Reset Your Mindset: Two Tools to Tackle Negative Brain Chatter

By, Liz Piacentini

During an important show, my focus was gradually disappearing. A steady stream of distracting thought was making it harder and harder to concentrate on my horse. Would the two mental fitness tools I learned be enough to get my train of thought back on track?

Meme: Your mind is a garden your thoughts are the seeds. You can grow flowers or you can grow weeds.Maybe it’s happened to you.

You have an argument with a friend before a ride or competition. A co-worker says something that bothers you at work. Or, maybe a wave of your own self-doubt starts to spiral into overdrive. Whatever the trigger, the conversation running between your ears is no longer positive. Before you know it, your negative brain chatter gets stuck on instant replay. Now, you’re losing focus during a lesson or in the warm-up.

That’s exactly what happened to me! My goal one season was to ride in the Connecticut Level 1 Dressage Series championship class. I worked hard throughout the summer improving my technical skills during lessons and competing in recognized shows to earn my qualifying scores.

Finally, the big show day arrived. However, a work-related conversation kept popping into my head. As I rode over to the warm-up ring, I realized my mental chatter had become an annoying distraction. It was disrupting my focus, creating frustration, and decreasing my enjoyment of the show. Brainstorming solutions for my client could be done after I competed. Right now, I needed to reset my mindset and get in the zone of concentration.

Luckily, I had two mental fitness tools Coach Daniel Stewart taught me for overcoming stubborn, distracting thoughts:

Halt negative thinking with a Thought Stopper

I was armed with a thought stopper – something that startles your brain and stops the stream of negative thinking. For example, snapping a rubber band around your wrist may work great if you’re a runner, but that isn’t so easy to do when you’re holding reins! Instead, riders can pick a word such as STOP or RESET. Then, say your word (usually to yourself) when you’re aware of the distracting thought.

Before the show, I had selected the word DING. Not just any old ding, but the loud bell you hear during a boxing match. The ding that immediately stops the fight and sends the boxers into their corners where they take a deep breath. After I said DING to myself, I took a deep breath, gave myself a calming mental half-halt, and substituted the distracting conversation in my brain with my motivating motto.

Replace negative thoughts with a Motivating Motto

Some athletes may call a motivating motto a positive affirmation or a meaningful mantra. Whatever you prefer to label it, create a short, positive statement that reminds you what to do or how to feel in order to deliver your best.

Here’s the key – after you say your thought stopper, take a deep calming breath, then replace the negative chatter with your motivating motto. Give your sub-conscious mind a thought that directs your actions towards what you want to accomplish.

I had selected the phrase, “Elegance and Excellence”. For me, “elegance” immediately reminded me to BE elegant – to sit tall, chin up. “Excellence” reminded me to give it my best shot, knowing there is no such thing as a perfect ride. I needed to continue on despite any hiccups, do my best and enjoy the ride.

Image: Starve your Distractions, Feed your Focus

My Canadian horse, Lyrical, and I proceeded with our warm up. “DING” followed by “Elegance and Excellence” soon dominated my thoughts and helped me focus. The further I entered the zone of concentration, the less I said ding and the more I focused on repeating my motivating motto.

I said “Elegance and Excellence” to myself as we started around the outside of the arena and again when the judge rang the bell. During the salute, I repeated it three times to stay focused and make sure our halt was maintained for the required three seconds. As our ride progressed, I silently stated my motivating motto before each challenging movement.

Having the ability to replace negative thoughts boosted my feelings of empowerment and confidence when I needed it most. Did these tools eliminate all the distracting stress I felt at the show? No. But, they sure did help me manage it!

Tackle distracting brain chatter with these four steps:

1) Determine your thought stopper and motivating motto before an important ride. Your motivating motto might even be hidden within your favorite song!  Find a motivational or instructional phrase that’s meaningful to you.  For example, use:

  • “Fluid and Forward” – if show jitters make you tense.
  • “Long and tall does it all” – to improve your position and effectiveness.
  • “Head up, Heart strong” – to keep your eyes up and trust your horse.
  • “Easy and Breezy” – You got this! Enjoy the moment.

2) Practice! Repetition keeps tools ready for action when distracting self-talk creeps in.

3) Identify challenging moments. Do you get a case of the “I cant’s…” every time you enter the warm-up or in-gate? Know when to automatically use your tools.

4) Take Charge! To STOP negative brain chatter:  S – Say your thought stopper, T – Take time to breathe, O – Open your mind, and P – Put in your motivating motto.

Photo: 3rd place ribbon

By the end of the show, I couldn’t believe how often I said DING! Yes, I realize it’s normal that we have tens of thousands of thoughts racing through our minds every day.  But, boy, did I appreciate having tools to tackle the distracting ones. My thought stopper and motivating motto turned show day from worrisome to rewarding. I enjoyed the experience with my wonderful horse and felt proud of our accomplishment. The funniest part – someone actually said to me, “Nice ride! You looked really elegant”.

Enjoy the journey!

