Taming The Mental Beast

Jan 17, 2013 - 2:27 AM
Sara Lieser hopes that studying her mental approach to show jumping will help her leave the rails up this year. Photo by Kathy Boteler Photography

Eli, aka Sweet Roll, is chilling out in the pasture with no shoes, so until I can update about him, I have a different story to tell.

Two years ago, I was eliminated in the show jumping at my first preliminary event with my former horse. The confident animal that skipped around at training level needed more support than I was providing coming into a triple combination, and he stopped, twice. Whistle blew. Game over.

It wasn’t the end of the world. I took it as a sign that we weren’t quite ready and prepared to do some homework. Then I fell off in my next lesson while trying to negotiate a triple at a similar height. Twice.

The panic set in.

For me, show jumping is the anxiety phase of eventing. Dressage is fine, and my nerves usually sharpen me up for cross-country. But as soon as I enter the warm-up for show jumping, my brain seems to shut down. I don’t see a distance, and this blank feeling comes over me. I chuck my body at the jump, praying we land together on the other side, and I’ll have a chance to redeem myself. Sometimes I’ll finish an entire course and remember nothing but the first fence, which didn’t go well.

I rode a terrible jumper for a long time, and this may have been the start of the anxiety. If you got too close to a jump at a certain height, he’d stop. He just wouldn’t make the effort from there, and if he did, it was going to be ugly. At the time, I thought, “This is great! I’m learning to be precise. I’m learning not to jump ahead.”

In reality, I was learning to be afraid.

I was able, mostly, to work through the panic when my until-then perfect packer decided he too was going to stop in show jumping. My trainer broke everything down and put me back together again, so that less than five months later we jumped clear in our second attempt at preliminary and even won one the following summer.

But the show jumping anxiety lingered. Now I’m mounted on the most talented show jumper I’ve ever ridden (and he’s an off-the-track Thoroughbred too!). My trainer looked at me and said, “You should be enjoying this phase. When everyone else is worried, you should have a smile on your face and an ace in your pocket.”

Point taken. So it was off to the sports psychologist I went.

Focus And Self-Confidence

I’d met Dr. Jenny Susser through COTH blogger and dressage pro Lauren Sprieser. Jenny used to be an elite swimmer, before getting her Ph.D. in clinical health psychology. Now she works with athletes from amateurs to top professionals, and in 2012 she was named the U.S. Equestrian Federation Team Sport Psychologist and worked with the Olympic teams.

Jenny started our first conversation by explaining that confidence is a skill you build, not something you’re born with. I feel like I give this lecture all the time as an editor—no one pops out of the womb with an innate ability to write.

She gave me some required reading: Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code. I’ve already read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated, and I recommend both for demonstrating that we have a great deal of influence over our proficiency at everything.

 “Focus and self confidence are two fingers on the same hand,” continued Jenny. “They require each other.”

Could I transfer the focus that comes so easily to me during my flatwork to my jumping? I take few dressage lessons, as that’s a phase that doesn’t require a ground crew to practice, and I’m unlikely to get hurt if I mess up. So I’ve learned to think for myself and stretch those infrequent lessons with self-assessment in between. I hardly ever jump without supervision. Making a plan over fences isn’t something I practice regularly.

I explained how much better I felt when my coach was in the warm-up telling me what to do before a show jumping round.

Suddenly, a light bulb went on in my head. Do I ever practice a show jumping warm-up? No! At home I set grids, and in lessons I work on riding lines or courses or form over fences, but I have never once jumped a crossrail, vertical and oxer in a line anywhere except at a show. Of course I panic in the warm-up with no coach when there is this ominous jump configuration that I never practice.

It’s A Mental Game

We delved into that feeling of blankness on course. Jenny asked me about withdrawal in other facets of my life, and I was surprised to realize that shut down is a defense mechanism for me. When I get overwhelmed or upset, I withdraw mentally and focus on other things. While we all need to have defense mechanisms to cope with life, this particular one isn’t helping my riding at all.

It’s impossible to think two thoughts at once. “Write down the alphabet while you give me directions to the grocery store from your house,” Jenny instructed. I broke into giggles about 30 seconds into that project because of course I couldn’t do it.

So if I was trying to unconsciously protect myself by thinking other things when I got stressed on course, then no wonder I couldn’t remember what happened after fence 1.

We touched on preparation. As an adult amateur with a day job, I hardly ever feel 100 percent prepared before a show. However, I can have my show gear ready to go in the trailer, so that’s one less thing to worry about the night before, and I can arrive on time…at least I should be able to do that in theory.

We finished up our conversation with a to-do list.

• Examine my routine for dressage preparation and see if some of those things would be effective for my show jumping

• Focus on preparation for a show in my show jumping training

• Spend 20 percent of my jumping time practicing a show warm-up situation

• Explore the feeling of withdrawal. Be aware of when it happens and why. See if I can control it to some degree and play with how present I am.

I had one show before the end of the season to try it out. I set up the line of warm-up fences in my arena. Of course, I didn’t actually get to jump them like that—see above paragraph about limited time, but I did ride around with them there several times. Osmosis?

I did put some of Jenny’s suggestions into action at the show. Rather than jumping the crossrail, vertical and oxer somewhat haphazardly before going in the ring, I formed a concrete plan, as if my coach were there telling me what to do. When it didn’t go right, I didn’t panic. I stopped, analyzed and made a new plan to address the problem. I also gave myself time to walk the course several times, and I really tried to imagine how I wanted the whole thing to go—not just the fences, but also the turns and lines from jump to jump.

I went into the ring feeling OK, if not fantastic, and I was able to remember what happened at every fence. I also got a friend to video me, so I could see that we pulled the rail at fence 1 because my horse was pooping, not because I’d made a terrible mistake. Baby steps.

Each Thursday, we’ll feature a blog from a member of the Chronicle staff. We’re just like you—juggling riding and competing with work and family. A graduate “C-3″ from Penobscot Pony Club (Maine), she spent a year working for Denny Emerson before attending Amherst College (Mass.) and is now learning the sport from the ground up by training her own horses. She and her husband, Eric, share their 20-acre farm with two dogs, three cats, and an ever-changing numbr of horses. 



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