Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Choke. Get it under control.

And we're onto part 3 of my venture into sports psychology and human performance! Choke. Failure under high pressure. Is it fatal? Is there a cure? Can you self-escape? I bring good news - there is hope!! Through my "real job" last week I had the opportunity to enjoy dinner with Sian Beilock, author of the 2010 book, Choke: What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to. The contents of which have been a major contributor to my last 2 posts. She also writes a blog for Psychology Today that covers a range of topics, including sports psychology. Over a glass of wine on Thursday night, I asked Sian if she had worked with any equestrians - turns out that she's very familiar with the unique challenges of dealing with psychology issues when your golf club (horse) gets nervous too! Her mother competed in show jumping! While it wasn't exactly appropriate to lay down on the couch and spill all my mental demons in the middle of a business dinner, I was thrilled to talk through a few issues with one of America's leading cognitive scientists, while enjoying a glass of wine! Funny enough, we both graduated from UCSD's cognitive science department, Sian just a few years ahead of me - and we even had some of the same professors! Clearly, she's put her degree to better use than I have!

I confessed to Sian that when I read the list of "choke" predictor questions - it was me. But, before I got too obsessive about my failure, Sian was absolutely adamant that research is proving that you can influence your performance success to a much greater degree than most people realize! You can take control of your mind and steer it in the most productive way, but it takes dedication and practice (just like learning the actual skills of riding). As we talked about some of my specific challenges, Sian emphasized a few things that she believes will have a very positive effect on my mental preparedness to compete at the top of my game -

1. Develop a pre-game routine. This has been a work in progress for me over the past 3 years. While I have a pretty solid routine that has a lot of good elements, I'm also starting to realize that it needs some modifications to get me in the right frame of mind. For one thing, I need to make a clear distinction between my coaching role and my riding role - coaching is analytical (left brain) - riding is executing (right brain).

2. Write down my worries. I don't want to do this. I don't want to acknowledge they exist. Yea, I know, I joke about trakehners - but to really write down what actually scares me about them?! Oh boy. But Sian was adamant that there have been tremendous results showing that taking a few minutes to write down our worries allows the brain to let those things go. I'll have to work on getting the guts up to do this. Does writing down that I'm worried about writing down my worries, count as writing down a worry???

3. Stay in the present. Reminiscent of Jimmy saying "stop critiquing your ride in the middle of it" - wasting even a moment thinking that the last jump sucked is no good. I must keep my mind in the present and ride to the next fence rather than living in what did or didn't go right at the last one because that one is done and finished. Sian asked if I'd tried meditating. Um, nope, I don't really relax so well. Thinking back to my need for a GRRR face - I asked, "but won't meditating and finding your zen, make you all soft and relaxed - how does that fit into competitive aggression?" - and then I learned something big... meditating isn't all about peace and quiet and relaxation. It's about clarity of mind. It's about training your mind to focus on the present. Sian's blog article about meditation is here. Mind wandering. Thinking about anything and everything except the present. As I've been riding Katchi the last few days, I realized something - when I'm riding on the flat, I am totally in the present. When I'm jumping, my mind is EVERYWHERE but there! I WAS SHOCKED! It was like a crazy dream sequence - hopping erratically from that jump in the past, and that show jumping course last fall, and that lesson with Phillip, and when Jimmy said... OMG! I couldn't get it to shut off to save my life. No wonder I can't get my S&*! together in show jumping - I'm not even in the ring! So, now I'll be looking for a book on meditation for athletes - any suggestions??

Meditation for horses too???

Okay, so what else?? Here are 2 lists from Sian's book that I've taken the liberty of "interpreting" into the world of eventing as I could. The great thing is all this stuff is so simple - but so often ignored! What power we have at our fingertips!

(Selected) Tips to ensure success under stress (p.174-176)

1. Reaffirm your self-worth. If you've been writing your daily note recognizing something you did well in every ride, it should be pretty easy to recall a few of those things just before you head into the competition ring.

2. Write about your worries. The night before the big competition, take 10 minutes to write down everything you're worried about for the next day. Train your brain not to dwell on these fears - instead, recognize and discard them.

3. Think differently. Don't think about yourself as, "well, I'm no Phillip Dutton" or "I'm only an amateur with one horse." Instead, think of yourself as an aspiring eventer just like other top level riders in some way - Kevin Keane, an amateur rider with a full time job who was long-listed for the 2011 Pan Am Games - Amy Tryon, a full time fire fighter all the way through her trip to the 2004 Olympics - Julia Wendell who as a middle-age woman decided she wanted to learn to ride and has made it all the way up to the Advanced level. Don't stereotype yourself as a "smurf" - instead focus on the credentials you have that will help you put in a good performance.

4. Reinterpret your reactions. When your heart starts to flutter and you feel the adreneline rushing in - don't think "I'm gonna die in there" - think "I'm ready to CHARGE!" The body's physiological reactions are similar in many circumstances - a first kiss, an exhilarating athletic feat, a surprise or scare - but context lends us to perceive those bodily reactions as different emotions. Train yourselfz to perceive pre-competition excitement to defeat your opponent!

Tips to escape Choking under pressure in sports and performance (p.232)

1. Distract yourself. Think Ralph Hill singing a song while riding XC. Count the rhythm of your strides (as Jimmy says, don't count 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, or 3-2-1... just count until you run out of numbers 1-2-3-4...).

2. Don't slow down. Keep a careful watch on the order of go and don't leave yourself sitting at the in gate waiting for your turn - this gives you too much time to think about what you're about to do - Just do it.

3. Practice under stress. Do you feel pressure when your husband comes to video your lessons? Does having an audience at your lessons make you feel like you're at a show? Then invite them out some more!

4. Don't dwell. Analyzing past performances (failures) can be good - IF you look at them as an opportunity to learn, understand, and improve. Don't beat yourself up over them for eternity - remember the importance of training confidence? Dwelling on a failure without looking for an out trains defeat.

5. Focus on the outcome, not the mechanics.

6. Find a key word. A one-word mantra to keep you focused on the end result rather than the process. Forward. Rhythm. Focus. Straight. Smooth. Clear.

7. Focus on the positive. Don't be helpless.

8. Cure the yips by changing up your grip. When Jimmy encounters a rider who tends to pull up and back on the horse coming into a fence or over the top of it - he often has them change their grip on the reins into a "bicycle grip." Every time I've seen him do this, the pulling has miraculously stopped. I'll have to ask Jimmy if he knows he's a cognitive scientist - because I'm pretty sure he has proven Sian's research that "the alteration in technique reprograms the circuits... clearing your brain and body of the motor hiccup". Interesting.

Well, how's that for giving you all a little homework???

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