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.
EN reader Michelle asks:
“I don’t ride nearly as well in front of people as I do when no one is watching. On my own, I feel relaxed and competent. When I ride in front of others, I try to be too perfect and fear making a mistake. I end up focusing on all the things I don’t want to happen instead of just riding like I know I can. What are some tips for focusing on what I need to do and not worrying about what the audience thinks?”
This is a great question, Michelle, and covers an issue with which numerous athletes struggle.
I recently heard a neuroscientist speak. He described “emotion” as being the thing that drives the “motion” in our bodies. This is similar to what sport psychologist Jim Loehr said: “Emotion runs the show.” In this case, you have identified the emotion as fear: fear of failing, fear of making a mistake, fear of not performing up to your potential. The good news is that underneath this fear is a strong desire to succeed. With this passion comes energy, and energy is very useful in sport — we just have to harness it.
You have already done a lot of the hard work by identifying what happens with your thoughts and what this leads to in your riding. You are describing a loss of focus from something you have control over — how you ride — to something over which you have no control — what someone else thinks.
Try this as soon as you notice a change. The change might be feeling your body get tight, your horse starting to go badly, noticing your thoughts of failure or your feelings of fear. Use this as a signal, like a warning light on your car. Take several deep breaths and pair them with a body movement, perhaps shaking out your shoulders or elbows or consciously feeling your seat bones in the saddle or your feet in the irons. This will help to ground you and connect you to your physical body in the present moment. Name what you feel — for example, “fear,” or “tension” or “distracted.”
Next, bring your thoughts back to what you are doing, specifically what you are working on. In your head, you might coach yourself, sounding something like, “straightness, straightness” or “impulsion, impulsion.” Your mind will continue to veer off with the “what ifs,” and each time, like the training a puppy example I have used before, you will bring it back to your focus. As with working out at the gym, you are building a muscle. As the “muscle” gets stronger, it will require less intensive intervention from you.