Check out this related post: Quit Sabotaging Results! Turn Negative Thoughts into Positives

Turn Riding Dreams into Plans with a Goals Calendar

By, Liz Piacentini

Spring is my favorite time to fine-tune the riding goal I set back in January. I’ve already determined where I’d like my horse and I to be by October. The steps I need to get there, however, could really use some work. Creating a goals calendar works best for me. It helps me turn what I should work on into a specific plan of action for improvement.

Opening photo of calendar

Whether on-line or on paper, a goals calendar helps me break down my objective for the year into bite size chunks. I use one calendar to summarize the clinics and shows for my discipline. The instant timeline makes it easy to build a plan and prioritize my monthly and weekly learning opportunities.

I start by gathering the latest newsletters and publications from my favorite riding clubs and organizations. Then, I follow these simple steps:

How to Create a Goals Calendar to Plan and Prioritize your Progress:

Outline Your Options

  • Write upcoming events for your discipline on a calendar – Select events you are realistically comfortable traveling to. If two are offered on the same day, list both! Include seminars and clinics, not just competitions.
  • Add basic details – Include the farm name or location. What’s the clinic theme? Are shows schooling or recognized? Details help you select the best options.
  • Enter closing dates – Don’t miss out! Mark the dates shows and popular events need your entry.
  • Include work, school or family obligations – Block off your summer family vacation, annual business conference, or important school trip. But, keep your options open. List horse events available during these dates in case plans change.
  • Include other equine activities – Add volunteer work or courses.
  • Save room for FUN stuff – Write down that beach ride or trail day you’re planning with friends.
  • Add new events throughout the season – Continue to look for new opportunities as barns and organizations add to their event schedules.

Identify Your Stepping Stones

Your goals calendar now contains your personal collection of opportunities for learning, riding and testing your skills. Review the options available for each month. Which ones provide the best ways to develop your skills in a progressive manner? Which ones offer ideal experiences for your horse?  How many can you realistically attend?

Quote, a goal should scare you a little, & excite you a lot.Highlight two or more events you can commit to each month. These become your short-term goals – stepping stones of learning for you and your horse. For example, let’s say your first goal is to ride in a stadium jumping clinic coming to a new farm. You’ll get to sharpen technical skills while exposing your horse to a new venue. Your second goal is to return to the same farm and compete in a jumper show later that month. Set yourself up for building success.

Your trainer can help you identify the experiences best suited for you and your horse. Remember, you don’t have to show to have goals! Between ground work clinics, organized trail rides, equestrian sport psychology seminars, and symposiums to audit, there are plenty of non-competitive ways to keep your learning on track.

Add Supportive Actions

Look at the opportunities you highlighted. Think about how you can maximize the time between these stepping stones with effective supportive actions. Ask yourself what you need to do to prepare for each short-term goal. What are the possible road blocks you may face? Then, think of how you can overcome these challenges. Discuss your thoughts with your trainer. Determine the best proactive approach and ideal days for lessons.

Get creative! You may have to think outside the arena to tackle your road blocks. Do you need to work on trailer loading? Are you a stiff rider who could benefit from stretching exercises or yoga? If weekly lessons are beyond your budget, try watching training videos to supplement your learning. How about health and wellness for your horse? Maybe it’s a good time for a visit from the equine dentist. Using a calendar helps manage your time and reduce scrambling at the last minute.

Be Prepared for Change

We’ve all been there. Just when you feel completely on track, your horse gets an abscess before show day. Or, maybe you’re the one with a setback that prevents you from joining friends on a special trail ride. Whatever the unfortunate circumstance, now and then we may have to make the best of a disappointing situation.

Facing setbacks is one reason why I list multiple events for the same day on my calendar. My Plan B’s are already visible. If I can’t ride in a show, maybe I can volunteer or audit a clinic. Setbacks don’t always mean our goals come to a dramatic sliding stop. They may just need postponing. Seeing other options helps redirect our actions into resilient comebacks.

Quote, Journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step and a plan.Other times we may need to change our short-term goals. You and your young horse may not be ready for that big show at the end of the summer. What are the other available choices on your calendar? Changing doesn’t mean failing. You simply have the good sense to do what’s right for you and your horse and chose a different path for progress. In the long run, a local schooling show instead of a large recognized show may be what’s needed for a stronger foundation.

Get Started!

Have fun organizing your riding plans on a goals calendar. But remember, a plan only describes your intentions. So, get busy! Start doing the things that strengthen and motivate you to become a better rider. Venture outside your comfort zone and embrace opportunities with your supporters. After all, while it is rewarding to achieve a long-term goal, our real growth lies in the experiences, challenges, and change we experience along the way.

Enjoy the journey!

Quit Sabotaging Results! Turn Negative Thoughts into Positives

By, Liz Piacentini
Opening image of horse & riderHave 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.

Cultivate positive thoughts, Grow better results. 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.

Take a dose of the letter C image

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!

Opening photo: Copyright Lynne Ann Photography