Monday, March 5, 2012

Mental Performance Coaching Session 3: Achieving Focus - Easier Said Than Done...

My second mental performance coaching session resulted in some good stuff.  There really is
something to this debriefing thing.  I mean, how many times have you heard you should keep a riding journal?  A bazillion, right?  But for some reason you've never done it.  I hear you.  I didn't either.  Took this whole mental coaching initiative to make me start and now I could kick myself, because the difference in my riding and the way I think about my riding is tremendous.

When I ride, I am focused so much more on what I am doing and how the horse is reacting.  I'm noticing more about my position and the aids I'm giving and how my mare is responding to them.  True, I may have noticed some of these things before, but the difference is NOW I'M SUPPOSED TO WRITE IT ALL DOWN.  If I don't pay attention and retain laser like focus I know I'll forget something important. (Yeah, I know.  This is not like Moses missing the parting of the Red Sea because he was admiring a dandelion. )

After I'm done riding I write a Debrief.  In it I include the date, my goal for the day, what went well, what didn't, any thoughts I have on why something may have succeeded or failed, and what my next steps are in terms of fixing what went wrong. These next steps become my goals for the next ride.

All of this paying attention to what I'm doing so I can write it down has helped my focus.  You know, the thing you lose when you get past a certain age. 

Here's where we start Session 3, the FOCUS session. According to my mental coach, Sommer Christie, focus is what you pay attention to.  Optimum focus is when you can pay attention to the right things at the right time.  For example, when you are riding in your arena and you are so absorbed in the shoulder in that you don't notice that your child has forgotten to wrap her pony/has put the saddle pad on backwards/hasn't warmed the pony up yet has set off at a brisk hand gallop about the ring.  In other words, you need to pay attention to the right stuff (aids for shoulder in, how horse responds) and not to distracting external and internal stimuli (what kid is doing or how your back is feeling).

Sommer shared a graphic she called the Circles of Attention (Ta-DAH!!)  They looked like a dartboard, and the bull's eye is the primary circle, called Me and My Task.  The second circle is Environment, which in the can be other riders in the ring, horse show judges, the weather - things of that nature that are out of your control.  Circle three is Comparisons.  For example, are you busy comparing your warm up to another rider's, or comparing this ride to a previous ride?  The fourth circle is on outcomes (could be winning or losing. or even "I want this to be perfect!") and the fifth circle are the consequences of those outcomes.  The last circle is the worst one, the Questions of Meaning circle. This would be where you ask yourself  questions like "Why in the name of God am I doing this when I am so lousy at it?"

Essentially, everything but the first circle is a distraction.  We need to "control the controllable," which is what what you are doing, the process you are involved in, and the immediate next step.  For me and my fear of jumping, that means I am cantering poles, and I am not focusing on the distances I am getting to those poles.  Nope, I'm focusing on my rythm.  I'm working on maintaining a good rythmical canter and maintaining it for a whole circle.  Once I can do that in a session, I canter to an exercise of poles and count 1-2-1-2-1-2 out loud so I stay focused on the cadence and not the poles.  It's about choosing productive things to focus on; for example, instead of just telling yourself you "can" do something, you tell yourself what you need to do to get something done. Make sense?

It's interesting that with all the attention I've been putting into noticing what I am doing while riding and then transcribing my thoughts into my journal, I've been more able to focus on the immediate task at hand.  The other day in  a lesson we were doing the circle of death exercise over poles (imagine a clock with poles set a number of strides apart at 12, 3, 6 and 9) and all I was doing was counting the strides like a refugee from Sesame Street.  I may have sounded like one of the Count's minions, but that intense attention to what I was doing and NOT on what anyone else in the ring was doing made a huge difference.  I'd say I nailed about 85% of the distances, and when I missed one, I was able to recover and regroup more easily.

