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Are Emotions Getting the Best of You in Your Riding?

Build emotional muscles to achieve more

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How well do you handle the pressures of equestrian?

Do emotions in your riding prevent you from achieving your goals? Do they prevent you from enjoying your experience in the sport?

In my career as an athlete, from a young age to professional sports, emotions caused me grief. When they started to spiral downward, I just didn’t have the answers. Focus was a major problem—emotions were knocking me around and I couldn’t get my mind where it needed to be. Not being able to regulate emotions was a big factor in an inconsistent professional sports career.

Equestrian is an emotional sport. I believe understanding emotions is as complicated in equestrian as any other sport.

Why?

Three primary reasons…

  • You are alone. While you have your trusted partner, you are the pilot and cannot blame or lean on teammates when you aren’t at your best.
  • You influence your partner. You have to be at your best and be aware of your emotions because those emotions not only impact you but can be transferred to your partner and affect your partner’s performance.
  • Chemicals don’t help. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that can help boost aggressiveness and performance in other sports won’t help you in equestrian.

Do you have emotional muscles?

Are you prepared to deal with emotional challenges in your riding? How much “emotional muscle” do you have?

Before I explain some simple biology about emotion in your riding, and give you a few ideas to help, let’s have a look at the level of your emotional muscle…

Check Your Level of Mental & Emotional Muscle in Equestrian

Answer “Yes” or “No” for each of the statements below and determine your level of Mental/Emotional Riding Muscle:

  1. I get frustrated in the show ring and it impacts my riding.
  2. I get angry in the show ring and it impacts my riding.
  3. I criticize myself when I make mistakes.
  4. I allow a poor jump  to affect the next jump.
  5. I blame things around me when I don’t ride well.
  6. I struggle taking my riding from the warm-up ring to the show ring.
  7. I give up on rides when I don’t start well or am challenged.
  8. I struggle to maintain my composure when I am under pressure.
  9. I lack belief in my abilities in key situations in the ring.
  10. I lose focus from my own emotions or distractions around me.
  11. I try to do things that I know have a low probability of success.
  12. I struggle to adapt to various obstacles in the ring.
  13. I have trouble staying positive when my ride is not going well.
  14. I often feel deflated and negative after I show in a class.
  15. I don’t enjoy my riding as much as I believe I should. 
If you answered Yes to … 
0 – You are in control of your emotions in the ring
1-3 – Some work needed in the training room
4-7 – Your thoughts and emotions are getting the best of you in the ring
8 and above – Your performance and enjoyment of your riding are at risk!

How did you do?

Chances are you may need to build some muscle to get more enjoyment from your riding and achieve more. Building the relationship with your partner and technical proficiency is important in your riding, but building emotional muscle will help you leverage all of your abilities, experience, work and effort.

Let’s start…

We all know performance starts in the mind. While you don’t have to know everything about how the brain works, a little knowledge can make the difference and help to enhance your performance.

Some valuable work by Dr. Joseph Ledoux of the Centre for Neural Science, New York University and Dr. Daniel Goleman, a Harvard educated Psychologist and author of Emotional Intelligence, has helped showcase the importance and role of the emotional brain in performance in corporate leadership—and now in sports.

The Lizard and the Computer

Let’s talk about two sections of the brain that are important to your riding. To keep it simple, let’s call them the lizard and the computer. The lizard, or the emotional brain, is the ancient part that protects humans from danger. The lizard initiates “fight or flight.” When threats arise and you need to get out of there, the lizard kicks in.

The computer, or the thinking brain, makes decisions. When the lizard perceives a threat and starts hissing, the logical computer makes a decision on the level of the threat…and the action. Is this real and is it important enough to respond?

What does this mean to you and your riding?

When eat or be eaten was the daily challenge for humans and reacting to threats was life or death, the lizard was a caveman’s best friend. But threats are not quite so life and death in the ring. You’re an equestrian athlete, not a caveman. The problem is your lizard can’t differentiate between a life-threatening situation and what’s happening in the ring. Your lizard’s threats are a naughty partner, a refusal, taking a rail, a late or early take-off and other equestrian “threats.”

