The Chronicle of the Horse on Sport Psychology by Abigail Lufkin

The Chronicle of the Horse on Sport Psychology by Abigail Lufkin

I competed through the advanced level and at Olympic selection trials without ever really considering how my head might be influencing my performance. At the 1992 Olympic selection trial at Luhmulen in Germany, I went into the show jumping knowing that a 3rd place finish or better would likely lead to a spot on the team. (This was a year in which selection was based solely on a points system). All I had to do was jump a clear round, and I was riding an extremely careful horse. Unfortunately my mind got in the way. I was focused on the outcome; how incredible it would be to jump a clear round, how devastating it would be not to. My thoughts were distracting and confidence draining, and sure enough, in an act of fear, fear of making a mistake, I did just that, took an extra pull and added a stride where one didn’t exist. My horse tried his best but caught the rail behind. I had ruined my chance to make the team. At that time I was completely oblivious to how my mind had created this result. I had yet to learn that I could control my thoughts and emotions and that in doing so, could positively control the outcome.

I began using sports psychology before the 1996 Olympic selection trials. Going into that season I realized that I needed to be more consistent in my approach to competition. I knew that I had the physical skills, but some days I would get on and feel completely unable to access them. Or I would have a good day, feel fully focused and present, able to perform my best with ease. The term athletes often use to describe this is “the zone,” or feeling a “flow.” Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to access this emotional state. The mental aspect of competing was a mystery to me.
I knew I could do better, but something was blocking me. From that point on through readings, working with several sports psychology consultants and ultimately studying the field myself, I began to untangle this mystery. I learned different techniques that address some of the most common difficulties encountered by riders. What follows are the highlights of this program, the methods which helped me to more consistently access “the zone,” transforming me from a fairly adequate competitor to an Olympic contender, one capable of performing well under tremendous pressure.

Positive Self Talk
First, I had to understand and believe in the close connection between my mind and my body. What I say to myself, my body attempts to fulfill. If I constantly tell myself that I am not good enough, that I can’t see a distance or can’t do dressage, I create my own reality in which I really cannot do any of these things. Subconsciously I have convinced myself that I do not possess this particular skill, and my body reacts to fulfill this belief.

Recognizing the power of this connection is the best place to begin your path to gaining control of your mental game. For the first week, simply pay attention to what you say to yourself. Notice how many times in a day you say something negative, and where your negativity specifically dwells. Once you’ve identified your self-talk themes, begin replacing these negatives with positives. Don’t try pie in the sky positives, create ones in which you can believe. For example, rather than saying, “I am terrible at dressage,” you might say, “I am working hard and every day my dressage is getting a little better.” This intervention seems so small and yet, as you will find, it is very challenging to do. If you are successful at it, it will transform not only how well you function under pressure, but also how much you enjoy your riding.

In addition, our brains are unable to process negatives. This means you must tell your body what you want it to do, not what you don’t want it to do. For example, if you say, “I’m not going to raise my hands as I approach the jump,” all that your mind registers is “raise my hands as I approach the jump” and you will continue to do just that. Instead you need to phrase things in the positive, “I keep my hands low and quiet as I approach the jump.” This will clearly communicate to your body what exactly you are trying to achieve.

For a long time I struggled with extreme feelings of nervousness before the show jumping phase. I feared the fact that everything was on the line, that one mistake could drop me out of contention. I hated the anxious feeling I would get in my stomach. Sport psychology taught me to think differently about the experience. I would say over and over to myself, “I love this feeling.” “I love that I have the opportunity to put everything on the line and give it my best effort.” “These butterflies are simply indicators that I am primed and ready to perform.” I did not tell myself that I was a consistently fabulous show jumper and I’d never have another rail, rather I focused on the feelings and the meaning they had for me. I emphasized realistic changes.

With this repetition, practiced at jumper shows and horse trials throughout the season, I began to believe the thoughts. I started to enjoy the show jumping and excel in it. At the final US selection trial before leaving for Sydney in 2000, I had three very good rounds over an extremely difficult track. The course designer, Sally Ike, complimented me on how much my show jumping had improved. Part of that improvement was due to hard work on the physical skills, but a significant part was
attributable to my improved mental state which allowed me to use the skills I possessed.

