Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Harness your inner horsepower!

Thanks to everyone (especially Eventing Nation!) for your positive feedback on my last post - great to know I have friends also searching for their GRRR face this winter! The fun thing about all this sports psychology stuff is that for someone like me who thinks too much, this has given me some GREAT stuff to think about!

So, this post is about cognitive horsepower. Rev your engines folks - turns out we're not just sitting on horsepower - we've got cognitive horsepower too! And it will lead us to great things if we can figure out how to properly harness it!

The brain's prefrontal cortex is the center of the working memory and attention. It's a flexible mental notepad. It holds information in the mind while you are doing other things at the same time. Like remembering to turn left at C at the same time that you remember your trainer's instructions to keep your horse forward and soft and your shoulders back, chest lifted, hands still... Does the prefrontal cortex fail us sometimes? Yep. And that's when we turn right at C instead of left. And the judge blows the whistle and says, "you were supposed to turn left." And you say, "didn't I?" It happens to the best of the best - at the biggest competitions of their lives. Just watch this video.

2000 Athens Olympics
David O'Connor's gold medal winning show jumping round.
Skip to 3:50 for the start of David's ride.

We all remember that DOC won the gold medal - but he very nearly lost it! We'll never know exactly why his prefrontal cortex failed him in that crucial moment between fence 6 and 7, but scientific research can give us a pretty good idea. Basically, there is only so much multi-tasking the prefrontal cortex can handle at a time. Beyond that and things that you are not directly attending to start disappearing. And here's the kicker - anxiety and worry take up massive amounts of attention. And when you're attending to your anxiety and worry, things you need to know to perform (like turning left or right at C) are not immediately available to your working memory. This is also why students bomb math tests or choke in the SAT and why politicians flub simple answers in high-pressure debates. The key to success in these situations is that you must turn your attention to what is important - and away from what is not: worry and anxiety.

And, here's where it gets really interesting. Most people assume that worry and anxiety causes high performance athletes to choke. But, research shows this isn't the whole story. Like a football player remembers plays or a figure skater remembers her routine - eventers have test patterns and courses and plans of attack that we must attend to precisely. Working memory. Prefrontal cortex. But there's more to it. High performance athletic skills operate largely outside of the working memory. Expert athletes don't attend to what they are doing - their movements are controlled by other parts of the brain. This is why so many post-game interviews with winning athletes go something along the lines of "I don't know, it just all came together and it was brilliant!" and they really have no memory of what the hell happened at all (this is probably why we really love helmet cams - so we can find out what we just did!).

Then why do elite athletes choke? Why do basketball players miss free throws and soccer players miss penalty kicks - when they have all the advantage? Why does the top golfer miss the 3 foot putt - and miss it again! Paralysis by analysis. To deal with worry and anxiety, we desperately try to control everything that could go wrong. We start to attend to movements of our body that we never attend to in practice. In desperation to succeed, we engage our prefrontal cortex in things it should stay out of. When you run down a flight of stairs - you just run. Now think how your running changes when you overly concentrate on not falling down - you run stiffer, slower, and less fluid. You may even fall down. You think the same thing might apply in riding? Start overly monitoring your movements and you actually freeze your movements. And you think your horse doesn't feel that?! Gee, wonder why he always drops rails at shows but never ever when jumping much higher fences at home??

One big thing to remember when thinking about what I've just said is that for a novice in any sport - working memory is critical! You must attend to everything your trainer has told you to do, because it has not yet become an unconscious skill. Think about how hard it was to learn to post the trot and how many things you had to manage in your head to survive. Working memory. Prefrontal cortex. Now you post the trot as easily as you walk. Expert athletes are so well practiced that their movements operate outside conscious control. And it is when they begin to worry so deeply about screwing up, they take conscious control to force themselves to succeed - and this is actually when they fail. Make sense?

Okay, that's enough for one post. So, I'll let you think about this a bit and then I'll be back with good news - there are well researched strategies to keep your prefrontal cortex at just the right level of control!

But let me end with a note about confidence. Just after the USEA annual convention, USEF high performance posted several items from USOC that were given to our high performance riders - sports psychology, nutrition, fitness... it peaked my interest, so I went directly to the USOC website to see what else I could find. And I found some materials for coaches - and here's a key point that really struck me: Confidence has to be trained just like performance skills. Huh. Well, isn't that interesting. As a horse trainer, building a horse's confidence is everything. One of my favorite sayings is "never show a horse what it can't do." So, why don't we train confidence in ourselves? One technique the USOC recommended is to make athletes write down a single line each day of one positive accomplishment - no matter how tough a training session was. Find one thing you did well. "Make building confidence a daily discipline." Gee, how much easier would it be to believe in yourself in the moment of competition if you've actually spent some time believing in yourself before you get to the big test - every single day take a moment to believe in yourself. So simple. Yet, when was the last time you took that moment? I've made this a New Year's resolution for myself.


  1. Wow, excellent post, Cherie! Lots to think about, and excellent info! I feel smarter already. :)

  2. Wow... that video was inspiring... He didn't ride backwards, he moved on...

  3. Awesome. Thanks for the great material! I'll look into the USOC stuff, too.