It’s funny how you can really, really love something that makes you feel at the same time like you might actually be sick. I think there are very few things in the world where I could safely pair those two qualities together with confidence. Love and an intense feeling of nausea. But when it came to riding in competition that is most definitely how I used to feel. I loved it, but the enjoyment was always something that came later, once the plaits had been taken out and my horse was peacefully munching his hay by the side of the truck. It was then, when I finally took a breath out, peeled off my jacket and plucked out the two million bobby pins that were required to keep my mountain of hair in some form of control under my helmet that I allowed myself to unravel. This usually happened at the same time as I was eating some sort of toxic looking sausage from the nearest food van, but details details. Enjoyment at competitions for me was like a mist; it was all around me but I couldn’t never quite grab hold of it.
It’s not that I didn’t experience success, or that I felt like I didn’t have what it took to make it happen. I did. I really did. I believed in my horse, I worked hard, put in the training, got the lessons. There was really no viable reason for me to feel so nervous- but that didn’t stop the fact that I did.
As I competed from an early age, I had a lot of time to think about this. And to notice the effect, not only on my enjoyment, but also on my ability to ride the way that I knew I was capable of. How could it be, I asked myself, that I could ride a test in the morning and a similar test on the same horse in the afternoon and experience a completely different result? What had changed (aside from the fact that I have possibly eaten another sausage) between those two periods? It most certainly wasn’t my skill level. And it wasn’t the ability of my horse. It finally dawned on me that the only thing that had changed from the test that I rode at 9.30 am and the test that I rode at 3 pm was my mindset.
Do a little experiment with yourself now. Think back to a time in your riding or in your competitive life where you were really on the money; a time when you were out there, wishing it was the Olympic qualifier you are so dang hot right now. Got that? Awesome.
Ok, now sorry to do this to you, but I want you to have a quick think about a time when things were perhaps not so hot. Perhaps you were feeling like nothing was going to plan, like your left leg may actually be detached from the central functioning unit of your brain because it was basically doing its own thing and as you rode down the centre line, or jumped the jump or rode the pattern, it was like you were doing so blindfolded, with something in your ear. I might have got a bit enthusiastic there but you get the picture.
These experiences can happen days or even hours apart, within spaces of time where the difference in the result that you are able to produce has nothing to do with your level of competency or your skill set as a rider and has everything to do with the mental and emotional framework that you are operating from. Your skill level hasn’t changed, it’s just that the outcome of that particular ride is compromised because your reactions will be dictated in the wrong emotional language for what is required; things will act and behave differently coming out of you and as a result, everything changes. You are not in a state where you were able to access the answers and produce the results that are required for the environment you were riding in.
Once I understood this- like really understood this- it was like hitting the jackpot. I knew that as long as I continued to put the hard yards in physically, if I continued to ignore the fact that my mental fitness was in fact the biggest impediment to my success, I was never going to get very far. In fact, I was going to be going round in circles.
The fact is if you are experiencing results that don’t reflect what you know yourself to be capable of- and it might even be that they are really good results but you know you can do better- then what needs to change is your mind. You need to take your mental training as seriously as you do your physical training.
Building the muscles of your mind works in precisely the same way you build the muscles of your body; with use and with practice. You wouldn’t rock up to compete at a 10km running race having only ever gone for a quick jog the night before. Or if you did, you would know your chances of producing a stellar result would be compromised. Yet this is the exact thing many of us do time and time again at competition. We know we feel a certain way competing. We experience it time and time again, and yet we continue to just hope things will magically get better. It’s bonkers.
In order to create a change in your experience, the first thing that has to change is you. Investing in your mental strength and developing focus, fortitude and mental power will infinitely accelerate your progress and ensure that you can consistently produce the results you are capable of. You will be in control of your state, and as a result, you can ask the right questions of yourself under pressure to produce the answers that you want on the day.
The beauty is the confidence, optimism, focus, fortitude- these are all skills, skills that can be easily learned with a little bit of dedication and practice. And the learning always starts with the decision to no longer tolerate the challenges that you are experiencing that you know are holding you back. In their place, we are then free to embrace new behaviors and rituals that will allow us to continually manage our mental and emotional framework and as a consequence showcase the skills of both our horses and ourselves when it matters to us most.