How do you define confidence? How do you know when you have it? How do you get it? Do you think you can get it? I notice that we talk about confidence only when it’s missing, which makes me wonder if we recognize what it feels like when we are confident. Instead of considering confidence a fleeting concept, start to look for recognizable feelings of confidence that you can repeat. Start to notice when you feel confident—which does happen and probably more than you notice. In last month’s column, we took a look at how confidence could be enhanced through preparation. Think about it: When you know you are ready for something, the mental chatter quiets down and you perform better. What this describes is the idea of focus. I get calls every week from riders of all ages and abilities, and everyone says the same thing: “My trainer says I think too much. I overthink things. If only I could turn my mind off!” If you have ever thought this, developing a “focus muscle” is for you.
Focus simply describes the direction of your thoughts. The original definition of focus is related to image clarity, such as with a camera lens. Think about that for a minute. What is it like to look at an image that is out of focus? It is frustrating and irritating and you probably want to look away from it. When your thoughts are without focus, they don’t keep your attention either.
Great focus is a result of practice. It is like a muscle, after all. I say focus is a muscle because the more you practice it, the better you become. Defining clear goals and objectives on which to focus is helpful in building this muscle. It is also necessary to understand that you will become distracted in your efforts to focus—but it is the recovery from distraction that counts.
Many people say their focus stinks and simply write it off as such. But that is not the truth! You have to work on your focus in order to improve it. It would be like trying to learn a flying change and after your first unsuccessful attempt, you say you just can’t do it. Is that the truth? No, you just haven’t practiced it enough to learn it, become competent at it and eventually become good at it. Practicing anything requires intention. So start to become intentional on where your focus is directed. It is true that you are always focusing on something, but the question is whether it is the most productive thought to be focusing on at that particular moment.
Goals are a great tool for sharpening focus. Have a bunch of goals and different types of goals to lean on, such as long-term, short-term, monthly, weekly and daily. I especially like daily goals and the idea of setting a goal each time you are with your horse. Use your long-term goals to help craft your short-term goals. It is also a good idea to have a Plan B because, as we all know, sometimes the things we want to work on don’t agree with our horse that day.
Share your goals with your trainer if you are in a lesson so you are all on the same page. As you feel your focus stray, bring it back to the day’s goal. Use the goal as an anchor. As you drift away, let it pull you back. The more you practice this, the better you will become. Now, imagine having this as a highly developed muscle in the show ring to keep your focus on task.
As adults, we have very little capacity for coping with plans gone wrong. Children wipe out or make a mistake and before they can dry their tears, they are at it again. Adults make a mistake and act as a though they are Chicken Little and the sky is falling down upon them.
We lose valuable time when we are focusing on a mistake. If you begin to expect that mistakes will happen, they will not disrupt you as heavily. I know it sounds simple and it is not. Thoughts take time, and during a dressage test, there is no time to lose. Have you ever experienced this during a test as you make a mistake: I can’t believe I did that again. What was I thinking? How could I mess that up again? So-and-so over there is watching, and now I feel like a fool. I’m sure I’ve disappointed my trainer. I don’t deserve this horse.
If you go back and read this aloud, it takes about 10 seconds. That is the entire short side of the arena, by the way.
The faster you recover from the sky falling, the better your results will be. We have countless opportunities everyday to practice focusing. Make it a game to start focusing on your focus. Even if you put just a little effort into it, the changes can be big!
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 collegiate, professional, international and amateur athletes of all sports and ages. 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 the Human Performance Institute, delivering corporate trainings. She remains active out of the pool these days by running and riding her horses. (JennyRSusser.com)