By Margie Sugarman
Margie Sugarman is a leading board-certified psychotherapist and sports consultant based in New York. Margie’s desire is to enhance performance through the connection between the mind and body, and her current client list includes Olympic, professional and amateur athletes across the country. Her experience employing various therapeutic modalities has helped equestrians win classics, junior medals and Grand Prix. Do you have a question you want Margie to answer? Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Right before a big show, I always find myself thinking about what will happen. What happens if I lose? If I win? What if I fall off? All of these hypotheticals distract me from performing my best, and even though I’m aware that I’m doing it, I can’t stop. Is there any way to keep me focused on the now, rather than what happens next?
Many competitors struggle with balancing the distraction of many different goals at one time. The nature of a sport is to demand perfection, which, as a result, causes us to think that anything less than perfect is a failure. It’s common for many competitors to enter the ring with their heads filled with hypotheticals and negative thoughts of things that would keep them from being their personal best. That’s the essence of competition. A sport like riding generates endless goals, such as keeping the reins a particular length or sitting up, so that entering the ring can make it feel impossible to focus on the now.
Paying attention to multiple things at once is actually impossible. When it comes to the mind, multitasking is not the ability to perform several tasks at the same time, but to alternate between these tasks every few seconds. By stopping one activity and starting another, then stopping again, you’re cutting off your brain from fully committing to one activity. In the show ring, you should be focused strictly on your riding, but it’s easy to let your mind wander over to, “What if I fall? What if my horse trips?”
Breaking your concentration and stressing about hypotheticals stops your brain’s momentum and forces it to focus on another topic. Just like when you drive a car you must look at the road rather than worry about getting into an accident, when you’re riding a horse your focus has to be on what you’re doing at that moment rather than on what may or may not happen. Your brain cannot consciously focus on more than one thing at a time, and so if you’re distracted by thoughts of what happens after your round in the show ring, you’re actually not even thinking about your round at all.
The solution lies in setting your mind on achieving one specific goal. To focus on the task at hand and alleviate extraneous thoughts, it’s necessary to use one’s own specific riding issues, such as keeping your heels down, to quiet the mind. For example, the outcome of a day spent solely focusing on keeping your eyes up in the ring will be different than a day spent thinking about keeping your eyes up, body back and everything that could go wrong by not achieving these goals. If you set your mind on how to achieve one goal for the class, you’ll have a much better chance of success. Once a goal has been achieved and imprinted, you then move on to another goal.
Every rider has emotional issues they must overcome. However, for this particular issue, focusing on one specific goal instead of five different goals both before and when entering the show ring can immensely help one’s ability to concentrate and succeed.
Insecurity in your ability to succeed should not be the foremost thought in your mind while competing. You should be thinking about the things you can control, like your posture, your grip on the reins, the position in your saddle. But only one at a time. Focus on one goal until you reach it, and move on to the next. Trying to achieve all your goals at once by multitasking will only reduce productivity and increase mistakes.
It’s also important to keep in mind that while you can’t know the future, you can change it by acting in the present. Thinking about hypothetical situations won’t get you the blue ribbon, but improving the way you ride will. What happens after the show isn’t nearly as important as what happens during it. If you’ve done everything you can to succeed, you’ll leave the ring feeling satisfied that you gave your best performance. You won’t have to worry about the results, good or bad, because you competed to the best of your ability and you should be proud of that.
It helps to catch yourself thinking these negative thoughts, and correct them. By conditioning yourself to replace a negative thought with a positive one, you’ll realize both how often you criticize yourself and how much better you perform when you have confidence in yourself. Tell yourself you can’t control the decision the judges make, but you can control what you show them and why you deserve to win.