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Break on Through: Some athletes struggle to overcome psychological blocks to progress Illustration: CYBRAIN/SHUTTERSTOCK

Are you feeling “stuck” in your riding and unable to progress? Sport psychologists and performance coaches explain common causes and what you can do about it.

Reprinted from the December 2018/January 2019 issue of USDF Connection

By Penny Hawes

We’ve all heard of one—the rider who had such great natural talent but who could never fulfill her potential. The competitor who always rides the warm-up flawlessly and then bombs as soon as he enters at A. The student with a phenomenal horse who’s ridden with every big-name trainer in a 500-mile radius but can’t break 60 percent at Training Level.

Why do some athletes seem unable to break through their own glass ceilings? Have you ever felt the frustration of not being able to deliver the performance you know you and your horse are capable of? We asked three professionals in the fields of sport psychology and performance coaching to explain why the brain and body throw up roadblocks to success, and how you can avoid or overcome them.

Identify Your Motivators

Most dressage riders, especially those with competitive aspirations, have goals. Between the pyramid of training and the competition levels, dressage lends itself to the setting of progressive goals and the benchmarking of training progress.

Even if we no longer dream of riding in the Olympics, many dressage riders aspire to compete at the FEI levels. Years ago, Olympian Lendon Gray joked that a shadbelly and top hat should be mandatory at Introductory Level—to let riders get the “FEI attire” itch out of their systems so that they can then focus on training without pushing to achieve a goal they and their horses may not be ready for.

While that’s an entertaining story, it’s also a tail-wagging- the-dog cautionary tale of what can happen when a rider hasn’t set a clear, attainable goal. If you want to feel satisfied in your dressage journey, start by determining what drives you to ride, compete, or both, says mental-skills coach Tonya Johnston, MA, of San Rafael, California, author of Inside Your Ride: Mental Skills for Being Happy and Successful with Your Horse. She asks her clients to create what she calls a motivation statement.

“I have them write out every reason they can think of that they love riding,” Johnston says. “Just get everything down on a page. No numbered outline, no neat margins— get it all out. Write it willy-nilly all over the page. Then walk away. Come back in a couple of days. Which items speak to you the loudest? What gets you most excited? This is what makes you get out of bed at five in the morning. This is what makes you show up and do the work week in, week out. This is where you find you want to put your effort.”

Once you’ve uncovered your motivation, it will be easier to set goals that are in harmony with your beliefs. If you compete because you love the horse-show atmosphere and spending time with your horse and your friends, that’s important to know.

It’s also important that the other members of your team know what motivates you. Your instructor’s goal may be to have a certain number of students qualify for championships or win awards. Your family’s goal may be to have you succeed at a certain level. Your own goal may be to have a fun weekend socializing at the horse show, and, oh yes, riding.

Under Pressure

People who set achievement-oriented goals may feel a degree of self-imposed pressure to achieve those goals. And the loftier and more high-profile the goal, the greater the pressure. Riders who achieve the dream of qualifying for the Olympics, for instance, deal not only with the desire to ride well, but also with the pressures of increased media scrutiny and the wish not to let down their nations and the many supporters who contributed to the cause in the hopes of winning medals.

Johnston points out that “pressure is largely self-induced. It’s a choice.” The best way to handle pressure, she says, is to focus your energies on the parts of the process that you can control.

“The expectations and the goals you set for yourself,” she says, “are completely within your control.”

Johnston distinguishes between performance goals and outcome goals. You can control the former but not the latter.

“People often skip performance goals and go straight to outcome goals, like ‘This is the score I want at the show,’” she says. “That’s out of your control. Your goals need to be based on your own process: ‘I want this movement to be this quality’; ‘I want to remember to breathe here.’ Having very small, specific things that you control will give you comfort.”

In other words, you cannot control the judging, the horses and riders you’re competing against, or whether you earn a qualifying score (or an Olympic medal, for that matter). All you can control are your attitude and your riding to the best of your ability during those minutes that you’re in the arena.

Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda

Many goal-oriented people have lists of “shoulds”: I should be able to sit this trot lengthening. I should be able to stay relaxed when I head down center line.