Positive re-frame
Along a very similar line, a competitor needs to manage her thoughts about external conditions. I teach my athletes that it is not what happens to us, i.e. the footing was bad, I didn’t have enough warm up, I had a stop at the first fence; but rather it is how we think about what happens to us that influences the outcome of a situation. I can guarantee that in competition, as in life, things will arise which are both undesirable and out of our control. The best competitors are the ones who have trained themselves to think about these events in a way that helps them to feel confident and in control.

Take the example of the bad footing–it’s a rainy day and the cross country or show jumping course is muddy and slippery. A person who hasn’t worked on her mental skills could easily fall into the trap of thinking, “what if my horse slips? I hate the rain! I’ll never be able to have a good round in these conditions.” Here several things happen. First, she convinces herself that things are going to go badly, and in doing so, all focus and energy goes toward the very thing she doesn’t want to have happen. Second, her focus shifts completely away from the things over which she does have control; using the skills she has to ride well, what lines she takes, etc. Third, these thoughts create fear, which tightens muscles and creates a whole series of physiological responses sending the body into a primitive “fight or flight” mode and making it virtually impossible to access skills. This rider’s thoughts greatly increase her likelihood of performing poorly, which she will then blame on the bad weather.

The other option would be to say to herself, “I love the rain. I have ridden well in it before and I can again. I love the challenge that it adds to this day.

Other people will struggle with the rain which will ultimately work to my advantage.” This rider will not necessarily have a great performance, but she will be far more likely to do well than our first competitor. She has primed herself to be confident, to stay in control and to feel challenged. These emotions will allow her to access the skills which she has practiced, and her confidence will transfer to her horse allowing him to stay relaxed.
My ability to view things with a positive and productive attitude was severely tested early in the spring of 2004. I was competing a new horse, one I hoped to take to the Olympic Games that summer. It was our first event together, a small intermediate. I jumped the first four fences on the cross country course and approached a corner jump at the fifth. To my complete surprise, my horse ran right by it. To my complete horror, I was unable to get him to jump it on the subsequent two attempts and I found myself walking back to the trailer-eliminated on our first outing.
My initial reaction was to panic as thoughts raced through my head questioning my horse’s abilities as well as my own. But then I remembered what I had learned and the words went through my mind; “it’s not what happens that’s important, it’s how you think about what happens.” Right then I decided to focus on what I knew to be true. I knew the horse was talented and had a solid competition record. I knew that I possessed the skills and the ability to ride him. Believing in both these things, I then set about figuring out how to move forward to solve the problem.
I spoke with my coach and we arranged to school that afternoon. The road continued to be challenging for the next few weeks, but when negative thoughts entered my mind, I refused to engage them and willed myself to replace them with positive ones. Less than two months later, I finished 3rd at the Olympic selection trials at Rolex on the very same horse. This would never have been possible if I had not practiced my ability to control my thoughts and channel them in a positive direction.

Acting As If
In addition to how we think about things and what we say to ourselves, how we behave in a situation is also vitally important. Our natural tendency is to act out what we feel-if we are happy we smile; sad, we frown or cry. This physical response reinforces the emotional one and creates an emotional cycle. The wonderful thing about this circuit however, is that it also works in reverse. If you are feeling scared and nervous, but you force yourself to smile and make some sort of casual joke, you actually become calmer. Through your actions you reassure your mind that everything is all right. This is often referred to as the “acting as if” principle, also known as “fake it ‘til you make it.”

The simplest way to begin to work on this, is to practice making yourself smile at times and in situations in which a smile is the farthest thing from your mind. Try it as you are warming up for cross country or trotting around the outside of the dressage arena. Here you are using your body to send the message that you are in control, which will help your mind to stay calm and will allow you to focus on the task.

I made it a habit, no matter how big the competition or how nervous I was, to always smile at the cross country starters, maybe make a joke about the day and thank them for being there. This small ritual helped my body to believe that this was just another day, just another outing. Everything was fine and I was in control.

Nervousness and fear are common difficulties riders face. It might be fear of failure or fear of jumping a certain course or a certain fence. One of the greatest challenges of competitive sport is learning how to use that fear, making it work for, rather than against you. As I have discussed, too much anxiety inhibits physical function, but too little and an athlete will be lethargic and unfocused, also less than ideal for performing.

