By, Liz Piacentini
Have you ever really paid attention to the mental dialogue chattering between your ears? We all have thousands of thoughts racing through our brains every hour. But, when these thoughts become overwhelmingly negative, our emotions can impact our motions when we ride.
Constant negativity fuels worry, reduces confidence and ultimately lowers performance. As equestrians, it’s essential to develop an awareness of our verbal and non-verbal dialogue and make every effort to keep it positive. If not, we risk sabotaging our results – and the results of others!
My awakening to the power of positive thinking began several years ago, when I was studying for the Certified Meeting Professional exam. After I became a CMP, I dedicated nine years to teaching a review course for fellow professionals preparing for the exam. I witnessed how critical it was for study group participants to maintain a positive mindset. Repeated negative comments had a way of becoming contagious, infecting everyone in the group with worry and self-doubt.
I kicked off each semester with a course overview for the experienced professionals. They all had qualified to sit for the exam, yet most felt overwhelmed by the volume of information and pressure to do well on exam day.
Comments like, “I can’t learn all this material,” “if only I was better at studying,” or “I’ll never pass this exam,” typically surfaced. I knew that if the negative discussion wasn’t nipped in the bud, they could find themselves spiraling towards a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.
Hum, this reminded me of language I’d periodically hear from riders preparing for a dressage test! I recalled my recent experience listening to Olympic coach, Jane Savoie. Jane explained how top riders pay close attention to their self-talk and speech to avoid sabotaging their results. They practice re-phrasing their inner dialogue to eliminate the negative elements. This allows their sub-conscious mind to direct their thoughts, attitude and actions towards their goal instead of away from it. Here are some examples:
Effective riders turn negative thoughts into positive pro-active statements:
- I can’t, becomes: I can!
- I should take more lessons, becomes: I must.
- I hate riding last in my class, becomes: I love riding last.
- I’ll try to ride more often, becomes more committed with: I will ride more often.
- If I could learn shoulder-in, becomes a determined action with: When I learn shoulder-in.
- Don’t knock down a rail, becomes a reminder of what to do with: Ride with forward rhythm over each fence.
The first year I taught the course, I shared the value of this line of thinking with the class. Participants soon sharpened their awareness and became each other’s speech police. They worked together to re-phase statements doomed for gloom into positive affirmations. Students who learned how to turn negatives into positives became more motivated, dedicated and successful. The emphasis on positive thinking actually helped increase the overall confidence level and success of the whole group!
Yes, there were still moments when someone would get discouraged and yell, “Why can’t I get these definitions right? Because I must be stupid!” Of course, they weren’t stupid. “Why” questions have a tendency to lead to lousy answers. It was time to apply another one of Jane’s tips:
Ask a better question. Jane had shared how WHY questions cause our brains to search for an answer that confirms why the problem exists. By using WHAT or HOW, instead of WHY, we gain a solution-driven answer. For example:
Challenge: “WHY am I so nervous riding at shows? Because I’m such a wimp who always falls apart!”
Opportunity: “WHAT strategies can I practice to increase my confidence and focus?” “HOW can I better prepare to ride at my best?”
I shared the technique with the class. Sure enough, the study group started replacing WHY with HOW or WHAT to uncover solutions. The initial question now became, “HOW can I remember the definition?”, or “WHAT memory trigger can I apply for this word?” After a bit of brainstorming, someone would come up with a catchy rhyme or silly reminder to get us laughing and plant the word’s definition in everyone’s head.
Like strengthening a muscle, re-programming our thinking is a gradual process that begins with awareness. Once you become more aware of what you’re thinking, you might be amazed at the amount of negative self-talk you hear! The truth is, we are hard-wired to experience more negative thoughts than positive thoughts. It’s an evolutionary mechanism dating back to our cave man days to help us escape potential threats.
Does this mean everyone in the class developed the ability to dismiss all their negative thoughts and worries about exam day? Of course, not. But when negative self-doubt became a distraction, they recognized the opportunity to reset their thoughts and choose a solution-driven alternative. Oh, exam day jitters would still be there. However, instead of staying focused on the anxiety, they could redirect their attention towards what they needed to do to succeed.
I may have been the teacher, but the experience taught me a valuable lesson. Our thoughts either motivate us toward success or away from it. As riders, we can choose thoughts that build us up, increase our confidence, and sharpen our focus. Or, we can choose thoughts that break us down, generate self-doubt, and create distraction.
Need some help getting started? Follow Coach Daniel Stewart’s advice – take a dose of the Letter C. Why C? Because the greatest number of positive feelings begin with C. Select the emotions that identify you at your best. Then, imagine yourself Confident and Calm and act that way! Raise your chin and take a calming deep breath.
Whether you ride in a lesson program, on a competitive team, or with fellow boarders on the trail, practice turning negative thoughts into positives. You’ll cultivate a more supportive atmosphere that boosts each other’s confidence and inspires better performance. Apply these tips the next time you get a case of the negative notions and unlock an opportunity to ride at your best.
Enjoy the journey!