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.
I have competed in horse shows my entire life. I’ve noticed that I have some unusual behaviors that precede my classes at a horse show. As time has gone on, many of these behaviors — such as making sure I wear the same socks for each show or listen to the same song before a class — have increased in number and importance. I believe these behaviors truly influence my riding. Is this unusual?
If one observes athletes prior to their performances, one can usually see them performing ritualized and superstitious behaviors. These behaviors can vary from person to person, but the commonality is that these behaviors seem to influence the athletes’ success.
Have you ever been upset because you couldn’t find the pair of socks you’ve worn every time you’ve been champion at a show? How about the belt you’ve been wearing all year as you’ve found yourself winning more and more equitation classes? Have you ever witnessed a rider tapping his or her saddle three times before getting on? How about that girl who always wears her light blue shirt on Sundays?
A ritual is a certain behavior or action that an athlete performs in a fixed order with the belief that these behaviors have a specific power, or purpose, to influence their performance. Many athletes believe that performing a specific ritual before they compete will improve their performance. These behaviors can range from the things we drink to the foods we eat, the clothes we wear to the music we listen to and from the people we speak with to the visualizations we imagine. These behaviors have an order, or a sequence, to them. It’s this system that stays with the athlete throughout the show day.
A superstition is usually developed in hindsight; it’s then required (or avoided) in the future. The superstition comes about out of a good (or bad) performance. One then establishes a “cause and effect” by reviewing the events or behaviors. The athlete then takes note of what happened to cause the desired, or undesired, effect.
I won the class because I listened to P!nk that morning.
I got a haircut before the show and rode poorly.
I ate Cheerios in the morning and won the speed class.
If the performance was great, it gets attributed to that circumstance. Then, there is an attempt to recreate the same circumstance prior to every future competition.
When considering everything it takes to excel in the show ring, from having a good relationship with the horse to feeling prepared to enter the ring, it’s easy to understand why following rituals and superstitions can be reassuring.
Of note is the key finding of researchers who study superstition and how an athlete explains their success and failure. For athletes who feel an outcome of a competition is unpredictable, superstition allows them to gain a sense of control.
Whether it’s socks or belts, songs or cereal, tapping or singing, laughing or silence … the boost of confidence, the belief in one’s self along with the sense of control they provide is what sends us into the ring with our eyes up, heels down and our horses moving forward.