By George Williams
“It’s all because your mama don’t dance and your daddy don’t rock and roll!” The Loggins & Messina lyric is definitely catchy. I’m not sure why it popped into my head when it did. However, it immediately became my mantra to help me maintain a calm and focused mind when the young horse I was riding at the time, who could be quick and agile as a cat, started to become tense, afraid or on the verge of exploding.
More than 15 years later, I learned that the method I had instinctively adopted was similar to ones recommended by some sports psychologists to defuse nervous tension. This was just one of the mental exercises and routines I had stumbled upon to overcome nerves, self-doubt and negative thoughts that inhabit our ability to focus and be in the moment so we can perform at our best.
At least in the dressage world, sport psychology has come a long way since I was young. I veered away from it, and tried to find my own way of overcoming the roadblocks put in place by the games my mind would play. In the late ’70s when I was just starting my more serious competition career, the advice we would hear always seemed to be based on picturing the judge in some less-than-flattering manner. That simple advice never worked for me. I may have just been ignorant about what sports psychology had to offer four decades ago, but I don’t think I was alone in my perception. Fortunately, today’s competitors are not only smarter, or perhaps just better informed, they are realizing the role sports psychology can play in improving their performances in the arena.
Two years ago, while listening to Isaac Zur, Ph.D., CMPC, speak to the Emerging Dressage Athletes during a US Equestrian High Intensity Training Session, I learned some simple suggestions on how to defuse your negative thoughts that actually work. Referred by the USOPC, Dr. Zur is considered an expert in the field of sports psychology. His practice is in New York City and includes athletes from the U.S. Olympic Team, U.S. Karate Team and professional UFC fighters.
One of the suggestions was to sing your negative thoughts in a manner that makes them sound absurd, such as to the Alphabet Song. Likewise, I found that the repetition of a simple phrase or a lyric can keep you calm and focused in times of stress. Other suggestions from the presentation on how to avoid the havoc that can be caused by negative thoughts included how to distance yourself from your negative thought, using visualization to watch your thought disappear, thanking your brain for “keeping you safe” and putting a positive spin on your own story.
Dr. Zur is quoted as saying, “What’s within you is stronger than what’s in your way.” His bio reads, “In his work he teaches clients to improve their mental strength and gain a quiet mindset to maximize their potential. He has implemented a range of methods, including emotional control strategies, performance profiling, visualization, performance development, bio-feedback training, attention control training, routine development, goal setting, assessments and more.” I was impressed and inspired by what he had to say. His insights into how our brains work and how we can influence it made me realize what a valuable role sports psychology can play in our sport.
More than a decade ago, I had the opportunity to hear a presentation by a Dutch sports psychologist at the Global Dressage Forum in Holland. He described, through using increasingly smaller circles, the stages we go through as we near the moment of competition, culminating in coming to the ideal point of truly being in the moment. I remember sitting there shocked by it, as it so accurately detailed my state of mind when I competed at my best. It started with the hours before a competition when you’re wondering why you’re doing this when you could be watching television; then as you get a bit closer to competition time, your mind starts to focus on the consequences of your test score and what the effects will be. Then comes how your nerves start to dissipate when you put your foot in the stirrup, to the focusing effect of the warm-up and finally being in the moment when you enter at A. Who knew that we aren’t so unique that others haven’t experienced the same seemingly out-of-body mental road trip on their way to the moment of competition?
Sports psychology seems to be embraced by many of the current international competitors. In this era when half points matter, successful competitors know the importance of using all of the tools available to help enhance their performance. Of course, the benefit of sport psychology is not just limited to competitors; it can help with your daily riding as well. I started repeating the Loggins & Messina lyrics long before I rode that 4-year-old who had cat-like reflexes in competition.
Whether competing or during daily riding, successful competitors know the importance of using all of the tools available to help enhance their performance.
Photo by Melissa Fuller