Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Rainbows and mental rehearsal

I'm back in California and it's great! Super rainy though. I saw a bunch of rainbows on my way to the farm this morning.

Love it!

This morning Camou was a total young-pony poop. He wanted to run, and to play, and to buck, and to leap. I really did not want any of those things to happen, so we let him off the line and let him run. He spent about three minutes bucking and leaping and galloping before he reverted to "I'm-an-old-man" status and looked at me somewhat balefully when I encouraged him to keep cantering.

Then I started asking him to change directions as well as maintain the speed I was asking, and he pretty much was done being excited at that point.

Hah hah! Make it into work and suddently it's not fun anymore. I'm brilliant. A had a good ride after that. We then spoke a little bit about how we really are our emotions at times and the importance of visualization. And that reminded me that it's one of my favorite topics and so I decided to write a little about it today.

Sports coaching is recognized as vitally important to elite athletes, and studies are being performed with novice athletes that are quite interesting as well. For example, one 12-week study showed that people who visualized exercising their fingers for five minutes a day managed to increase their strength by 13.5%! That's right, no exercise, they simply visualized it for a few minutes a day and became measurable stronger.

One of my favorite books for readability is Finding Your Zone by Michael Lardon. He talks about 'the zone' being a state of optimum performance, and that we are the only ones who can decide what that optimum performance is.

The primary thing that I try to impress upon my students is that we've gotten to a point where we need to trust our ability. We've jumped a million things and I'm not asking you to suddenly perform tempis for the first time. We're stringing jumps together into a course. We can do this. Believe in your ability. Overthinking leads to overanalyzing, which leads to trepidation, which leads to a subpar performance. We have to resist distractions of the mind.

We can develop a result oriented goal in order to narrow your focus and eliminate being buffeted about by the sense that 'fate' is in charge. Our sport involves an unpredictable 1200lb animal: we can only do our best.

One score card is the traditional one that measures our actual 'score.' The second scorecard is to measure the percentage of ride executed to the best of our ability. Using a hunter course at a show as an example, we don't have to worry about the first scorecard, as that's the judge's job!

The second scorecard is judged as follows:

  1. Did you visualize the course you wanted to ride before you rode it?
  2. Did you ride the course without doubt or ambivilance (were you fully committed?)
  3. Did you take a deep breath and refocus if you had negative or distracting thoughts?
If you can answer YES to those three questions, then give yourself 100%. 

When coaching, I try to practice this second scorecard over a single jump, then over a grid, before asking my students to try this scorecard over a whole course. 

Summarized from one of the final chapters of the book, we have to remember that we are more than what we think and more than what we feel. Paying attention to an observing ego is where our greatest wisdom will come from. We have to differentiate ourselves from our emotions and remember that our experiences are influenced by our own biases. (Which is why it's important to establish how we're going to judge ourselves BEFORE we enter the ring. Otherwise we'll judge ourselves on totall random things that are outside of our control.) 

Another great in the realm of sports coaching is James E Loehr. He says
Learn to picture things so vividly in your mind you can actually hear, see, feel, and touch them. This represents an absolutely essential performer skill that is clearly acquired with practice. Your brain is unable to differentiate something vividly imagined from actual reality. ... Visualize yourself overcoming your greatest weakness. From fearful to fearless, weak to strong, defensive to open, negative to positive, impatient to patient, passive to aggressive -- attack your mental weaknesses on many fronts, but most importantly crystalize the breakthroughs with real-life images -- over and over. If you need to be more assertive under pressure, vividly imagine yourself being exactly that in competition. Create tough situations in your imagination and 'see' yourself competing assertively to achieve your best performance. 'Seeing' the changes become a reality in your imagination is a critical step in converting weakness into strength.
Daniel Stewart is, in my mind, the equestrian master of sports coaching. The clinics I've been blessed to attend of his have been FABULOUS. Because he's so great, I'm going to steal the next few paragraphs directly from his book, "Ride Right." This is more a set of instructions for fixing specific problems rather than priming your mind for performance as a whole, but I like it. So you're getting

  1. Relax. To maximize mental rehearsal, practice these images while breathing deeply. 
  2. Grab something. Help your mind understand your visualizations by feeling the actual item you plan on using for your mental images. For instance, you can develop good rein tension by imagining you're holding a small sponge in each hand and slowly squeezing a drop of warm water out of each one. This image will become clearer in your mind if you actually grab two small sponges, place one in each hand, and gently squeeze a few drops of warm water out of them. The next time you ride, recall how the warm sponges felt in your hands and the amount of tension you needed to squeeze out the drops of water. If you practice this while riding, you'll know your hands are in the right position before the drops of water will land on each side of your horse's neck. 
  3. Use a movement bridge. Make your mental images more effective by performing a physical movement to get the visualization under way. When you do this, the movement becomes a bridge between the image and the skill you're trying to accomplish. You can learn to ride with your eyes focused forward by pretending it's nighttime, and you're riding with a small miner's light attached to your helmet. IT's dark out, so you must always look forward and follow the light shining between your horse's ears. To create the movement bridge between your mind and body, actually reach up with one hand and imitate the motion of turning on the switch of your make believe headlamp. 
  4. Make your visualizations memorable. You'll have an easier time remembering your mental images if they're foolish or funny.
  5. Pretend to be someone else. Use external imagery to visualize a rider you admire. Perhaps she has a perfect leg, great posture, supple hands, wonderful rhythm, or amazing confidence, and make them your own. Repeat to yourself, "I'm riding with Mary's legs, posture, hands, rhythm and confidence!" Or instead of fearing you'll forget the course, repeat to yourself, "I'm confident I can remember the course because I'm the one who designed it!" 
  6. Tell others. Sharing your mental images enables your riding peers and instructors to remind you to use them whenever you forget.

Mary Wanless talks about re-watching mental videos of her rides several times, then re-creating them with any remaining issues fixed. Basically edit your videos until you can see, feel, and hear yourself riding perfectly.

In sum? Use all your senses. Make it emotionally laden so you can feel your confidence, joy, and strength when you watch these videos. Practice 'riding' tough situations flawlessly.

So, my dear readers, help me out! What are some of your favorite images? Do you use mental rehearsal? Any further questions today?


  1. visualizations are so key. repetition (real or imagined lol) breeds familiarity which helps keep up my confidence. i also like that point on determining ahead of time how we will judge ourselves

    1. It works really well, especially with teenagers who tend to pick totally random criteria upon which to judge themselves!

  2. I've ridden that Grand Prix test so many times this year... Only twice all the way through but what seems like thousands of times in my head. If you can't imagine yourself doing something, you certainly can't do it physically.

    1. I love that point - it's very well put. If you can't imagine it, you definitely can't do it. And the more vividly you can imagine it, the better prepared you are to pull it off!

  3. I saw a sports coach when I first got Carlos I think it helped my riding immensely. People take the mind for granted!

    1. That's awesome! I try to incorporate sports coaching into my training for my students - right now I think I'm very focused on the physical aspect of coaching them in order to refine their ability to just pilot their horses, but it'll swing back around. Would you mind telling me what the best impact of the sports coach was for you? I'm always curious as to what the benefit is to individual riders.

  4. This is great stuff Kathryn! Since I'm an adult beginner I love it when other aspects of sports training are used in riding. Ski racers visualize their course before hurling down the mountain, tennis players see themselves doing the perfect serve, ect, ect...Love your posts!