Most of us however tend towards too much nervousness and have no idea how to manage it. This can be addressed, in part with the techniques already delineated; what we say to ourselves about the butterflies in our stomach. Sometimes however, the nervous feelings are overwhelming no matter how we think about them. At these times, it is very useful to have practiced some sort of relaxation technique. There are many of these but I’m going to explain a very simple one.

Start by lying down in a quiet place, put one hand on your chest and one on your belly and focus only on your breathing. Take long deep inhalations feeling your stomach expand, followed by long, slow exhalations as the hand on your belly falls. Notice any thoughts that come up, then imagine them passing by as if attached to a balloon. Sometimes people find it useful to have something to say such as, “Breathe in calm, breathe out fear.” As you do this, you will begin to feel yourself becoming more and more relaxed. The more you practice this technique the more easily you will be able to access the relaxation. Once you have identified the relaxed feeling and learned the right rhythm for your breath, you can practice this in a variety of situations-cleaning your tack, grooming your horse, or hacking out are just several examples. Soon you will be able to take several of these breaths at any time, in any place and immediately reap the benefits of calming your emotions.

The final method I’m going to discuss, which I found tremendously helpful with my own riding, is visualization. In its simplest form, this is visualizing a successful performance, and it is practiced by most competitive athletes. I recently was reminded of its potency when reading about a study done on three sets of basketball players. Each group was tested on how many free throws they could make. Then, for the next month group A did not practice or think about shooting a basketball, group B did no visualizing but physically practiced their free throws daily, group C didn’t touch a basketball, but every day visualized shooting free throws. Not surprisingly, group A that neither practiced nor visualized, showed no significant improvement. Remarkably however, the group that only physically practiced and the group that only visualized both improved significantly and to a near identical degree. The implications of this for riding are tremendous, as one can only jump so many jumps or ride a horse for so long. We can however, jump thousands of fences in our mind and improve our skills exponentially without ever leaving the barn.

Visualizations can be used in several ways. The first is to help you acquire a new skill, for instance when you are initially learning how to do a shoulder in. Find a quiet area, do some abdominal breathing, relax, and then begin to go over in your mind what it feels like to successfully perform the shoulder in. See yourself from the outside performing the move flawlessly. Then feel yourself on your horse, seat, legs, back, in perfect position, perfect rhythm. Performing this visualization for a few minutes as you fall asleep at night can greatly enhance how quickly and thoroughly you are able to perform the actual exercise.

I found this to be especially helpful during my winter training months in Florida. These were times when I was working closely with dressage and jumper coaches, completely focused on changing and improving my skills. One winter in particular I was trying to learn to stay more over the top of my horse when jumping big oxers. From years of cross country riding I had developed a slightly defensive position which served me well jumping into water but much less well in the show jumping arena. I practiced this new position over and over in my mind as I fell asleep at night. After about a week of this, the change began to feel second nature, that is I didn’t have to consciously focus on it; instead my body just began to do it. I had only practiced it in “real life” two times that week, and yet the improvement as noted by my coach, was significant.

The second type of visualization is mentally practicing an actual round at a competition. The more vivid you can make this, the more senses you can recruit for the visualization, the more powerful it will be. When visualizing a cross country round, I became able to feel the horse galloping, hear his hoof beats as well as the cheers from the crowd. I could taste the air, smell the grass and see my line to every jump and through every complex. I would do this for 10-15 minutes the night before and again the morning of my ride. Then I would let it go.

Letting it go is a very important piece that people often neglect. Continuing to think about it will lead to rumination and obsession, two things that disable the very flow we are trying to achieve. After the visualization, you have done everything you can do.

You have to trust that all your hard work and focus are inside you and will be there when called upon. There is tremendous freedom and confidence in this. You are essentially saying, “I am prepared. I am ready. I trust that my preparation, hard work and focus will be there when I need it.”
Many athletes and coaches will tell you that success is at least fifty if not ninety percent mental, and yet we devote so little time to our mental preparation. Riders are some of the most dedicated people I know, willing to get up at obscene hours of the morning and work long days caring for their horses and perfecting their physical skills. We leave no stone unturned in our attempt to find the best instruction, the best horse, the best vet or blacksmith. Most of us however aren’t even aware of our mental game. Whether your goal is the Olympics, the Area Championships or your first Novice, actively developing your mental capacity can lead to tremendous improvement, success and enjoyment.