By Margie Sugarman
Margie Sugarman is a leading board-certified psychotherapist and sports consultant based in New York. Margie’s desire is to enhance performance through the connection between the mind and body, and her current client list includes Olympic, professional and amateur athletes across the country. Her experience employing various therapeutic modalities has helped equestrians win classics, junior medals and grand prix. Do you have a question you want Margie to answer? Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are many times I’m in the ring and I’m having a great round. I’m aware I’m having a great round. The pressure to continue the stellar round builds and I inevitably end up messing up. How do I stay focused while on course and not psych myself out?
We all struggle with focus from time to time. There are so many distractions that fight for our attention on a daily basis and, at times, on a moment-to-moment basis. So why and how is it that we can totally blur what’s going on around us at some point and have our entire mind concentrated on one task?
Focusing is a skill. As a skill, it takes practice and development. Focusing is a two-step process that occurs in the brain. Our attention system is a top-down (priority list) system. This “brain” system is under your control and starts out by asking, “What do you want to focus on?” The brain then goes through two steps that allows it to sort and understand the information it’s being challenged with:
- You visually take in a picture and start to process the information, which helps determine what you have to pay attention to. Imagine the old Polaroid photos that slowly take on an image that gets clearer and clearer with time.
- The second part is focusing on one aspect of the photo. You zoom in on the piece you want to direct the most attention to.
Selective focusing is based on “top-down” attention. When we’re focused, or concentrating, we have an increased ability to ignore things around us. This is where the term “being in the zone” comes from. It’s at this time that both the right and left sides of the brain are working simultaneously and you’re able to screen out distractions. Have you ever felt that time just disappeared? This is all part of everything just flowing and sometimes even leaving you feeling as if you’ve been in a trance.
While selective focusing is one side of the spectrum, breaking focus is on the other side. The root of breaking focus is based on an evolutionary system with the intent of keeping us safe. Where selective focus is based on “top-down attention,” breaking focus is based on “bottom-up” attention. This type of attention is hard-wired into our brains as a passive process, which asks, “What is happening that needs your attention?” Events that cause a break in focus are situations that might be either dangerous or rewarding, like the growling of a dog. This is related to the fight-or-flight response. Once the top-down focus is broken, it takes time to restart the brain and use its resources again.
Picture a bottle of clear soda. When it’s at rest, you can see through it, but when you hit it the bubbles don’t allow you to see through the bottle with clarity. It takes time for the bubbles to settle and the clarity to return. This is like your brain.
How do we deal with those evolutionary issues — or the bubbles in the bottle — when it comes to riding and staying focused? The answer is removing the triggers and finding a focal issue that can hold one’s attention. Remember, riding a course only takes minutes. Nobody is the same so there are varying approaches utilized to remove triggers. A few of the approaches that people take are:
- Listening to music
- Taking time alone and finding their zone
- Breathing techniques to lower the brain state and allow for a clear mind
- Affirmation to aid focus on particular issues
- Visualization to help imprint positive performance
These are a few of the techniques that enhance selective focus. It’s challenging when we’re bombarded with so many stimuli at a horse show, but focusing can be enhanced and distractions erased once you find the appropriate technique that puts you “in the zone.”
In utilizing the best tool(s) for you, focus will be maintained while riding your round and maintained throughout your closing circle.