Horse shows are many things: fierce competition, adrenaline spiking spectator events, guilty pleasure style food, and social gatherings. While most of us are there to compete - and compete well - we’re also there to enjoy doing the sport that we love, at any level. The problem with the multi-faceted offerings of horse sport events is that they come with a myriad of distractions. We all have specific distractors that can throw us off our game, whether it’s inducing stage fright or simply taking up too much of your much-needed brain power. The good news is that we can totally train our brains to keep laser-sharp focus no matter how distracting the situation may be (thinking of you lady with three dogs and a baby stroller on the side of the ring).
A few years ago, a client of mine was able to compete at two major events in Europe - this was a big deal for her, and rightly so. But with that exciting invitation came a lot of distraction - her friends and family wanted to come to watch, which she really enjoyed, but she also needed to stick to her routines in order to stay focused. So, we discussed how to best communicate with everyone on her team, as well as with friends and family. She let them know when she would be available, and when she wouldn’t be. This created clarity and understanding for everyone involved. Remember: your tribe wants to see you succeed. All you need is to tell them how to best support you.
Many studies have been done about what happens to our brains when we are on (or even just around) our smartphones - aka, all the damn time. Some studies have shown that our phones can actually have a negative impact on mental activities, such as targeted attention and problem-solving. In order to focus deeply, we need our prefrontal cortex (a structure in the front of our brain) to quiet down the rest of the brain. When our prefrontal cortex, which works kind of like a muscle, is under-developed because it’s always at the mercy of the iPhone gods, it’s time to get with a workout regime. Train your brain by staying focused on one thing for a set amount of time, like following your breath or staring at a point in front of you. Each time you get distracted by thoughts or noises, just go back to your focus point. By training your brain to block out distractions and un-learn obsessive multitasking, you’ll be able to develop and use your new superpower in the show ring.
Even our own thoughts can be a massive distraction, especially when you consider we have about 50 to 70 thousand going through our minds every day! However, you do have power over your thoughts - at least to a certain extent. Try and be still at least once a day and take the time to ‘observe’ your thoughts as if they were clouds passing by in the sky. Encourage useful thoughts and let negative or distracting ones simply pass by into the horizon, without judgment. If you keep thinking about french fries, that’s fine, just observe that. Over time and with greater awareness, you will realize you have much more control over your thoughts than you thought, and you’ll be able to more easily get out of your head and settle into your mission once on course. If you regularly do battle with your nerves, try boosting your confidence with a mental makeover.
With success comes the media, and the media wants your closeup, you fancy thing you. When you’re competing at a certain level, you have more people watching you, cheering you on, and wanting your attention - like reporters requesting an interview. Make sure you keep prioritizing what is most important and to stick to your routines and decide what can wait until after you are finished. Don’t plan an interview before a big Grand Prix, for example - wait until after. A supportive media is great and good for the sport, but they’ll be happy to wait until it’s the right time for you.
Perhaps one of the biggest distractions to riders is people watching ringside. It might seem so innocent, yet many of my clients mention they would rather not spot certain people on the side of the ring. I personally think this comes from a fixed mindset - if you feel like you need to prove yourself in order to be liked or respected, you add a lot of unhelpful pressure to your riding. The truth is, there will always be people who have something negative to say or make doubtful and unhelpful comments about your riding, or just plain make you feel nervous. We can’t control the opinions of others, and your only job is to ride the best that you can on that particular day, in that particular class. Shift your focus from wanting to prove yourself to wanting to improve yourself. Keep your focus close - this sport is only about you and your horse. Forget the haters, and ride for you.
Written by Annette Paterakis
Annette Paterakis - The Equestrian Mental Coach - specializes in mental coaching for riders of all levels. She is passionate about working with riders and trainers to help them better understand the mind and reach peak performance. Annette is the author of the book "Keep Calm and Enjoy The Ride", available through Amazon.com. For more information give her website a gander: annettepaterakis.com