©Roger H. Goun / Flickr CC by 2.0

The Little Troublemaker

A little, almond-shaped part of your brain, the control center of the lizard, is your troublemaker. It is called the amygdala and it may be pushing you around in the ring and causing you to lose your cool.

When the amygdala “hijacks” your brain and the lizard overrides the computer, the computer responds to the threat, and your ability to think straight plummets. Your working memory becomes less efficient and your blood pressure, adrenaline and hormone levels rise.

Recent work by Harvard trained brain scientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor helps us understand that we can manage our responses. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of your negative emotion dissolves from the bloodstream and the automatic response is over. Your emotion is expressed.

What is important for you to know is if you allow the negative emotion to keep running past the initial 90 seconds, you are choosing to allow the circuit to continue to run. The 90 seconds gives your brain time to involve the computer, which has an inhibitory circuit for the lizard (amygdala). You can then choose a more “performance-friendly” response.

And, if you allow the circuit to run and the negative emotion to continue, it can take hours for the hormones to clear your system, with the possibility of more destructive little hijacks being triggered along the way.

So, simply, the control center of the lizard can be a real menace and sabotage your ride. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “I was so mad I couldn’t think straight.” Well, this means the lizard is in charge, the computer is over-run, and sensible decision-making goes out the window. You probably know the feeling when you are riding when things start going south and you can’t reverse it. 

Build your emotional muscles

Building emotional muscle and acquiring emotional discipline can really help your riding…and everything you do. Here are three ideas to begin that can help you keep the lizard in its cage where it belongs and help the computer to make clear, stress-free decisions.

©FEI/Almeida family

1. Know thyself!

Self-awareness is the most important tool in high performance. Knowing your own strengths, limitations and triggers in your riding is step 1. What do you do well? What holds you back? What bothers you and could trigger the lizard into action? As an exercise, make a list of all your strengths, limitations and triggers.

A lack of awareness can push you to do things you shouldn’t or can’t do in your riding. How many times have you tried to do things in the ring that you know you shouldn’t or can’t do, but tried them anyway and ended up frustrated and frazzled? Clearly understand what you can and can’t do and always angle to your strengths.

2. Stay in the moment to stay calm

What’s in the future and what’s in the past will not help your performance in the moment. The future and past are performance distractions and stir emotion. What might happen and what has happened won’t help you now. Your destiny lies in the present moment. While the future is where your goals and achievements live, you achieve them through riding in the moment—the immediate present. 

3. The 90-second rule

Tame the lizard with the 90-second rule. The ability to notice what’s going on as it begins, and to slow down before you respond, is a crucial performance skill.

You now know that an emotion is expressed in about 90 seconds. It’s fine as a rider to feel and express the emotion within reason in that 90-second window. We encourage athletes to express emotion—it is a part of being human. But, when you feel the emotion building, take a breath and be aware. This awareness will help you control your feelings and soften them before they can do their damage.

I hope you can see how emotions are the engine in the vehicle of performance. I can assure you that the skills associated with building emotional muscle are something that can both help you enjoy your riding and achieve more.

Work on building your emotional muscles. It will help you in everything you do. 

References
Bolte-Taylor, Jill (2008). My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. New York, NY: Penguin Group USA.
Goleman, Dr. Daniel, (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Ledoux, Dr. Joseph, (1998). The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

About the Author

John Haime is President of New Edge Performance. A former professional athlete and current bestselling author of You are a Contender! Build Emotional Muscle to Perform Better and Achieve Morein business, sports and life, John understands how athletes think and feel…he’s been there—under the most intense pressures of amateur and professional sports. John coaches athletes in all sports and is trusted by some of the world’s leading athletes—professional and elite amateur. See www.johnhaime.com to learn more.