The Mental Game Part 2: Long Hard Road

Way back in November I wrote a post about how I was dedicating myself to working on my mental game. I had noticed over the previous years that I really was not in a good head space when it came to how I approached showing, or even just the day to day struggles that all riders have to deal with. I was putting way to much pressure on myself, I was too negative, and I was losing focus. All of these things had a severe impact on, well… everything… but especially when it came to my performance in the ring. I was tired of letting myself be my own worst enemy, tired of being consumed by anxiety and ruled by emotion, so I decided to start trying to take steps to change it.

PHPrelimdressage

I started in what has always been my favorite place: books. Before I could really try to fix what was going on in my head, first I had to understand it. I loaded up on different sports psychology books, most riding-related but some not, and spent a lot of time picking them apart page by page (or with my audiobooks, sentence by sentence). Some of them I really liked, some of them were just ok. But they all highlighted one big thing: I had to learn how to be kinder to myself, how to see the big picture, and how to let go of things that I couldn’t control (well ok, there’s a lot more than that, but those were the big 3).

Whether it’s coincidence or not, I saw immediate results. Right after I opened my first books, I finally managed to put in two solid performances, finishing on our dressage score in both of our fall shows and earning two 2nd place ribbons. Awesome, right? Clouds part, angels sing, you’re done, you win, job complete, ta-da! Yeah no, not so fast. Then Texas Rose came along, and with it, some very complex feelings. The old me would have called that show a test, but now I see it for what it really was – an opportunity to see just how much I had learned so far, and just how dedicated I was to seeing this through.

That show was our first P/T, at the biggest venue we have here. I was pretty intimidated by it, but I also knew that we were capable. I made a bit of a mistake in the dressage (an error) but was able to just kind of laugh it off. Which… that itself is progress. The undercurrent of embarrassment and self-deprecation was still there of course, but I was able to pick out what went well and identify what I had learned. Then we got to stadium. It looked huge, and I was trying real hard not to shit a metaphorical brick. Warmup was kind of a shitshow, and I stepped in the ring thinking “Okay self, you can either feel cowed and defeated by all this, or you can sit up, kick on, and give it your best shot. Now is the time to choose.”. I sat up and I kicked and we got through the course just fine, albeit with 4 rails.

TRPrelim1
this jump was a highlight, and an awesome memory that no one can ever take away

Gah, four rails. It’s really ugly to look at that 16 on paper, right? Plus you feel like kind of an idiot as the jump crew is scurrying around, cleaning up your mess as you walk out of the ring. But does the number on the paper actually tell the story? No it doesn’t. It was our first recognized Prelim showjumping round, on a horse I’ve had for his whole career, and here we were at a level I had never even dared aspire to. If I chose to focus on the result (“omg 4 rails, 16 penalties, great, now we’re last!”), I would have been upset. But if I chose to focus on the journey, and the opportunity that this represented (“holy shit we did a Prelim round at Texas Rose! I made mostly good decisions, and my horse tried so hard for me. Now we get to go home and work on how to smooth out the less great parts, and see if we can make some improvements.”) it was exciting instead. It was funny to me, as I sat there by Henry’s stall that afternoon and considered everything. That was the first time it really registered with me that I could actually choose how I wanted to think and feel about it. I could choose to be upset, or I could choose to be excited. There was so much power in having the ability to choose, rather than in letting my emotions control how I felt.

And then XC rolled around, and a random footing issue resulted in a 20. I remember walking back to the barn after we finished, waiting to feel that blow to the gut. Because, you know… a 20 is failure, right? Kind of embarrassing, especially on a horse that should not be getting 20’s. But I waited and waited, and that blow to the gut never really came. It’s not like I’ve learned anything new here, really… horses are horses, sport is sport, and sometimes things just go wrong. Shit happens. I’ve always known that. But before, I let the things that were outside of my control really get to me, to define who I was as a rider and even as a person. They would eat me alive, feeding on my self-worth, my confidence, and my positivity. I let myself feel so discouraged by random occurrences or one off mistakes. But this time I finally saw it for what it was: Shit. That. Happens. And again, there was a learning opportunity available to me, if I chose to take it.

I have never left a show in second-to-last place and felt satisfied with it in my entire life, until that day. And to me, that illustrates a lot more growth than either of those other two previous shows where things went really well. There’s nothing glamorous about growth, but it’s essential. I learned so much more from the show that looked ugly on paper, and I was able to grind away at those lessons, keep working, and make marked improvements. Which, shocker, eventually DID make themselves evident in consequent show results (if you’re into that “results” kind of thing).

PHPrelimXC1

In retrospect, I really needed to have a bit of a rough time. It made a lot of the stuff I had been reading actually click into place for me, and I was able to see things that I still needed to work on, but also the things that I’d already made so much improvement with. It proved to me that I was on the right path, and that this mental training stuff was really something I needed to pursue, for my own sake. I delved back into my reading with gusto, and started talking to more people about the subject.