However, the one constant thing about focus is the inevitable loss of it.  Sommer and I did not get to discuss strategies for dealing with loss of focus yet, but she gave me some homework (yep, therapy is WORK!) and that touches on some techniques. So far what I've gleaned from reading ahead is that you can train yourself to keep your focus. You can practice focusing in training sessions, as I outlined above.  You can simulate the stressors you might encounter during competition during training, such as practicing timed jump offs, or placing flowers or people in odd places or having loud music playing.  You can even practice making mistakes so you can practice fixing them. Another tactic is using visualization to see yourself  competing and successfully handling potential distractions.  Finally, you need to pay attention to your level of focus during every ride, and debrief yourself afterwards. When did you lose it, how did you get it back, why couldn't you get it back, is there a better way to do this next time?

Then you make a plan to help you regain your focus.  There are a couple well known strategies to achieve this.  You can "Tree" it -- imagine you are taking the distraction and placing it high up in a tree where you can no longer see it or reach it. (I'm more in favor of burying it in a deep dark hole, but I'm not the person who came up with this idea so to each his own.)  You can use "anchors" - re-focus reminders such as words or images.  Like getting a tattoo of the word "Breathe" on your wrist so you can see it when you ride.  Of course, there's no need to be this dramatic, but anything that brings you back to your immediate task is good.  The last strategy I read about was the use of "Meaningful Metaphors."  One of those could be "Change Channels." Imagine your brain as a TV and when you get mired in negative thinking or lose focus, change the channel back to a clearly focused picture of what you need to do.

Good luck, and laser-like focus, to you!


  1. Great post!

    I have kept a training journal (my blog) for a few years now, but could bring it into better "focus" with the debriefing exercise.

    The Circles of Attention, tree and anchor strategies sound super helpful - thanks so much for taking the time to share.

    Don't laugh too hard at the "breathe" tattoo idea. I programmed my cell to have the word breathe come up first thing when I open it...

  2. @Calm- I'm not laughing at the tattoo idea - more at the fact that I am too much of a baby to do it! At the moment I am sporting a t-shirt with my own personal mantra - KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. Just my own way to try and keep it all together. :) Thanks for the phone idea, am going to put it on there as well.

  3. I think this will help me during my next lesson. Need to concentrate on me, and watch Miranda less. Last time my seat, and leg were better, but after watching her, and losing my focus, I started slipping. Learned somethin' again...........

  4. It's the simple things that get you every time, right?! Miranda can hold her own; let her tell you about her ride afterwards. Concentrate on what you need to do. :) This riding stuff can be hard enough without worrying about what other's are doing.LOL

  5. Really useful blog. Thanks very much. Funnily enough I've just had a session on focus with my coach and he would agree with much of what you recommend. He has had me use anchors and visualization before and its been really effective. I'd been saying that its easier to stay focused when things are going well but I find it more difficult if I rattle a pole or something. His advice was what your advice is - do more work visualizing when things go wrong to prepare for when things do go wrong, because they do.

    If I may add one more word of advice to what you have written - though I do agree with it all and think its absolutely excellent. Its easier to do the mental work when you are really fit. The body doesn't tire and let you down. So while we must do all the mental work you point to (and its a lot), we also have to do a lot of physical work both in and out the saddle if we want to be successful in the ring.

    Thanks again for a truly superb article.

    1. Dear Tanya- Thank you so much for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed. Engaging a mental performance coach has been quite helpful, as I certainly wasn't getting there on my own. The ideas seem simple enough, so you'd think they'd be easy, but like so much in life, that's not the case.
      And you make an excellent point about the fitness, another aspect of the riding I've been struggling with and trying to improve (thou 2 packs of peanut M&M's last night didn't help!)
      if you're interested, here's one of my posts on that topic -- there are a few more, as that's another regular struggle:

  6. Thank you for this (belatedly)! The circles idea is definitely one that I need to think on s'more. Very useful.

  7. Wow... this is a keeper! I hope you don't mind me printing it out and keeping my head in the game! I did keep a journal when I first got Sugar but then lost the habit. What you describe is journaling with a purpose... priceless!