“Shoulds” are toxic, says Johnston: They represent a misalignment between your goals and your motivation. While you’re beating yourself up with “shoulds,” you’ll remain stuck right where you are—still wondering why you can’t sit the trot or relax in the show ring.

When you tell yourself what you “should” be able to do, what you’re really doing is comparing yourself to others. Whether that comparison is to an unreachable ideal (ask any Olympian whether they’ve ever had a “perfect” ride) or to others’ achievements, the outcome is the same: frustration and disappointment.

“Social comparisons don’t serve anyone,” Johnston says. “If your goals are misaligned with your motivation and you’re doing things because you ‘should,’ you’re not being fair to your trainer, who will get frustrated; your horse, who will get confused; or yourself. You have the most to lose, and that’s your love of riding.”

Johnston has clients list those things that are out of their control and things that are in their control. “Performance goals, rather than outcome goals, can help shift the focus onto things that are in our control, and help us feel more confident that we know how to create a good ride.”

Making excuses is a form of self-sabotage

-Mental-skills coach Tonya Johnston

There’s a term for the process of focusing on things that are out of our control: outgrouping. Equestrian-performance coach Daniel Stewart, author of Pressure Proof Your Riding and of Fit & Focused in 52, describes outgrouping as “wonder, wish, and worry.”

“Wishing we were as successful as others; worrying about what the judge is thinking; wondering if we’ll do well in the show today,” says Stewart, of Naples, Florida, who coaches athletes in sport psychology and fitness through his Pressure Proof Coaching Academy camps, clinics, and online video courses. “Those are all examples of outgrouping. When we learn to stop outgrouping, we can eradicate performance anxiety.”

Overcoming Self-Sabotage

You’ve been getting respectable scores on your Second Level tests, and your Third Level schooling at home is going really well. Your trainer says you’re ready to move up. Your show entry is in, your boots are polished—and then you blow off a lesson. You didn’t really blow it off, of course: You had to miss it because you forgot that you’d promised to bake cupcakes for your daughter’s soccer-team fundraiser. And then there was that rain at home right before the show, which made the arena footing a bit iffy. You didn’t want to risk your horse getting injured right before your Third Level debut, so you opted not to ride.

The day of the show, you stay too busy to do much thinking about how prepared you feel. You have an OK warm-up, and your test score is…a solid 52 percent. Bummer. You console yourself with the thought that, between the missed lesson, the rain, and the footing, you didn’t have a chance to prepare thoroughly. It’s not as if you really could be expected to have a great ride.

Does this scenario sound familiar? Our egos will devise any number of ways to protect themselves against the disappointment of failure, says Johnston, and one of the more common is to make excuses. It’s easier on your ego if you don’t invest yourself 100 percent in an endeavor in which you might fail, she explains. Think of excuses as the ego’s air bags: If you don’t succeed, your ego remains intact because the failure, you reassure yourself, wasn’t really your fault.

Problem is, if you want to take your riding to the next level, you need to risk some failure along the way. Until you decide you’re going all in regardless of outcome, you’re likely to self-sabotage—and yes, even those completely plausible excuses we tell ourselves and others can be forms of self-sabotage. You may not even realize you’re doing it until someone calls you on it.

If you’re ready to finally push through to a new level of riding, you’ll need to have a heart-to-heart with the most important (and skeptical) person on your team: yourself. Johnston calls it a “core acceptance of ourselves,” adding, “Being honest is crucial.” This is the time to decide that you’re ready to commit and that you’ll own the results, whatever they are.

Half-Halted by Anxiety

Other riders have a different sort of performance roadblock: Fear or anxiety cripples their progress. Some get so nervous about riding in public that they avoid showing, riding in clinics, or even riding when anyone is around to watch them. Fear, sometimes stemming from a riding accident or a close call, can become so overwhelming that it keeps a rider out of the saddle altogether.

Most fearful or anxious riders feel frustration at not being able to participate fully in an activity that they once eagerly anticipated. Overcoming the fear requires finding a way to reconnect with your love of horses and riding, our experts say.

Taking a step back to rebuild confidence is not ‘going back a level.’ Don’t say you’re not good enough, so you have to go back.

