“William, you always said “throw your heart over first” when I was most nervous, which was usually when we were jumping or warming up for the cross country. It always helped me be positive and trust in what we were capable of.” — Alisha Mullen
Alisha’s huge smile was eye catching … and proud. Proud to be at the Pony Club cross country competition, proud of her immaculate tack, and proud of her immaculately groomed grey pony. I had helped her do a little show jumping earlier in the year and been very impressed by her positivity and positional balance.
But as I watched her warm up for the cross country over the two practice logs I knew that she was in trouble. Her pony did not think this was a good idea! So it was not a surprise when they stopped at the first fence and were eliminated at fence two.
I couldn’t bear it. I knew she didn’t own this pony and could not have one of her own, but surely there was a horse somewhere she could borrow to allow her to fulfill her dream of becoming a Pony Club tetrathlete (riding, running, swimming and shooting). Alisha was not blessed with deep pockets, or long legs, or even great eyesight, or indeed any exceptional physical talents, but she was blessed with the most powerful attribute of all, a great attitude, and therefore deserved some help and generosity.
Generosity makes the world go around
Timing is everything and Alisha needed help urgently … someone to ‘pay it forward’ and come to her rescue. ‘Paying it forward’ is a hugely powerful strategy that is often dismissed as an altruistic folly, but in my opinion it is one of the best investments you can make in a world where no one can stand alone and team work is essential to make the most of our lives.
It creates a win-win situation, with both recipient and giver benefiting at different times. Being generous, being the good Samaritan, can make a huge difference to those in need, as I am pleased to say it did for Alisha. She was found a horse, Duchess, who helped her become not only a tetrathlete but also a successful show jumping and eventing team member for her Pony Club.
But generosity and positivity needs to come from another direction as well, from the performer themselves. A successful performer must recognise what they do well and then work from what they do well. It is destructive focusing on what can’t be done and how much worse one is in comparison with the very best.
Alisha explains it well: “I just visualise crossing the finish line knowing I’ve put 100% effort into getting there, regardless of how the competition might go or how high or far down the ranking list I am. Everyone always wants to hear about how you want to be the best of everyone and be number one, but I perform my best when I’m just trying to be the best I can be and not comparing myself to anyone else. Winning to me is a personal best.”
This is a ‘soft’ attitude I am often told. If you don’t aim to be the best you will never be competitive. Personal bests are for the losers not the winners, they say. But this is totally wrong, because even at the Olympics it is true that a new world record is simply a new personal best for one athlete, and our fundamental challenge will always be how to improve ourselves and make the most of ourselves. This is just as true for gold medallists as it is for novice riders.
Follow your heart
Of course there is another ‘heart’ phrase that is crucial to success in the long term. It is ‘follow your heart’. As they say, if you love what you’re doing you’ll never have to work for another day in your life. So many are put off doing their chosen sport because they are told they cannot be competitive, but if you love your sport then you should keep doing it and keep enjoying it. Then there will almost certainly be huge payoffs in terms of both mental and physical health. As Alisha says: “I’m doing what I love.”
Performers may well be inspired by the great performers and learn from great performers but we have to set our own targets and run our own race to a new personal best … and that is much more likely if we enjoy the whole process and focus on the process rather than winning. It certainly reduces competition nerves and stress, something that so often paralyses performers in all sports.
The key point is that if you fear failing, losing and rejection you will also fear making a mistake. You will see the competition as a threat, as something that is not a pleasant experience and not something you want to keep doing. This is an attitude that leads to a dead end and being a spectator rather than participating.
Whereas if you are focussed on your own performance and seeking a personal best you simply see the competition as a challenge, and a positive opportunity that will be good to repeat. This is a winning attitude that leads to people doing more with their lives. This has been Alisha’s philosophy and as a result she just keeps getting better and doing more. “I always dreamed of doing the things I do now and all the people I’ve met along the way have helped me and realised that I can always do more and be more.
Although many racehorses probably do have a natural wish to reach the front of a group of horses, and therefore ‘win’, it is lucky that sport horses do not have an understanding of winning and losing in the same way as humans. If they did they might go into a big sulk or give up having been embarrassed to see their name half way down the score board!
But I believe horses can enjoy the process of training and competing. Some would say this is anthropomorphism, and that the idea of horses enjoying work is ridiculous. But as horses prick their ears and head out enthusiastically for a hack, or squeal and give a little buck after jumping, or charge along out hunting, it is difficult to agree with this opinion. Certainly it is possible to kill the enthusiasm and desire to go forwards in most horses with poor training, particularly with mechanical dressage training, but I still believe in the concept and possibility of producing happy athletes. (Click to read my series on happiness.)
Of course some horses have more ‘heart’ than others, but what does this mean? A pretty good definition is ‘having the courage and desire to keep going forward and persist despite challenges’. A ‘big heart’ is what most riders look for as part of the personality package, particularly with event horses. It was exactly this that was highlighted by the top three riders at Kentucky this year at their final press conference, when asked about the qualities they looked for in an event horse.
“He’s got the heart of a lion,” said Phillip Dutton about the 18-year-oldo Mr Medicott. This was echoed by Zara Tindall, “High Kingdom has all the qualities I’d love to find again in a horse. He’s a great galloper, a really fantastic jumper, and he’s got all the heart you could ever want in a horse.” While Maxime Livio simply said, “You need a horse with an incredible heart that will just keep giving.”
The same applies to humans. To make the most of yourself you need ‘heart’, ‘having the courage and desire to keep going forward and persist despite challenges’. It is probably the most fundamental requirement of all performers. Therefore all coaches, parents and supporters need to understand this and encourage and reward this attitude of mind rather than just reward ‘winning’.
And Alisha? ‘Live now!’ continues to be her motto, and she has continued to be positive and relish the possibilities of every new day. She knows that extraordinary things are possible for ordinary people, and she knows that those with a great attitude will always be more successful than the more talented who have a poor attitude.
She used the skills and fitness gained in tetrathlon to start competing in pentathlon (riding, running, fencing, swimming, and shooting) and was chosen to join the National youth squad, and she did well in her final school examinations.
Her success in these areas led to her winning an Ad Astra Elite Athlete scholarship at University College Dublin (UCD), a programme designed to maximize the potential of UCD athletes in both their sporting and academic endeavors. A rare accolade … and it all started when someone paid it forward with the loan of a horse and said ‘throw your heart over first’.
So on her 21st birthday she was given the perfect gift, the carving shown in the picture above, showing the five pentathlon sports with the inscription “throw your heart over first.” It was what my father often said to me and it will be what Alisha says to other young pentathletes in years to come.
So another story to share, and Alisha’s story is worthy of a big audience because she is a wonderful role model. It is a heart-warming story, a story of how a young girl threw her heart over first, followed her heart, and showed great heart as she overcame challenges. As a result she found a route that she loved and a level of achievement that is exceptional. There are others who could also throw their hearts over first and do exceptional things.