Abigail Lufkin: Wrangling our Brains

Abigail Lufkin is a former CCI4* eventer who is now a sports psychology consultant and clinical social worker based in the Los Angeles area. You may remember seeing Abigail ride around Rolex on horses such as Lighter Than Air, Cameo or Jacob Two Two. She was a member of the 1999 Pan Am Team and was shortlisted for the 1992, 2000 and 2004 Olympics. We’re pleased to bring you a series of articles from Abigail about adapting your mental game to promote success in eventing. Have a question or topic for Abigail? Please submit it to [email protected] with subject “Ask Abigail” and be sure to check out her site at www.abigaillufkin.com.

Abigail Lufkin and Jacob Two Two at Rolex 1999. Photo by Matt Simpson, used with permission.

From Abigail:

I am often asked, “If you could pick one thing that would most improve my mental game, what would it be?” It’s a difficult question, but perhaps the single thing I find myself discussing the most is: “focus on the things over which you have control.”

As humans, and particularly as driven, competitive athletes, we like to think we can control everything. Let me give you a cursory list of what you cannot control. You can’t control the weather, the footing, your ride time or ride order. You can’t control if other people think you are good or nice or important or what they say to you. You can’t control if the judging is fair or if your horse is having an off day. You can’t control that Betsy Bootstraps has five upper level horses to compete and you only have one.  And perhaps the most important: you cannot control whether or not you win.

When I first learned this concept, I felt relieved as it encouraged me to let go of thoughts that were causing me to feel anxious. But it turns out that refocusing our mind requires some effort. In meditation, a practice that more and more top athletes are using to control their minds, teachers talk about treating your mind like a new puppy or in our case, like a young horse. We all know the experience of riding the horse that one minute is focused and round and the next minute has stuck his head up and whipped around to get a better look at a monster jump standard beside the arena. With the young horse, we have to keep quietly and insistently channeling him forward and straight, essentially saying over and over, “go this way, go this way, focus here.” Your brain is that young horse and your job is not to be anxious or angry when it goes off in another direction, but instead to bring it back to the focus of what you have control over.

And just what do you have control over you may be asking? The most important thing you have control over is what you are going to do, how you are going to ride. You have control over setting a task or a goal for yourself for the weekend and following through on it. In the dressage, this might look something like, “I am going to ride forward from my legs to a connecting rein.” Close your eyes and feel what that is like. Now find a word that captures that feeling. Perhaps it is, “impulsion, impulsion” or “connection, connection.” It doesn’t matter what it is, only that when you say it, you have a clear body sensation of your goal. Use this word often in your training and in your visualizations. Then throughout the competition, whenever your mind “spooks” off in another direction, you take a breath, let it out, and repeat your word over and over, effectively wrangling your brain back to the present moment and on to what you are doing.

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