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!