-Equestrian-performance coach Daniel Stewart

Start by cutting yourself some slack and taking a step back from your present level and type of riding, suggests clinical and sport psychologist Timmie Pollock, PhD, an Association of Applied Sport Psychology-certified consultant who works with riders of all disciplines and helps clients with issues ranging from panic attacks to the aftereffects of traumatic brain injuries at the La Jolla Center for Neurofeedback in La Jolla, California.

Pollock understands all too well the fear-related issues that equestrians can face: A longtime rider and horse owner, she was badly injured in a riding accident that required months of physical recuperation and forced her to confront some of the same psychological obstacles that her clients face.

Knowing that she had to find a way to rediscover the joy of riding if she were to continue with her equestrian pursuits, Pollock took her own advice to start slowly.

“You start out with something you’re really comfortable with,” she says. “My first ride back was a trail ride in Kauai. It’s beautiful, and the horses are dead quiet. The goal here is to have fun and to be safe.”

Stewart emphasizes that taking a step back to help rebuild confidence “is not ‘going back a level.’ We mustn’t define ourselves by saying we’re not good enough, so we have to go back. That’s not it at all. We dropped something valuable to us—our love of riding. We need to go back and find it, work on it, and then move forward again. It’s like losing a set of keys: Unless you go back and find what you’ve lost, there is no potential to move forward.”

For a rider who loves to go out on trails, a short hack on a “bombproof” horse might be a good first step. For a dressage rider who’s struggling with fear, stepping back might mean riding in an indoor arena for a while before tackling an outdoor ring, walking and trotting instead of cantering, or staying on the lunge line to improve seat and balance before striking out solo.

Calling in a Pro

If you encountered a training obstacle or a behavior problem with a horse that you didn’t feel equipped to handle, you’d probably turn to an experienced equine professional for assistance. But when it comes to our own mental-health issues, we’re sometimes reluctant to seek help.

If fear, anxiety, or a pattern of behavior is seriously impacting your riding or your performance, a professional mental-skills coach, sport psychologist, or therapist may be able to help you take down the psychological roadblocks. Pollock, who has had experience with several types of therapy on both sides of the couch, as it were, shares some techniques that she’s found useful.

Neurofeedback is “biofeedback for the brain,” Pollock says. In neurofeedback, the practitioner attaches electrodes to the patient’s scalp, and his or her brain waves are reflected on a computer screen. The patient then learns to control the brain waves to achieve a more relaxed wave pattern.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) “is the fastest, most powerful technique I know to clear problems related to fear,” says Pollock. Through EMDR, the patient’s brain goes into a very relaxed state that allows easier access to memories of traumatic events. Then the therapist helps the patient to work through the layers of fear or anxiety, which may have built up over the years.

Thought Field Therapy (TFT) involves tapping on various acupressure points on the body to help clear emotional issues. According to Pollock, TFT can help reduce fear and anxiety produced by a variety of causes. It’s especially useful for riders, she says, because it requires no equipment and can be done nearly anywhere.

HeartMath utilizes a portable heart-rate-monitoring device called the emWave, which measures a type of biofeedback called heart-rate variability. The emWave indicates when your breathing and heart rate are in a relaxed state. Relaxation is key to working through the causes of anxiety.

Other tools:

Visualization can be extremely helpful, says Johnston, who calls the technique “ideal for riders, especially for desensitization of performance anxiety related to showing. You can imagine a particular show grounds, a particular arena, and mentally ride your test for a couple of weeks before you even get to the show.”

Mindfulness, our experts agree, is a powerful tool in combating anxiety and aiding performance. Mindfulness training and meditation help to develop focus and concentration and can help put the brakes on escalating anxiety.

Get Your Brain on Your Side

Our brains are incredibly powerful instruments, for better or for worse. If you feel as if you’re never going to get beyond 20-meter circles, if you find yourself making excuses week after week for why you’re not progressing, or if your fears are interfering with your love of horses and riding, then your brain can feel like your worst enemy.

Don’t give up, says Stewart. You can overcome the negative self-talk, the roadblocks to success, and even the fear bugaboo.

“We really know how to fix the challenges that riders— in particular dressage riders—face,” he says. “We know how the brain works; we just need to play by its rules.”

Penny Hawes is a lifelong horse lover, rider, owner, and trainer. She blogs and runs a coaching practice at TheHorseyLife. com. She lives in Virginia with her husband, daughter, and various quadrupeds.

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