"The progression of the human species is dependant upon our capacity to look beyond the present. Indeed, we often describe great human achievers as “visionaries”. This is as true for sporting performance as any other area of performance. 30 years of personality research in sport has shown that the most common psychological characteristic of elite athletes is the ability to engage the right-hand side of their brain, the creative side that uses images to practice skills and rehearse scenarios. Research also suggests that the world’s best spend more time thinking about their best performances, reliving them in their mind as if they were actually back in competition.
Listen carefully to riders being interviewed after competition and you will often hear reference to how they used imagery to focus their performance, control their nerves and build confidence. Competing in her first Badminton at the age of 21, Laura Collett described using an imagery technique in her dressage allowing her to stay relaxed and in control her emotions whilst focussing on the job in hand. As a result she finished in the top three after the first phase by recreating all the hard work done in the practice arena at home.
Effectively, mental imagery is the process by which we create and live experiences in our mind. The emphasis is not necessarily on seeing these images but on feeling them (i.e. as if we were actually doing a dressage movement or a show-jumping round). Research has consistently demonstrated that done well this can even be better than physically practicing a movement because we can imagine doing it perfectly and therefore refine the neural pathways associated with that movement! This explains a very common phenomena found with injured athletes/riders who have been forced to imagine performing rather than actually doing it. When they eventually get back into competition they often do better than before the injury!
Using our imagination comes naturally to some riders and less so for others, but one thing is for sure; we can all learn to use these techniques to great effect. The more control riders have over their imagination, the more they are able to control their anxieties, focus, confidence and ultimately performance.
In this series of blogs over the next couple of months I will be exploring how you can use imagery to best influence your riding performance, helping you to:
- Generate confidence and belief in your ability to execute a plan
- Control your emotions and respond to adversity
- Learn new skills faster and execute them every time in competition
In particular I will cover specific areas where visualisation is especially useful;
- Dressage Tests
- Course Walking
- Learning New Skills
In the meantime, it is important to recognise four key principles of mental imagery to get you going on the right track:
1) Imagery must be controlled deliberately and therefore done when you have time to do so properly. If you rush it, it defeats the object of doing it in the first place. Therefore if you are short for time you are better imagining one movement of your dressage done perfectly rather than the whole test done quickly.
2) Visualisation is more powerful when you imagine performing as if you were actually in the saddle riding (as opposed to watching yourself). What makes visualisation such a powerful technique is NOT seeing yourself do something well, but FEELING it.
3) Don’t underestimate how much concentration good visualisation takes. Start by imagining one step at a time in real time.
4) Only visualise when you are in the mood you want to be when competing. Listening to music before or during visualisation can be great for helping you achieve this.
There are still some places left for the popular “Mindful Rider” Workshops designed for all competitive equestrians. Remaining dates include:
27 June – Thirsk, Yorkshire
30 May – Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk
6 June – Meeting of the Minds (Kent) – A one-off live demo alongside Jason Webb looking at the parallels between horse and human psychology
Visit www.performancelegacy.com/events_equestrian.htm to find out more and book places."