In the fiercely competitive world of equestrian sports, our plans can sometimes go astray. When we veer off course, frustration comes easily, which can keep you from reaching your highest potential. Your competitors are strategic, and are often mounted on the best horses. Maybe you've had a long, dry season, finishing somewhere just out-of-the-money at your last 12 outings, which has zapped your competitive drive. The road to success stays under construction, and the potholes you encounter along its path can derail even the most sure-footed travelers.
But, according to personal performance coach Barbra Schulte, staying mentally tough during trying times requires little more than preventative maintenance and a shift in your way of thinking. Schulte, the pioneer of the equestrian Mentally Tough Training program, has compiled a nine step plan that will make your voyage ‘down the road’ a little less treacherous.
Step 1 – See Riding as a Continual Process
See your progress as a continual process of getting better instead of merely grading success on your latest achievement.
“Often when things go awry in the arena, you focus on the negative aspects of a particular run or competition. Your thoughts are drawn to that knocked-over barrel or that cow that got by, and that event is all you recall,” Schulte said. “But if you view the run in its increment parts, you can identify many positives.”
Instead of dwelling on the negative aspects of a competitive run, recognize the mistakes, but then focus on the positive elements of the run.
“Many people tend to feel stuck in where they are ranked or how they are doing competitively at that particular moment. But, your thoughts about a situation can become negative, and that causes you to focus on what you don’t have or what you didn’t do,” Schulte added. “When your perception shifts and you recognize that you are involved in a process of becoming which is never complete, and you can honestly believe that where you are in that process is okay, instantly, the pressure will be removed.”
According to Schulte, when you remove the pressure to perform perfectly, you derive more joy from your sport and you become grateful for what you have instead of dwelling on what you don’t.
“When you can look back at what you’ve done without focusing on the negatives, you will have an increased awareness of just how much progress you have made. The key is to know that your evolution as a rider is a process,” Schulte said. “You can’t believe that when you arrive at some predetermined goal you will find happiness.”
Step 2 – Keep Riding Fun
Studies conducted on athletes and performers reveal that there is an optimal state of mind, body, and emotion that is completely trainable. This state is characterized by a combination of high energy and positive emotions, which allows athletes to perform at their peak levels. In the studies conducted, it was discovered that confidence and fun are the two key emotions required to achieve high level performance skills. But, best of all, you can train yourself to call up these performance emotions on command at crunch time.
“When you experience high, positive emotions, you will feel calm, confident, focused, in control, and will have an overall sense of enjoyment,” Schulte explained. “The moral is that having fun and being passionate about competing, showing, or riding is a prerequisite to getting and staying motivated and progressing.”
Step 3 – Create a Mental Vision that Excites You
“Create an exciting vision of the type of rider you want to become,” Schulte said. Often people become so entrenched in the chores of life and work, or become so focused on all the things that need to be ‘fixed’ about their animals, they lose sight of the type of riders they want to become. There is a physiological mechanism within us all that allows us to portray in real life the images about which we dream.
“When we dream of the hum-drum of our lives, we do not advance as riders and we do not accomplish the types of things that we want to accomplish. Write the vision of the kind of rider you want to be on paper. Use descriptive words such as graceful, majestic, or powerful,” Schulte explained. “Writing your vision on paper is important because it forces you to really think about what you want to achieve. Once you have created the vision onpaper, the next step is to take the time to mentally visualize that picture daily.” Research has shown that 25-30 days of repeated visualization, done in a relaxed state, can dramatically effect riding and showing skills and can bolster both emotional and mental confidence.
Step 4 – Set Outcome Goals
There are two kinds of goals to which riders should pay particular attention. The first is an outcome goal and it is a behavior or result that can be measured. Schulte suggeststhat you set outcome goals on a six-month, one-year, and five-year timetable. The importance of outcome goals is that they ignite your motivation because they give you concrete, attainable goals to aim for.
