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

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