“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can. . .” said the Little Engine That Could as he chugged up the mountain. More than just a children’s story, this is a valuable lesson. What we tell ourselves can have a profound impact on our performance.
I’ve been around horses and involved in showing for most of my life. In the past couple of years I have dedicated myself to helping riders improve their performance, using my professional skills as a sports hypnotist.
What I emphasize to people, whether they are listening to my CD's, seeing me at my office, or reading this column, is always the same: The single most important and effective thing that any athlete can do to improve their performance is to change negative self-talk into positive, empowering self-talk.
Self-talk is exactly what it sounds like. It’s our internal dialogue – the words we use when we talk to ourselves either in our own minds or out loud.
It’s been established by neuroscientists and psychologists that most people carry on an ongoing dialogue, or self-talk, of between 150 and 300 words per minute. They have been able to show that this works out to somewhere around 50,000 thoughts per day. Most of this self-talk consists of the mundane, routine, and harmless thoughts we all have such as “I’m hungry,” or “I need to get my hair cut soon.”
The danger for riders and other athletes is when this internal dialogue takes on a negative connotation such as, “I’ll never be as good as she is,” or “I don’t even belong riding at this level.” When this kind of self-talk becomes ongoing, we create limiting beliefs about ourselves and about our abilities that may, if left unchecked, go on to become selffulfilling prophecies.
For those of you who are academic-minded, consider the Expectancy Theory, which states that you don’t always get what you want, or what you work for, but you will more often than not get what you expect. If you expect to miss a fence, you will. If you don’t expect to get the ribbon, you won’t.
If you prefer examples from sports legends, you might be interested in the opinion of famous ice skater Scott Hamilton, who says that when an athlete is under pressure, they perform 30% better or worse depending upon their self-talk.
I have noticed in all my years around equestrian sports that negative self-talk seems more prevalent in these sports than in most. I could be wrong, but if so, I’m not that far off.
If you think that negative self-talk isn’t really that big of a problem in the riding world, after reading this column go and check in on any number of equestrian competition discussion forums on the web. You won’t need to read long before coming across a fellow rider asking for help with some technique or another while at the same time berating his or herself constantly and saying things like, “I just can’t do it!” or “I must be stupid.”
Leading up to and during a horse show, you give yourself hundreds, maybe even thousands, of suggestions. What I have been able to do with my CD's for equestrians is to help you “program your mind” to make sure that your self-talk at these times is always positive and reflects your true talents and abilities as opposed to your fears and insecurities.
There are many “self-talk mistakes” that riders commonly make when preparing for and riding in a show. Read through each of these and see if any of them apply to you or someone you know.
Focusing on the past or future: “I chipped my first 3 fences last time I was here.” “I can’t believe how badly I messed that transition up.” These are classic examples of not letting go of past mistakes. It’s just as counterproductive to worry about what may happen. As a rider, you can always have complete control over the present moment, and that’s where your thoughts need to be.
Thinking only of the outcome: “I need to win,” or, “I need to impress the judges” are thoughts about the outcome, something that riders have little control over. What you do have control over, however, is performance. Try changing your self-talk to focus on what needs to be done to turn in your best possible performance, and trust that the outcome will take care of itself.
Focusing on outside factors beyond your control: “I hate riding when it’s humid,” or, “I never do well when there are so many people watching.” These types of thoughts are a waste of your mental energy and can only hurt your confidence and therefore your performance. Try your hardest to keep your thoughts on controllable factors.
Focusing on weaknesses during competition: The time to focus on your weaknesses as a rider is during practice or when you’re with your trainer. It’s necessary during these times to identify where your weaknesses are and then work to improve them. On the other hand, dwelling on weaknesses during competition only serves to hurt your confidence and make you more nervous and tentative in the ring.
Demanding perfection: (If you haven’t read my third column, check it out. It deals with this subject in detail.) Avoid saying to yourself, “This needs to be a perfect run,” or berating yourself for small mistakes while in the ring. All athletes make mistakes, but it’s the really great ones who can make a mistake and continue their performance unfazed. It’s great to work towards perfection if that’s what motivates you, but it’s unrealistic to expect a perfect performance every time out.
Chances are you’ve experienced a few of these common self-talk mistakes in the past, or know other riders who have. But how do you actually change your self-talk to be more positive? We can’t really control the thoughts that come into our heads, right?
There are two ways to eliminate negative self-talk. One is through a process commonly referred to as “thought stopping,” which involves four steps: (1) Become aware of selftalk; (2) Stop the negative; (3) Replace with positive; and (4) Practice the act of stopping negative thoughts.
For thought stopping to be effective, however, it requires lots and lots of practice. The way we think and talk to ourselves can be a terribly hard habit to break, considering it’s been that way our entire lives. To improve your self-talk this way, you really need to work hard to learn to recognize when you’re engaging in negative self-talk, then equally as hard at stopping those thoughts and replacing them with positive ones.
The second way that you can eliminate your negative self-talk requires very little effort at all because you use your subconscious mind. Your subconscious mind is what tells you that you need to stop at a red light, or to pedal the bike to make it go, or even to breathe. These are actions that, over time, cease to require conscious thought and seem to happen on their own. In truth it’s your subconscious (which makes up about 88% of your mind!) that takes care of these things for you.
With Laura King's CD's you are able to access your subconscious mind and fill it with positive suggestions in order to improve your riding performance. If you haven’t read my columns from the beginning, I invite you to learn more about the role of your subconscious mind and how hypnosis and self-hypnosis can help you access it.
I think you’ll be amazed at how much better you perform when healthy, positive, encouraging, confident self-talk occupies your thoughts. “What you think is what you become” might be somewhat clichéd, but it’s very true. So give it a try!