“The key to this type of goal is to understand that you do not control outcome goals. For instance, as a cutter I can’t say that I am going to score a 75 on a particular run. Although that is the underlying goal, I do not have control over what my score will be,” Schulte said. “The only thing I can control are the things that lead up to that score – how I ride, how I prepare my horse, and how I keep myself calm prior to competing.”
Step 5 – Set Performance Goals
The second type of goal riders should concentrate on is the performance goal. A performance goal is anything over which you have control (how you ride, how you prepare your horse, and how you keep yourself calm prior to competing).
“The key to performance goals is that you have full control of them,” Schulte explained. “The important thing to remember is that if you concentrate and work toward mastering each of your performance goals, that will bring you closer to the type of rider you want to become and will bring you closer to achieving your outcome goals.”
Step 6 – Stay Positive While Learning
According to Schulte, as you learn, your program must be both fun and confidence-building.
“Sometimes we allow ourselves to get into situations that do not build our confidence. For example, if your trainer is demeaning to you or belittles your ability to reach a high level goal, that can effect your motivation level,” Schulte said. “It is important to put yourself into an environment that is both supportive and confidence-building.”
Schulte also stressed that you focus on what you want to happen in your riding experiences instead of concentrating on what you don’t want to happen. It is natural to worry about all that could go wrong or to fret about shortcomings, but that is not the most productive way to stay motivated and on top of your game.
“Celebrate the small triumphs. If you get your horse to lope in a controlled circle with an even gait and a smooth stop, and that effort was improved over your last attempt, focus on that achievement and be excited about it,” Schulte said. “Sometimes we feel that small achievements aren’t enough. But not celebrating those feats means that your awareness is focused on your weaknesses instead of your strengths.”
Step 7 – Love Tough Times
It is a sad fact of a competitor’s life: No matter who you are, no matter what horse you ride, and no matter how much money you have, the road to self-improvement is still full of stumbling blocks, pitfalls, and difficult times. According to Schulte, one key attribute to possess is the ability to not resist the difficult times but to actually relish them.
“If I draw up at the end of the most difficult bunch of wild cattle that have run over every cutter who has gone before, I would be wiser to approach that run by saying, and believing, ‘I love this. If I do this today I can do anything. This challenge is my opportunity to excel.’ When you shift your perception and welcome challenging situations and see themas opportunities to excel and grow, that can have empowering effects,” Schulte said. “When that happens, it can be very fun and very motivating.”
Step 8 – Condition and Train Positive Emotions In and Out of the Arena
People believe how they feel at a particular moment is the way it actually is and they do not have control over mental or emotional stability in tough situations. Things that determine the mood for the day are the judge, the trainer, people around them, or the waterpipe that broke in the barn that morning. But, when you understand how to remain strongmentally and emotionally, no matter what is going on inside or around you, that gives you the best chance of performing to your highest level.
“One of my favorite Mentally Tough techniques is to say to myself ‘No problem’ when problems occur prior to or during my run. This forces me to move on to the next maneuver and keeps me centered in my run which allows me to maintain concentration. If I become distracted, I ask myself ‘What’s my job?’ to bring my focus back,” Schulte said. “Being mentally tough is all about maintaining a cool, calm, and focused air despite what may be going on around you or inside your head.”
Step 9 – Support Others
“Life is about giving, caring, and building other people’s confidence. In our riding experiences, no person is ever an island. We interact with others and by understanding some simple way of helping another, that can be a great way to boost our own motivation level. I suggest that you compliment others often. Coach riders positively by helping them understand the types of things they seek. Help someone else to stay focused,” Schulte explained.
“Ask how you can help them to achieve their visions by asking ‘how’ and ‘what’ questions (How would you do that differently? What do you want to do differently next time?). Don’t ask ‘why’ questions (why did you do that?). Get a feeling for what they want, and help them brainstorm ways they can achieve their goals.” With a slight shift in perception and help from Barbra Schulte’s Mentally Tough program, even the most negative of riders can change their way of thinking, which can help make the trip down the road smoother and paved with success.