My grandfather grew up with horses, treated his horses like family, and rode most of his life. I’ll never forget what he told me before he talked my dad into buying me my first horse:
“Be careful what you think while you are riding. Whatever it is, your horse will know.”
He went on to explain that, if I were calm, I would encourage my horse to be calm. If I am nervous, my horse will think he should be nervous too. Most important, he said I need to be confident and decisive in what ever I ask my horse to do.
Riding, as you know, is a unique sport, one of the few sports that an athlete has to work with another living being. For that very reason, it is especially important that equestrians need to be mentally tough in order to compete at their highest level possible.
Like my grandfather, I too grew up riding. My passion was equestrian show jumping. I certainly did not have the nicest, most fancy or best jumper, but after a few years of very hard work, I finally earned the privilege to compete at the national level (Despite those who told me it would never happen!). Fairy tale ending this story does not have. My horse and I were ready, and I was capable of placing well. Unfortunately I was thinking about how amazing the other horses were and how much success the other girls had already seen rather than focusing on the twelve jumps in front of me. I went off course and was disqualified. My trainer told me “Just focus and you will be fine.” I didn’t know what that meant exactly, so I studied the course more. In my second class, I made it to fence 10, only to get worried again about things that I hade no control over. Off course and disqualified again. Hundreds of hours of hard work and capable of placing well, and I failed when it really mattered.
My grandfather told me, “Be careful what you think while you are riding. Whatever it is, your horse will know.”
Many years later, I now know why I couldn’t do my best that day, and how to teach others a framework that will allow them to perform their best, especially in high pressure or competitive situations. I am a Mental Toughness Coach, published author, speaker and mother of three great kids who happen to be high school and college student-athletes.
Here are 3 essential steps for you to prepare mentally before an equestrian event:
1. Choose 1-2 objectives for your event that you have 100% control over. For example, ‘I will keep my reins the proper length and use my corners wisely.’ Immediately before competing, you need to be in control and keep those statements simple. You may consider reducing the above statement to ‘reins and corners’ before you go into the arena.
2. Evaluate your Dialog. How are you talking to yourself before you compete?
Your dialog, or internal voice, should be positive and constructive.
For example, ‘I’ve worked hard. I belong here. I know I can give 100% effort.
3. Neutralize Errors. Everyone at every level makes errors, so it’s not ‘if’ you
make an error, it’s when. Being able to manage errors can make a HUGE difference in your end result. Here’s how:
–Recognize any emotion you have after an error (anger,
disappointment, frustration etc.) and know it’s ok and normal.
–Release that emotion for another more appropriate time (i.e.: not
during competition). Usually taking a deep breath in and out is
helpful. Focus on the sound of your breath on the exhale.
–Strategize. Think of one or two things that are most important for
you to do your best. Focus on those.
This is a guest post by Sheryl Kline, Mental Toughness Coach and equestrian. If you’d like more details on this and other topics related to Mental Toughness, have a look at her website, www.SherylKline.com. There is also an opportunity to sign up for her (free) newsletter if you would like to get a little more mentally tough every week!