Do you eat junk food? As athletes, I hope most of you will say no! You can’t expect optimal output from your body unless you eat well. Similarly, you can’t take in junk thoughts, from yourself or anyone else, and expect to be at the top of your mental game.
Remember the saying, garbage in, garbage out?
To continue with the food analogy: as athletes, we focus on foods that will nourish and energize, and help us recover from exertion. So true with our mental food, if you will. We need to utilize thoughts that will give us a strong foundation to focus, perform, recover, and move on to the next task quickly and effectively.
Be selective about what you take into your mind, just as you would with what you take into your body.
Just because a thought occurs to you does not mean it’s true or that you have to believe it. Remember the saying, ‘don’t believe everything you think?’ Be picky about the thoughts you take in! I regularly work with riders who have thoughts such as, “I can’t do this course; I can’t ride this test; I’m going to fall.” These intrusive, unhelpful thoughts have origins in areas of our mind that are unrelated to the present task. Often such thoughts are from the past—they were meant to keep us safe way back when, but are now out-of-date. They’re like old clothes that we hang onto because we’re used to them, even though they don’t fit us anymore. Other types of negative thoughts are self-torture, which some riders drag out for various unconscious and conscious reasons that can be analyzed at another time and place, if necessary.
Replace random thoughts with affirmations: You got this!
When you experience one of these random intrusive thoughts during a ride, say, ‘thank you’ to the thought and then throw it out. Visualize tossing it into the ocean, or dumpster, or whatever suits you, and replace the thought with an affirmation, such as ‘I got this!’ Does that sound simplistic? I challenge you to try it. Being selective in your thought choices, similar to your food choices, is a developed skill. The more you practice, the easier it will become.
Make good thought choices a habit, like good eating habits.
In addition, don’t tolerate generalized negative evaluations of yourself, such as “that ride was bad,” or “I’m a bad rider.” I don’t allow my riders to criticize themselves in a global way that is meaningless, and has no specificity. No ride is completely bad; no rider is completely bad. Allow yourself to say something like, “I was on the pace and kept my track to the first four fences, but around the turn I lost momentum, took back and then got underneath fence 5.” This type of self-evaluation acknowledges what you did correctly and provides specific feedback for areas of improvement. In addition, this feedback gives you a ready plan to rectify problems.
Replace global condemnations with specific recommendations.
I work with a number of riders who throw negative thoughts at themselves right before they go in the ring (e.g., I’m going to mess up.) By tossing out such global, negative thoughts and replacing them with specific tasks, these athletes focus in on what they are going to do and how they are going to do it. I challenge each of my riders to focus on what they are going to do in a ride—not what they are not going to do. It’s much easier and more effective to say, “I’m going to put my leg on out of the turns” rather than “I’m not going to make a distance mistake.” Why? Because the latter phrase doesn’t tell us what to do! Our brains work much better when given a specific job.
Finally, and hopefully this goes without saying, while you don’t tolerate junk thoughts from yourself, definitely don’t tolerate them from anyone else! Just say no! Don’t involve yourself in others’ anxieties, worries, global condemnations, or gossip. This includes situations such as this: you’re walking a course and someone says, ‘ooh, that corner looks challenging.’ Toss that out! That phrase is not helpful, because it’s not specific, and it doesn’t give you anything to do. What I want to hear is how you’re going to ride the approach to the corner, and what your game plan is. Then go do it!
Replace generalized fear thoughts with specific game plan thoughts.
Remember, be choosy about your thoughts. Making good choices is a skill—something that you practice and get better at. The more you do it, the better you’ll become, and the more confidence you’ll have in your ability to do so.
Darby Bonomi, PhD is a Sport and Performance Psychologist. She works with equestrians in all disciplines, as well as other athletes, to achieve optimal performance in and out of the competition. We are thrilled to include this ongoing element in our publication to help riders improve in all aspects of the sport.
Learn more about Darby Bonomi and how she might help you and your riding at: www.darbybonomi.com