Success, Your Way
If you’re like most riders, you’ve occasionally become frustrated with your apparent lack of progress or lost your perspective on how(or even whether) riding fits into your life. Perhaps you’ve achieved some success, only to find yourself succumbing to the stresses of having to “measure up” instead of savoring your good fortune.
As a sport psychologist, I’ve had the opportunity to work with several U.S. Equestrian Team long-listed dressage riders as well as with a few international-level jumper riders. Although elite riders seem to intuitively understand and use such “mental skills” as goal-setting, visualization and positive self-talk to help them control performance anxiety(“show nerves”). They are just as apt as other riders to struggle with issues related to goal-setting and achievement. In this article, I’ll share strategies that I’ve used to help riders set and reach goals they can live with.
When I worked with some of the long listed riders before the 1996 Olympics, I found that next to coping with the high levels of stress inherent in top-level competition, one of their biggest challenges was dealing with some of the specific stresses of trying to make the team. Reactions ranged from feeling of conflict about significant personal sacrifices, to fear of becoming a more visible target of criticism. It takes a mentally tough competitor to make it at this level, and that includes finding the strength and resilience to regroup when you’re faced with new or unexpected challenges.
My work with some of these riders included a process called values clarification, which entails examining one’s goals and deciding whether the steps needed to attain one’s goals align with one’s ethics and priorities. After going through the process, a few decided that the price of qualifying for the Games was too high for them personally, despite the potential benefit. They discovered that making the team wasn’t worth it to them and that competing in the Olympics was’t their primary reason for riding. The process helped them to reassess and redefine their goals. They were OK with those revised and slightly less lofty aspirations.
If you’ve arrived at the proverbial bend in the road in your own riding career and are feeling inexplicably conflicted about what it’s taking to attain that goal you always thought you wanted to achieve, you too, may benefit from the values clarification process. Make a list of the pros and cons involved in taking that next step. For instance, possible pro might be ” realizing my dream of competing in the championships” or “the chance to study with a famed trainer whom I’ve always admired.” Possible cons might be “time spent away from home and my family” or significant drain on my savings.” Then it’s time to ask yourself a hard question: Will the attainment of your goal be worth the sacrifices? You may decide that the pros outweigh the cons, or you may choose to pull back and be satisfied with what you’ve accomplished instead of forging ahead.
Surmounting a Slump
We’ve all heard of baseball players’ struggling to get out of “slumps”-frustraing periods during which they just can’t seem to perform well, no matter what. Serious riders also can suffer from slumps. During a slump, the rider knows she’s capable of a higher standard of performance but can’t achieve it.
Some slumps are accompanied by boredom or lack of motivation. Others are related to life stage changes, during which the rider is reassessing life goals. For instance, what if the rider has fallen in love and has decided that marriage and family are now important? How does she fit those in with her competition schedule?
A slump also can be the result of training too hard for too long, with not enough reward. This phenomenon is called staleness syndrome or classic burnout and happens when, for a long period of time, you get less out of an activity than you put into it. Burnout can even result in clinical depression, with concomitant diminished confidence and motivation.
Some drops in performance are normal and do not necessarily indicate a slump. For example, if you make a significant change in your riding or training-say, in an attempt to eradicate a bad habit or unwanted response-your riding may suffer on the short term as you work to replace ingrained behaviors with new ones. This is part of the normal learning process.
If your discouragement with your performance is insidious and not rooted in a deliberate change in behavior, it can be tricky thing to sort it all out and to come up with a solution. A sport psychologist with clinical expertise can help you sort out the possible causes and can give you strategies for overcoming your slump.