Sport Performance and Psychology: Time to Clean Out That Tool Box!

When your tack trunk is a mess, what’s the first step to getting it ship shape? I know what I do! I dump the whole thing out and check what’s there. (Ask my barn mates —they’ve seen me in action.) Yes, it looks like chaos at first, but to me it’s the only way to determine what I want to keep and what needs to go. Those old chewed-through reins? Toss ‘em. Eq boots with some mildew? Clean ‘em up and condition them! Old horse treats, empty boot polish containers — get rid of them! The quarter sheet I hadn’t seen since last year? It’s at the very bottom. Let’s pull it out and use it today! 

Time to clean out that tool box!

Let’s face it: there is no way to properly clean and organize your tack box by just rearranging the things on top. The tray might look good, but that moldy stuff is still at the bottom, and pretty soon it will start to stink. 

Ok, so what does this have to do with sport psychology?

Well, in my line of work, I often find that people ask me to give them a couple tips to “sharpen their mental game” so that they can ride better. Sure, I have lots of tips and strategies, but if your mental and emotional space is packed with ineffective, limiting habits and beliefs, a few tips aren’t going to do much for you. For real change, we need to take a deeper dive into our current patterns, be willing to let go of old stuff to make room for the new. But, mind you, I realize it’s a lot easier to clean out a tack box than a mental tool box. Reorganizing and restructuring our thinking takes courage, determination, and lots of practice. 

Clean and ready!

But, you can do it. And, now is a great time to start.

Get yourself a notebook and give yourself some time. I am not much of a journaler personally, but I do feel that writing things down helps organize thoughts and also keep track of progress. You will find that even the step of taking time to examine your routines, habits, and beliefs will start to get things rolling. 

First of all, we have to determine what is getting in your way of bringing less than your best to your rides. This means taking a good look at how you are approaching your riding, at home and at shows. Are you packing lots of emotional or mental chatter into the saddle? Do you bring your work or family stresses into the barn? To ride well and to perform your best is to bring your full self to every ride. What do you need to change in your routine to clear your mind, relax your body, and be completely present? 

A note here: the practice of being present, in riding and in everything else, is a challenge, one that most of us need to devote ourselves to every ride. It’s very easy to ride distracted or be elsewhere in our heads.

Think about your current mental strategy and be brutally honest. What is not working? What is working? It’s likely that you don’t need to throw everything out! Not everything in that tack truck is useless. Some of it just needs to be cleaned up or rediscovered. For instance, it may be that you have excellent pieces of a pre-ride routine, but have neglected to be reliable in your practice. Being fully honest with yourself will help you determine what stays and what goes.

Keep digging deep into that tool box. While you may find unhealthy routines and junk thoughts* that need to be tossed, you may also discover treasures that can be polished up and brought back into service. 

Be courageous in making changes. Most of us are hesitant to try new things, but if you’re in need of a mental make over, I suggest you be bold in trying out new ways of thinking and behaving. If you’re unhappy with your riding or show performance, don’t complain about it — take charge and change something. Test drive different strategies and techniques to see how they work for you. 

Doing the same thing and expecting a different result is some people’s definition of insanity, but it’s a very common mental mistake. 

Finally, stay diligent. One cleanout is not going to do it. I am always impressed with how quickly my tack trunk gets disorganized. Seems like all of a sudden, stuff starts to pile up again and darn it, I can’t find that quarter sheet again. The same is true for our mental tool box. We fall out of practice remarkably quickly. It takes continual work, daily adjustments and, if you will, decluttering! 

Mental and emotional preparation is a practice, not something that can sit idle and then randomly brought into service. Continue to develop and refine your program regularly, and your mental tool box will stay organized—and effective—year round. 

*see November’s column!

— Darby Bonomi, PhD

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:

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