Abigail Lufkin is a former CCI4* eventer who is now a sports psychology consultant and clinical social worker based in the Los Angeles area. She was a member of the 1999 Pan Am Team and was shortlisted for the 1992, 2000 and 2004 Olympics. Click here to read some of her other articles on EN and be sure to check out her site at www.abigaillufkin.com.
In the July/August 2016 issue of Eventing USA magazine article on the Rio Olympic Games, Coach David O’Connor wrote about the importance of “being a closer,” a term often used to mean the ability to maintain focus, drive and performance throughout an event. That is, to be as sharp and as accurate at the end of your ride or competition as you are at the beginning.
Also described as “making it happen when it counts,” this skill is essential to a champion athlete. And like any skill, it can be learned and strengthened.
First let’s understand what happens when this “closer” capacity is not full developed. David described mistakes made at the end of dressage tests, opportunities lost. What caused these mistakes? A loss of focus which simply means that one’s mind has turned its attention away from the task at hand, in this case, executing the dressage movement, and on to something else.
A USOC sports psychologist tells an amazing story of the U.S. diving team at the Beijing Olympic games. The Chinese and Russian divers were highly favored to compete for the silver and gold medals. The United States went in thinking that at best they were vying for a bronze medal.
The competition went as predicted until the final round, at which point the Chinese made several errors. Unexpectedly, the U.S. was now in a position to win a silver medal. The Russians performed next and similarly, faltered and made errors. The US found themselves in the totally unanticipated position of needing to land a very simple dive to capture the gold medal.
But they couldn’t close. They were unable to land the basic dive and lost all medal chances. Their team Sport Psychologist reported that he saw this as an inability for the divers to know and control what was on their minds. Perhaps their thoughts went to visions of glory, perhaps to images of failure and how devastating that would be.
We can’t know for certain, but what we do know is that they were unable to focus on a relatively simple task they had executed hundreds of times in their lives. It was a spectacular example of a failure to close.
What does this means for us?
If you want to be a consistent closer, you must build the muscle of mindfulness, or as an athlete of mine described it, “I need to know where my head is at so I can rustle it up and bring it back to what I’m doing.” Another more technical definition of mindfulness from Jon Kabat-Zinn is, “having an awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
So how do we build it? We do daily mindfulness training. I know what you may be thinking and I have been right there with you. Perhaps things like, “How will I fit this in?” “I hate the feeling of just sitting.” “There are just too many things to do in a day.” “What is she even talking about?”
Mindfulness training is defined here as a mind practice that enables you to know, accept and influence what is on your mind. Like training horses, there are many roads to Rome and many ways to train your brain.
One popular way is to sit in a quiet place, body position comfortable and relaxed. Bring your attention to the natural rhythm of your breathing, noticing the inhale and the exhale. When your mind wanders, which I guarantee you it will, you simply notice the wandering and name it, for example, thinking, worrying etc.
There is often a tendency to feel annoyed at yourself at this point, perhaps frustrated that your mind ran off like a young horse on a race track. The directions are the same, notice that thought and name it, “judging.” You then bring your attention back to the breath and continue on like that.
The key is to first notice and accept whatever is on your mind, acknowledge it and bring the focus back to the breath. I recommend people start with three minutes a day (use the timer on your phone) and add 30 seconds a day until you get to 12 minutes.
In addition to this, there are walking and running meditations for those of us that find sitting challenging. There are ways to practice all throughout your day when you can tune in to what’s on your mind.
My clients report practicing by bringing this mindful attention to daily activities such as; brushing your teeth, tacking up, walking from the barn to the stable or during a walk break in the middle of a training session. There are many online resources to facilitate mindfulness training. An easy one that works through an app on your phone can be found at headspace.com.
In conclusion, if I told you there was one thing a day you could do that has been proven over and over to improve athletic performance, would you do it? And what if I told you that you could do it in 12 minutes? By doing any mindfulness activity once a day, you are strengthening your mind’s ability to stay focused and committed until the end. You are training yourself to be a closer.
“Sport is played with the body but won with the mind.” — Aiden Moran