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Building confidence in your riding ability

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Philippa Johnson-DwyerThe role of psychological factors in determining athletic performance is repeatedly referred to in any form of competitive sport.  Equestrian sport provides a unique environment as the human/equine interaction is highly unpredictable and often anxiety-producing.  Contrary to most traditional sport where mental and physical capability relies mostly on human decision and response, equestrian sports rely mostly on human/equine interaction and mutual co-operation to deliver a successful performance.

Most importantly, the only means a rider has of communicating with a horse is with their body.  As a result the behaviour, thoughts, and emotions both before and during competition can be transmitted through the rider’s body to the horse, influencing not only his/her own performance but also that of the horse.  As such, dressage, which expresses a high degree of precision, elegance, and obedience whilst executing deliberate predetermined movements, requires a tremendous degree of concentration, mental preparation, and management of tension/anxiety throughout the competition.

Confidence is commonly defined as a deep and lasting belief of how strongly you believe in your ability to achieve your goals.

Having confidence in yourself is essential because you may have all the ability in the world to perform well, but if you don’t believe you have that ability, then you inhibit your likelihood to perform up to that ability.

It’s easy to stay confident when you’re performing well, when the conditions are ideal, and when you’re competing against someone whom you’re better than.  The real test of confidence, however, is how you respond when things aren’t going your way.  What separates the best from the rest is that the best athletes are able to maintain their confidence when they’re not at the top of their games.  By staying confident, they continue to work hard rather than give up because they know that, in time, their performance will come around.

What separates the best from the rest is that the best athletes are able to maintain their confidence when they’re not at the top of their games.

BRCR2290The optimal form of confidence is deep, lasting, and resilient.  You are able to remain positive, motivated, intense, focused, and emotionally in control when you need to be.  You aren’t negative and uncertain in difficult situations but also not over-confident when things are easier.  You tend to view difficult conditions as a challenge which enables you to perform at your highest level consistently.  You have faith in your ability and your preparation and do not expect success by focusing on winning rather than on performing your best as this perception can lead to self-imposed pressure and a fear of failure.

Our beliefs about confidence very much impact our attitude towards it, as well as the thoughts and feelings it generates.  When you examine the beliefs you hold about confidence you can see the reasons why negative thoughts can very quickly lower confidence levels which in turn leads to poor performance, which leads to more negative thinking and even poorer performance until your confidence can become so low that you can even lose the desire to compete.

These vicious cycles usually start with a period of poor performance.  This poor performance leads to negative self-talk: “I’m a terrible rider. I can’t do this, I’m useless, I don’t have a chance.”  You end up becoming your own worst enemy.  The result is being nervous before competing because you eventually believe you will perform poorly. All of that anxiety further impacts confidence even more because you feel so uptight that it becomes impossible to perform well.  The negative self-talk and anxiety causes negative emotions.  Bear in mind the way you communicate with your horse is with your body, so the impact can be catastrophic.

Wendy Moller profile picture On the other hand when you are really confident self-talk becomes positive: “I’m a good rider. I can perform well.”  Under these circumstances you are your best ally.  With positive self-talk, you begin an upward spiral of high confidence and performance in which positive thinking leads to feeling relaxed and energized which leads to more positive thinking and even better performance.  Competing becomes an enjoyable experience.

With positive self-talk, you begin an upward spiral of high confidence and performance in which positive thinking leads to feeling relaxed and energized which leads to more positive thinking and even better performance.

The reality is that we are all victims of negative thinking in some form or other.  To minimize this you have to be less critical of your self and more factual about whatever situation to find yourself in.  Instead of blowing things out of proportion or dwelling on the mistakes you should simply take note of what went well and what did not.  In other words, keep it in perspective.  Confidence is all about perspective!

At the heart of confidence when riding is:

  1.  Set realistic goals and ensure your training level is applicable to your competitive level (what you can’t do at home, is not going to work in a competition);
  2. Develop and then trust your acquired skills;
  3. Develop, then believe in your ability;
  4. Develop the attitude that demanding situations are challenges to be sought out;
  5. Believe that experiencing challenges is a necessary part of becoming the best athlete you can be;
  6. Be well-prepared to meet the challenges, and have a clear understanding of the technical requirements. Also ensure you have the ability to execute them (train hard!!!);
  7. Stay positive and motivated in the face of difficulties;
  8. Focus on what you need to do to overcome the challenges (usually requires training);
  9. Accept that you may experience failure when faced with new challenges; and
  10. Most importantly, never, ever give up!

shutterstock_141189517An important skill to combat the likelihood of negative thoughts creeping in is that of “Re-Framing”.  With practice this skill can be applied in the saddle at critical moments.  So thoughts like ‘my horse is going to spook at that umbrella” become “I need to keep my horse’s attention and keep him around my inside leg”.

TIPS for building Confidence

  1. List the things which went well in your ride and keep a success journal.
  2. Keep a list of negative thoughts you may have had and practice “re-framing” them. (Label negative thoughts and visualize kicking them away.)
  3. Practice positive thinking every day for at least 5 minutes.
  4. Visualise your role model and remember your own personal best riding performance. “See” “hear” and “feel” it. “See” your body take on the characteristics of your role model.
  5. Visualise riding superbly well, and throw in a few problems and “see” yourself cope.  Keep practising this visualisation.
  6. List 3 reasons why you can trust yourself; believe in your abilities.
  7. Everyone excels when they are happy.  Remember WHY you ride and find ways to laugh and enjoy your horse. It is after all, supposed to be fun!!


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