Lesley Stevenson of My Virtual Eventing Coach was kind enough to share a recent article she’d written with advice in regard to focus. For more information on Lesley, please visit her website.
Every sport that requires accuracy requires the ability to focus. In our sport, this means several things:
Being accurate with the focus of your eyes, to help your horse know where to focus, and so that you will be able to more effortlessly go exactly where you are looking.
Watch top show jumping riders during their jump-offs, and you will see that as soon as their horse takes off from one jump, their eyes turn to focus on the next. And they maintain that laser beam-like focus all of the way to the next jump, not wavering for one single second. And because of that, their horses have absolutely no doubt….not for a second…..about where they are going next. Which helps the horse to be more focused as well.
The ability to concentrate clearly on the task at hand, without being distracted by unexpected events, or things that are happening around you, is highly important if you are going to be successful under the pressure of competition. If your horse spooks at an inopportune moment, or you pick up the wrong lead, are you able to make the best of the situation and move on in such a way to ensure that things do not unravel?
And if you are approaching a jump, and someone starts yelling and screaming about something nearby, are you able to continue to focus on maintaining the quality of the canter to your jump? Or do you get distracted and lose your ability to concentrate?
If this sounds like you, you need to give yourself a few clear key points to keep your mind on, so that you can more easily stay on track when distractions arise. In the above case of the distraction while you are jumping, you might say to yourself, “12 foot stride”, “keep the rhytym”, and “leg on”. Come up with just a few key points or cue wordsthat you know you need to focus on for each phase ahead of time, so that you can easily access them when needed.
Being able to feel precisely what is happening underneath you every moment. If you become frazzled under the pressure of competition to the point that you don’t notice things you have learned to feel at home, your performance will suffer.
If this sounds like you, you need to learn how to relax and breathe when under pressure! It may also help you to temporarily widen your focus – to try to notice things in your peripheral vision, to become more aware of what is happening around you, and to be more aware of what your horse is doing underneath you.
This can help you to begin to relax and feel more clearly again. It may sound strange, but what worked for me to relax what was a sometimes too narrowly intense focus in Dressage was to glance down and notice the details of the footing I was competing in. For some reason it seemed to relax me and bring me back into the present moment. I would suddenly be able to notice things like whether my hands were uneven, or if my horse was truly straight.
And being able to think clearly about what you need to do next to improve or maintain the way your horse is going. This is sort of a combination of the two points listed above. You need to be able to both feel the quality of the work you are producing (to the best of your ability), and also need to be calm and clear headed enough to be able to instantly formulate a plan.
If you are jumping a show jumping course, and you can feel that the quality of your canter is falling apart — your horse is getting longer and more strung out with each jump — your plan might be to use that sharp turn coming up to assist you with some major half halts.
Or if you are in the middle of your dressage test and your horse is starting to get low in front and heavy in your hands, you must be able to realize what is happening, and have a quick plan for fixing it — likely some extra half halts through a turn or before a transition, and to remind yourself that you may need to check for self carriage more often for the rest of the test to prevent him from becoming heavy again.
And if you are on cross country, and your horse looks at a fence, sucks back, and jumps weakly… instead of thinking, “Oh no! Why is he suddenly doing that?” and not having a constructive response, you need to have an immediate reaction to send your horse sharply forward when you land, getting him sharply back in front of your leg, so that he tackles the next fence with more enthusiasm!
The mental strength required to stay clearly focused for long periods of time comes easy for some people, but some have to work at it! To improve yours, think of training your focus as if it were a muscle: work at building it up gradually, by pushing yourself to stay clearly focused for increasing lengths of time.
Aim to keep your head clear enough to be acutely aware of what is happening underneath you at each moment, while still having access to the side of your brain that allows you to be able to quickly formulate a plan of action. And leave all emotions out of it for the ultimate success.