Focus on Focus
Anyone who has competed more than a few times has experienced the multitude of distractions present at the show. The loose horse that flies by just as you start down centerline or the well-intentioned groundskeeper who revs up the tractor or the water truck just as you begin a series of flying changes.
Another type of distraction can be even more of a performance-killer: confidence -eroding thoughts inside one’s own head. Despite their best efforts, many competitors can’t ride themselves of an internal chorus of “everything’s going wrong today”, or “I don’t belong at this level”. AS a result of this negative self-talk, they can’t do their best in the show arena.
Top riders are skilled and talented, to be sure, but they’ve also learned how to deal effectively with both external and internal distracters. What do they and other elite athletes know that you may not? In this blog, I’ll tell you.
What is Focus?
Some people define focus as the determination to pursue a goal through thick and thin, never wavering until it is accomplished. Another definition is the ability to tune out all distracters, both external and internal, while performing. Let’s take a closer look at focus and how can you learn to practice it more effectively.
Focus is a skill that you can learn or improve, even if you’re distractible by nature. As sport psychologists define it, focus is a stat of intense concentration and total absorption in successfully completing the task at hand. Focus means having your mind in the right place at the right time. It comes from learning to deal effectively with distracters.
Any external factor can cause you to lose focus while you ride-noise, activity, conversation, other horses and riders, hot-air balloons an uncomfortable saddle or clothing, the weather to name a few. The potential list is long. In contract, internal distracters are self-generated. These include negative self-talk, worry and anger.
The major difference between external and internal distracters is that you usually have little control over most external factors and must learn how to limit or cope with them. While internal distracters, although related to personality and learning, are completely under your control. These can be eliminated or changed with a little work. If you tend to be fearful, anxious, angry, a perfectionist, or lacking confidence, you may be more prone to internal distractions. This is because physical and mental relaxation play an important role in the ability to maintain focus.
Right Place, Right Time
To truly focus effectively, your attention can be in only one place at a time. Those who learn to “multi-task” are not really thinking of several things at once but have mastered the ability to shift focus rapidly from topic to topic. Don’t believe me? Try this: give someone directions to your house while simultaneously writing the alphabet. If you do each task in chunks, shifting back and forth between talking and writing, it can be done. But only if you focus on one task at a time. And the most efficient way to complete multiple tasks is still to do each one separately.
The Four Quadrants of Focus
Many athletes find it helpful to assess their focus periodically. While you are riding, have someone ask you occasionally to state what you’re focused on at that moment. Is it on your horse and what your are doing, or are you thinking about something else?
If your focus is elsewhere, is it on something external? A truck coming down the road, a dog running alongside the ring. Or is it an internal thought and is that thought relevant to what you are doing at the time or is it unrelated?
Learn to identify the source of your focus. According to sports psychologist Robert Nideffer, PhD, there are four possible “quadrants of focus”
- Broad External
- Narrow External
- Broad Internal
- Narrow Internal
External focus is defined as paying attention to something in your surroundings. Broad external focus occurs when you scan your environment, as in when you hear a sound and are searching for the source. Narrow external focus occurs when you pay attention to a specific external stimulus, such as your horse’s rhythm or how he feels when he responds to your aids.
Internal focus refers to you thoughts and feelings. Broad internal focus occurs when you think, analyze, plan, or strategize about something. Narrow internal focus usually refers to a specific single thought or word cue. The thought may be positive or negative.
Best Focus for Dressage
Focus is ‘good’ only if it’s aimed at the right place at the right time. Every sport has it’s own best quadrant or quadrants to focus for attaining peak performance. For example, the sport of football requires first a broad external focus; as when a player scans the field.The football player also using narrowing of external focus; as when the attentions shifts to the ball and current play.
In dressage, focus is optimal when it’s primary narrow and external with some minimal forays into broad and narrow internal focus when necessary. To us dressage riders, narrow external means that we focus on the horse, on our body position and movement. We shit attention inward to our thoughts only briefly for positive verbal cues, self-talk or quick problem-solving (such as coping with a spook). We train ourselves to stay away from overanalyzing and negative self-talk. Simple one-word cues or reminders, such as ‘focus’ or ‘breathe’ are fine. We must then shift attention quickly back to the horse and our riding.