Around that time Matt Brown came out with his Chronicle series, A Case for Not Focusing on Your Goals, and the subject matter was much the same as what I was dealing with. I was blown away by it, not really having seen a top professional be so candid about the subject before. He had book recommendations too, which I have been making my way through one at a time. Rough times are going to happen, no matter who you are and no matter what you do. Especially when you push further and further outside of your comfort zone, into new territory. They’ve happened before and they will happen again, sometimes in small ways, sometimes in big ways. There is no avoiding that. The difference is how we get through them, and I’m realizing that perspective and mental preparedness are key.

This part is my biggest work in progress. Fear of failure is hard to tame.

The more I’ve become aware of the mental aspect of riding, the more I’ve noticed the little things that continue to add up. The more people I’ve talked to about it, the more I’ve realized I’m not alone. In fact, almost every single person I’ve talked to has had some of these same struggles, or comes from a similar place. I feel very strongly that this isn’t something we talk about enough, as equestrians. It’s not a discussion we’re having all the time, but it should be. It’s not something we dedicate ourselves to as intensely as riding itself, but it should be. Every rider, every trainer, every owner should have this mental training as a continuous part of their education.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all this because my brain is magically “fixed” and I’m all better. Far from it. There is no such thing. I have to strap myself in, every day, and commit myself to this, every day. It will probably always be this way. For as much as I have learned, I still have 100 times more to figure out. It’s still very easy to find myself slipping into negative self talk, or comparison, or focusing on the flaws, or fearing failure. Our brains are programmed that way in this day and age, and trying to reprogram it is not easy. It’s a long hard road, and I don’t expect to ever find the end of it… I’m just hoping that it will continue to smooth itself out a bit.

I’m also hoping that by sharing my story as it unfolds, that it helps spark more conversation. I want to talk about this, honestly I need to talk about this, and I want other people to feel like it’s okay to talk about, too. Either way, get ready to see me reference this or talk a lot more about this from now on. I needed some time in the beginning to absorb it for myself and start working things out in my own head, but now I’m ready to start sharing, for better or worse. And if anyone ever wants to have a conversation, never hesitate to hit me up. If you’d rather do it privately, email me or message me any time.

If you’re looking for a couple of books, my two favorites so far have been Braining Training for Riders and Chop Wood Carry Water. That said, Trafalgar Square Books has a really good collection of sports psychology books, if you want to see what else is out there. Something else might speak to you more.

20 thoughts on “The Mental Game Part 2: Long Hard Road

  1. Hey, thanks for this. I had a rough time last year, and things didn’t start to improve again until I started thinking “I don’t care.” Not that I didn’t care, of course, but more like trying to get out of my own way and trying to prove (to whom?!?) that I’m good enough. It’s definitely still a (major) work in progress, but I’m starting to be able to get out of my own way. Something Trainer said last week finally clicked for me… the jist of it was that I was improving because I was no longer scared. I took me a while to puzzle this out, as I’ve never *thought* I was scared, but I finally realized I was scared of failing, of not being good enough. It’s reassuring to know that others go through this same thing. So… thanks.

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  2. Walking that fine line of caring enough to perform well, but not caring so much that it wrecks my mental state is one I’m constantly trying to figure out. It’s one of the many reasons I appreciate my trainer so much – she understands that struggle and will actively use language and teaching methods to help me find that balance both while training and while competing.

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  3. Thank you for the mention. As riders ourselves, we find it so reassuring to know that even those at the very top struggle with their mental game! Reading about their experiences, and the tools they’ve successfully used, has helped us in and out of the saddle.

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  4. Really good post. Many good points, especially about the negative self talk. The mental side of competition isn’t really emphasized in riding instruction and unfortunately, the horses are the ones who pay the price. Thanks for sharing and keep up the good work. Love following your journey with H & P.

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  5. Ahh, I’m so glad to see discussion about this! Thank you for the book recs. I’m not competing, but I *am* riding again after 7 years out of the saddle, and the mental struggle to not compare current-me to young-and-fit-me is too real. Learning to accept that things will happen as they happen and you can’t control all of it is so key.

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  6. I loved reading part 1, and was so excited to see part 2! This is something I’ve been working on (and yea, probably will be forever) for the past two years – though for beyond-my-control circumstances outside of horses. It’s not talked about enough in ‘regular’ life as it is, but that’s usually where it starts. I think what many don’t realize, and what you’re showing, is that a) ‘regular’ life doesn’t have to be the entry point, and b) this stuff can be applied across the board, so hearing/talking about it in whatever microcosm you prefer may actually help you have more success with it (if you can get the conversation going…). I’ll have to try to send a message sometime because I love talking about this stuff and seeing it shared in different contexts.

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  7. The mental game is where it’s at. Not just for riding either, I’ve been working hard on my own mental game. If you like podcasts check out Ed Mylett. I was a little put off by by his picture at first, thinking it was just going to be about protein shakes, but he has some amazing guests and great conversations.

