Mind Wellness: The Ingredients of Confidence

Part 1, Preparation
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Confidence is the Holy Grail of riding… and just about anything else you might do. What is confidence? How do you get it? Are we born with it or do we develop it? Why does it come and go so quickly? Hmm. I have been studying confidence for years now in an effort to answer these questions. It started when I was a competitive athlete and found confidence to be like the weather: impossible to predict and sometimes rather dicey. 

Here is what I have discovered about confidence: First, it takes work. It’s not like eye color or something you are born with. Sure, some people have a natural ability for it but everyone has some level of work they need to do in order to grow their confidence. Second, it is situation-specific. As it turns out, we have a level of confidence that relates to each situation, for example: work, school, relationship, play, riding, shopping…everything we do. You might be extremely confident at work yet lack confidence in your riding. While this seems confusing, it actually is not. If there is an area where you lack confidence, you can focus on building it. Third, there are ingredients of confidence that once you master, you will be able to harness confidence whenever and wherever you need it. In real estate, the motto is “location, location, location.” In sport psychology, it’s “preparation, preparation, preparation.” 

Let’s look at how you prepare for riding. There are so many things to prepare for, that it’s impossible to cover all of them in this column. So my hope, instead, is to get you thinking. When you prepare for an event, a few key things happen, but, most importantly, your confidence grows. Additionally, more of your energy is available for your event and is not wasted on worrying or recovering from an unnecessary mistake. An example of this is taking a test in school. Think about a test that you did not prepare for. What did it feel like when you went to take the test? Terrible! How was your focus? Terrible! You were distracted by negative thoughts—Why didn’t I study? What’s going to happen to my GPA? Even if you knew some of the material, your mind was so blasted by the negative thoughts that even the stuff you did know disappeared. Sound familiar?

Now, think about the reverse: a test you were completely prepared for. You walked into the classroom confident and ready. Distracting thoughts were few and weak against your preparation and focus. Recalling information was easy and it felt good. 

Now think about your riding. How do you prepare? When do you prepare? What do you prepare for? How far in advance do you prepare? When you turn preparation into a habit, it will increase your effectiveness and success immediately. Many of the things we do daily with our horses become mindless—you don’t have to think about them, for instance, grooming, tacking, warming up, even lessons. Because we don’t have to think about these things. Guess what? We don’t! 

But when you do think about them and use them to prepare for competition or whatever your goal may be, they change into powerful tools and ingredients. One common area where many riders fail to prepare is the daily ride. Yes, the daily ride. Getting better at anything takes practice and not just mindless, unfocused practice, but something called “deliberate practice.” If you could start to connect 10 to 15 minutes of your lessons or training rides to your competition test, it will begin to form new and powerful habits for when you get in the show ring. It needs to be really good at home to have a chance for it to be good at a show. Prepare your warm-up. Think about what your horse feels like day to day and what you do to influence that. Begin to collect some information on what works and what doesn’t work so that when you get to a show, you have an idea of what your horse needs for physical performance. 

When I work one-on-one with a rider, I have her make lists of everything she will encounter at a show: what she will pack in her trailer; how she will set up her tack stall; how she will help her horse settle in to the show grounds; how she will braid, tack up, get dressed, warm up and deal with the dreaded minute or so that she spends circling the ring, waiting for the bell. Preparing for only six minutes of an entire weekend is not a recipe for success. 

The more situations you think about in advance and mentally plan for, the less likely you are to be thrown off of your game. Start thinking about those stressful situations you normally avoid and use them for powerful preparation.

Next month: The Ingredients of Confidence: Part 2, Focus! 


Jenny Susser has a doctoral degree and is licensed in clinical health psychology, specializing in sport psychology. A four-year all-American swimmer at UCLA, she swam on two national teams and at the 1988 Olympic Trials. She has worked with athletes of all sports and ages, collegiate, professional, international and amateur. She was the sport psychologist for the 2010 WEG South African Para-Dressage Team and the 2012 U.S. Olympic Dressage Team. Dr. Susser is also a performance coach with Human Performance. 

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