by Tonya Johnston, MA
appeared in Eventing USA Magazine, July/August 2009

My last article on communication focused on the way you communicate with yourself. The goal was to help explore your core beliefs, your self talk, the use of affirmations, and changing negative messages into positive and productive ones. So, have you paid more attention to your self talk in last couple of months? Have you observed your self talk influencing your behavior and performance? Awareness is the key; the more aware you are of the messages you are sending yourself, the more productive you will be at keeping your mindset on track.

In this article we will widen our focus to look at communication with those around you. More than simply working with individual athletes, sport psychology consultants devote a great deal of effort to helping teams improve their communication and cohesion. The more a team works as a unit, the better the results for all involved. This article will give you some ideas about how you can improve your communication with your riding team: your trainer, clinician(s), support team (family, friends, etc.), and of course – your horse.

How We Communicate

Communication involves giving, receiving and interpreting information. You are communicating when you are the one speaking, or the one listening. In fact, you are communicating all of the time (whether you intend to or not) as you process information on two levels – verbal and non-verbal.

Can you think of people in your life that are fantastic communicators? Why do you think they are so good? How about you? Which of the following qualities do you use to communicate effectively?

Qualities of good communicators:

  • Empathy
  • Honesty
  • Sincerity
  • Directness
  • Positive attitude

Hopefully you feel that you possess these qualities and utilize them to the fullest when you communicate. Of course everyone has a unique experience in the world that colors how they process information, but using those qualities in your communication is a way to start from the best possible vantage point in all of your interactions.

Specific Communication Tools for Specific People

1. Your Trainer

When and where are you most likely to be communicating with your trainer? Whether it is in a lesson, at an event, at a meeting, or in a social setting the following tools will aid you in getting your message across successfully.

Be clear and specific. There are many ways that our messages can get damaged, so trying to be objective, unemotional and direct from the beginning gives you the best chance of being understood.

Maintain a can-do attitude. This will foster your trainer’s belief in you. Students rise to the expectations of their teachers – never forget that you contribute to your trainer’s expectations by framing your riding challenges positively.

Identify proper times to ask questions and talk to your trainer. You can do this by asking them “May I ask a question?” or “When could we talk?” Picking the right time to talk is essential because it ensures that you are both open and motivated to communicate effectively.

Phrase questions in a positive manner. Always ask questions in a positive way. Example: “How can I prepare better for down banks?” Not, “When will he stop being such a chicken?!”

“Attitudes are the real figures of speech.”

2. Your Clinician(s)

Be willing to listen. Listening openly and with a genuine desire to understand appears to go hand-in-hand with paying a clinician for their time. However, it is wise to check in with yourself periodically to be sure you aren’t so stuck in your training routine that you feel the need to rationalize, argue, or justify your approach. Your attitude and body language will show your degree of openness to new ideas and will directly affect the quality of interaction with your clinician.

Be succinct when giving information and have your priorities in order. Depending on your relationship with your clinician you may talk a lot about yourself and your horse’s training, or very little. Either way, be mindful to choose the most important and current items to share.

I.D. your best ‘take-aways’. At the end of a clinic, let your clinician know the top two or three things that you are taking away with you. (While they may be highly skilled teachers, their mind-reading skills may fluctuate rather widely.) They can then build on your interests next time and follow up with what you found important.

“The Importance of Effective Communication

We hear half of what is said                   50%

We listen to half of that                          25%

We understand half of that                     12.5%

We believe half of that                           6.25%

And we remember half of that               3.125%”

3. Your Support Team

Who are the other (often unpaid) people on your support team? Your husband/wife, mom/dad, friends, and barn-mates – the list can be long. Training and competing in the sport of eventing takes a lot of effort and commitment; wise riders understand how their team contributes to their successes.

Support your supporters. Keep your appreciation for the hard work and effort that your team puts into your competing front and center in your communication with them. Your support team will be better able to handle the ups and downs of competition if they are reminded often how much you value their efforts.

Let everyone know how to help. Giving everyone on the team a defined role (videographer) or task (rolling bandages) will go a long way to smoothing the lines of communication. Rather than having people guessing how to help (even the best intentioned will sometimes get it wrong) having conversations about roles and tasks before and during the competition will help you get what you need, and create a team that is happy to help.

Keep humor in the mix. A good way to maintain a healthy perspective in any situation, no matter how tough, is to identify and share the humor. A small comic observation or smile can lower tension levels and remind everyone, yourself included, that you will be alright no matter what the current challenge.

4. Your Horse

Ideally there is never any doubt in your horse’s mind about what you are asking of her. She was listening yesterday as you aimed and kicked at the trakehner, letting her know of your desire to get to the other side. Things got very confusing however, when you abruptly pulled on the reins and took your leg off one stride away from the jump. How can you ensure that you are giving your horse clear messages the majority of the time?

Clear the deck. Before you ask your horse to perform a task, or an entire test or course, be sure your mind and body are free of any unwanted emotions (fear, doubt, ambivalence, tension). Use down time in a lesson or during a warm-up at an event to take a breath and do a quick body scan to get rid of unwanted tension.

Commit to a plan. Your clarity and level of commitment to the task will be felt by your horse. By making a specific plan for your ride or test you can convey not just the what (e.g. which oxer to jump) but the how (bouncy, engaged canter). Create a plan, decide which strategies will help accomplish the plan e.g. short rein, hand up, leg on, etc.), and focus on it as you ride to ensure that you are going to communicate appropriate messages to your horse that will help you both be successful.

Regroup as needed. Sometimes even the best intentioned plans and requests get mixed up and muddled. When misunderstandings happen (and many trainers will reinforce that point, your horse is not ‘being bad’ he just doesn’t understand what you are asking of him) it is a good idea to stop, release any negative emotions that have cropped up, assess the situation, brainstorm a solution, and then begin again with a fresh approach.

The Optimal Idea

It has been said that the way we communicate with others is a big factor in determining the quality of our lives and how successful we are at achieving our goals. What do you think? Is there room for improvement in the way you communicate with yourself or those around you? Being open to learning new things that can lead to increased confidence and consistency are the hallmarks of champions. Hopefully the ideas we have discussed in these articles have motivated you to refine your communication skills – now is a great time to talk.

Tonya Johnston, MA, is a Mental Skills Coach who specializes in working with equestrian athletes. Her coaching sessions teach mental strategies for optimal sport performance and help riders develop personalized preparation routines. Tonya’s clients have attained competitive success at every level, including national titles and awards. She has presented at both the USEA and USDF national conventions. Tonya has a master’s degree in Sport Psychology from John F. Kennedy University. She conducts “Mental Skills for Riders” clinics throughout the country as well as phone consultations with individual clients. Phone: 510.418.3664.