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  8. This is such a wonderful follow up to your earlier post. I’m always amazed that as a society, we never seem to actually teach children how to use their brains. I was never taught how to analyze or control my emotions as a child. I never learned how to deal with anything, other than to shove it down and shut up. I had to be 35 and find the right therapist to be able to learn how to function! And we definitely don’t seem to teach riders how to cope either. Not with fear, not with show nerves, not with anxiety. It’s always assumed you should be brave enough or you shouldn’t even be in the barn. How important it is to learn how to manage our fears/anxieties/worries and deal with them in a positive way to make us better riders! How vital to deal with things outside our control. I mean, with horses, that’s basically everything!
    I’m so proud of your journey, and of your openness and desire to help others. Thank you for being more of what we need in the world.

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  9. I was a hard realization for me to come to recently that I am a working amateur, and as much as I love the sport and want to do my best at it, I will never make it to the top levels, nor will this ever be my full time job. I will never go pro, and I don’t have to. I don’t have to ride my horse every day, I don’t have to go to all the big competitions and do well, I don’t have to buy the fanciest horse or the nicest equipment. It is enough for me to take the best care of the horse that is right for me, and enjoy my time with my animals. If the focus of that time has to change as I get older and my life changes, then that’s fine. When I find myself dreading going to the barn, or feeling more nervous than excited about a competition, then I need to take a step back and not put so much pressure on myself to be perfect at something that I do because I enjoy it, not because it’s my job.

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  10. This really resounded with me, but for my current work-life. I did a complete career change, and it’s hard not to be utterly defeated and disappointed sometimes because I care a LOT. I’m going to try taking a step back and looking behind myself to see how far I’ve come.

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  11. Hell yes for doing the work, seeing results, and feeling better thanks to that work. I’m happy for you. 🙂 Finding a more peaceful headspace a little at a time – no matter how hard-fought to gain it – is so freaking awesome.

    And thank you for the book recs to accompany this post!

    Outside of competition, I’ve been working on similar things to become kinder to myself. Self-compassion is so freaking hard. Yet it’s one of the most rewarding journeys I’ve ever put myself on. My anxiety is infinitely less thanks to it and every other aspect of my life is benefiting as a result. I feel like I have more time/ability to accomplish things and hold space for people I’m close to. It’s not without ups and downs, but the good times are slowly more prevalent than the bad ones.

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  12. And this is why it is so important that bloggers blog. In airing your struggles (and accomplishments WITH those struggles), it opens the way for those of us who never thought to put those feelings into real words, let alone converse about. My thanks to you.

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  13. This post is good timing for me, I had a particularly rough ride tonight during pas de deux practice, I was riding a lesson horse who I’ve ridden the the better part of 4ish years. He can be difficult, he bucked me off back in September during our warm up at a show (fun show for quadrille). Tonight he was spazzing about a bird chirping in the rafters of the indoor (it is odd for this time of year, I’ll give him that) I couldn’t get him to go forward, everytime I would get him to trot he would get leapy and then he started going backwards, at once point my trainer told me to hop off so she could lunge him and he was doing mini bucks and rears in place and I couldn’t even get off. I felt so defeated, she lunged him and he continued being spazzy and leapy but eventually settled. I got back on but I was still in my own head and everytime he would start to trot he felt like he was going to explode. I just couldn’t get out of my head enough to make him get through it. I was completely paralyzed by fear. I’ve ridden him through worse, much worse, but tonight I could barely manage to get him to trot.
    I did buy the brain training book on your recommendation, before Christmas (only got about 60 pages in tho) and haven’t had a chance to read more, what I did read was very useful, and has helped me in other situations he was being difficult but tonight I couldn’t talk myself down.

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  14. Great post. I think we (as riders) are constantly thumped with humility from our horses and trainers, which is great. But for me, it veers toward self-exasperation at my own perceived shortfalls.

    We could all afford to be a little kinder to ourselves. Thanks for the reminder!

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  15. Choosing how we will remember something, and/or choosing how we evaluate it, is such a true and important point.
    It’s an important skill we can take into the rest of our lives as well. And thereby make our world a better and more peaceful place to live, without changing anything but ourselves.

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  16. Thank you for being such a pleasure to read! What a great post!

    It’s a great coincidence I stumbled on your post because, a few days ago, I went to Half Price Books and found this little gem in the animal section (my favorite): “That Winning Feeling! – A new approach to riding using psychocybernetics” by Jane Savoie.
    I was very intrigued, so I bought it. I’ve read the first chapter so far, and it’s well written.

    Psychocybernetics, as it is explained on the book’s cover, is the science of positive mind power.

    I used to Event in France, but after moving to Australia I stopped riding for almost 10 years. Now that I now live in Austin, I’m toying with the idea of getting back in the saddle.

    As I read the book, I’m there thinking “oh, how I wish I had read this when I was competing and suffering from terrible nerves”. But, i think it’s never too late to learn something new!

    MD

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