the key to overcoming nervousness and achieving a positive result. Easier said than done is the immediate reaction to this statement! Most people don’t have a problem staying relaxed and relatively focused in normal circumstances (although modern stress indicators show that we could all do with learning to relax on a day-to-day basis). However, it becomes a real challenge to overcome show nerves, or just plain nervousness or fear of failure in a competition situation.

Developing finely honed relaxation and focusing skills is an exercise for life, and Tonya provides her clients with techniques, advice and skills that help in challenging equestrian situations, and always have a broader application to any situation in life.

“In order to focus in the ring, riders need to have done solid preparation and have a clear idea of what they want to accomplish. It’s not enough for a showjumper, for example, to say “I want to jump clean today” or “I want to stay on course”. Those statements are a given – they could be anyone’s goals.

You need more specific, action-oriented directions for your mind to focus on. It is crucial to prioritize what you need to do for your horse – and yourself – to get around well. Assuming you have set your performance goals, you then need to ‘bring them to the ring.’ For example, “I close my leg and support out of every corner”, or “I look early and keep my body tall”, are more appropriate. You can see how these are specific, action-oriented tasks for your mind and body to focus on.”

Circle Breathing

Learning to relax is inextricable linked to the breath, as any martial arts, yoga practitioner or meditation teacher will tell you. Tonya says that, for the rider as well, one of the single most effective ways to relax is to concentrate on your breathing.

“I’ve found that a technique called Circle Breathing is one of the best ways to release tension in the body and bring your mind into the present moment. Circle Breathing is as simple as this: breathe in through your nose, bring your breath all the way down through your lungs, expand your belly as you inhale, hold for one beat, then exhale through your mouth slowly, flatten your belly as you do so, release tension from all of your muscles, let yourself feel grounded and strong, and think of exhaling for one beat longer than you inhaled.

“A series of these breaths can provide several benefits, including: calming down your mind and focusing on the present moment; providing your body with the amount of oxygen it truly needs to perform well; training yourself to respond to a Circle Breath with a relaxed, grounded feeling – so it thus becomes a tool you can use in any situation to handle anxiety, nerves, over-thinking, or distractions.

Examples of good times to Circle Breathe would be: before walking through the gate to the showring/dressage court or to the start of the cross-country course; after warm-up and before beginning competition; when you first get on your horse while doing some light stretching – actually the list is endless!”

The Nervous Rider

Techniques for focusing and relaxing are just as important to the nervous beginner at her first show as the Olympic contender. Being a novice, or recovering from a loss of confidence often has it’s own challenges in the lack of familiarity, and quite frequently feelings of powerlessness.

“Nerves often come from facing a challenge, like your first horse show – feeling at the same time a bit out of control, but expected to do a whole list of things extremely well. Expectations crowd into your mind, preventing you from thinking productively about any one of them.

“In this situation, it’s helpful to identify exactly what you can control, and what you can’t, so you use your energy and attention wisely. I suggest riders create a list of things ‘out of their control’ first (weather, ring conditions, courses, judging, etc.), and then make a list of those they CAN control (preparation, – theirs and their horse’s, focus, attitude, organization, etc.). By doing this, riders can easily identify areas to expend energy on, and can help them build goals for which they are completely responsible. This gives them a sense of control over the challenge they’re facing. They will typically have feelings of being ‘too excited’ or having ‘too much adrenaline’ – so creating objectives for things on the list they can control provides directions on how and where to make use of that energy, instead of fretting about it or letting it create negative thoughts.

“Other ideas include such things as ‘dress rehearsals’: i.e. wearing your show clothes at home, actually exiting and entering your ring at home at the start of a course or test as you will at the show, etc. This helps accustom you to the show routine, minimizing the potential distractions you will experience once you are there. Don’t underestimate the power of this – or feel silly ‘dressing up’ at home – you’ll be surprised how much it helps.

“Another excellent technique is to visualize yourself riding with confidence at the show in the weeks before you go. If you’ve never been to the show ground/venue before, go and physically check it out, then make up courses or tests to ride in your mind with vivid pictures of the exact ring your will be riding in, practicing in your mind achieving your goals at the show.

“You can also write positive affirmations to remind yourself of skills and qualities you possess (or what you are working towards) that will assist you in achieving your goals: like “I love to show what I can do!” or “I am patient and strong,” or “I use my energy to ride my best!”

Regularly using techniques that create focus and relaxation in overcoming nervousness and honing competitive skills means that these skills will soon become automatic, and before you realize it, you’ll have incorporated them into your riding ‘repertoire’. Learning to focus on what’s important, and what’s within your control will increase your confidence and composure in competition situations. Harnessing the power of a positive attitude has been proved time and time again to be crucial in unleashing individual potential – across a wide range of sporting activities, in the corporate sector, and in just surviving the day-to-day demands of living in the 21st century.

Sport Pyschology Article by Tonya Johnston, Equestrian Sport Psychologist