Photo Credit: Adam Hill/Decaseconds Photography
Article by John Haime
Focus is a big buzzword today… in everything. Because of the infinite number of distractions around us, including advancements in technology, our attention spans seem to be shrinking to the point where it is difficult for people to keep their minds on a task for more than a few seconds.
I really became interested in the idea of focus while reflecting on my professional golf career and realizing that I struggled with focus and keeping my mind and energy centered on my plan to win professional tournaments. I found that my emotions would knock me off my focus (emotions gone wild) and hurt my chances of being a consistent contender. Negative emotions like frustration and anger wreaked havoc and often kept my focus on the past, exactly where I didn’t want it. The real competition was always inside of me. You might know the feeling — hit a rail or have a bad ride and you can find it difficult to get your mind back in the game and create the right internal environment to complete the course or show your potential in the next class. Some call it being “frazzled.”
Dan Goleman, author of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence explains that we’re also prone to emotions driving focus when our minds are wandering, when we are distracted or when we have information overload — or all three. Think about how this might apply to you in a typical show.
Consider a rider like Mclain Ward who has stated that working on his mental and emotional game has helped him achieve greater heights in showjumping. That work includes sharpening his focus. A more focused mind has contributed to his consistent riding in the past few years. Focusing on the right things outside of the ring to avoid distractions and focusing on the right things in the ring with partner HH Azur makes performing on the challenging Grand Prix circuit easier.
Emotions out of the ring impacts performance in it
Something that’s interesting when I work with high-level athlete clients, including equestrians: their focus is often muddled by events that have happened outside of the ring, not in it. Something may have happened at home, or they are worried about something else in their lives that creates anxiety and hinders them from bringing full focus to the ring. For this reason, attention must be given to what’s going on outside of the ring. Those emotions must be acknowledged and expressed, helping to create a clear mind to focus on the task at hand — riding your partner to the best of your ability.
What causes you to lose your focus?
Focus is certainly one of the keys to performance excellence. Many performance problems, including a lack of self-confidence, can be traced to problems in the area of focus. The more you lose your focus, the more difficult your riding will be.
What causes you to lose focus in the ring? Could it be other riders, outside of the ring distractions, coaches yelling, too much emphasis on the outcome (where you will finish), unacceptable mistakes, looking ahead to parts of the course that you will arrive at, taking a rail, unforced errors? Everyone is different — you might have other factors that impact your focus. As a little exercise, make a list of things that can distract you.
A few ideas to improve your focus
We all know that functional practice is critical to great performance in the ring and in any sport. Part of your practice should be working on your mental/emotional game, like Mclain Ward. Similar to hacking, flatwork or jump schools, time and effort is required to build your mental and emotional “muscles” and use all of your abilities.
Here are seven steps to help you build those muscles and improve your focus in the ring:
- You must be aware of what’s going on outside of the ring emotionally so the negative energy doesn’t disrupt your focus in it. Express emotions created outside of the ring before you arrive in the ring.
- Construct a routine that works for you — simple, comfortable, reliable actions that put your mind on the task in training and when it counts. This creates consistency and predictability in your behavior and begins your process of performing in the ring.
- If you find yourself drifting, bring yourself back to the center by asking yourself “where’s my focus.” This will create awareness and help you keep your mind on the task.
- Accept that there are things in riding you can and can’t control. Identify what they are and only put focus on those things within your control. Consider this carefully and understand the difference.
- Consider a very short, quiet session each day focusing on your breath. In this mental fitness session, the more you catch your mind wandering off and bringing it back to concentrating on the breath, the more your concentration muscles strengthen.
- Eat high-protein, low-carb meals before riding. Carbs cause quick crashes while proteins become brain fuel more slowly, providing a steady energy level helping to sustain focus.
- Focus declines quickly when you are tired, and there’s an epidemic of sleep deprivation. Enough sleep can make a difference and help keep your mind on the ride.
Focus is a big area in your riding and in everything you do. Get to know what allows you to be focused on important tasks. This will help you maximize your abilities and take advantage of all the work you do to become the rider you’d like to be.
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 more … in 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. As a world-class coach in the area of performance and one of the world’s leading authorities in Emotional Intelligence, as it relates to performance in sport, John coaches athletes in all sports (including equestrian), executives and artists in a variety of performance areas. He is trusted by some of the world’s leading athletes – professional and elite amateur. Performance Development for Equestrian Athletes – https://youtu.be/krfos5trZxE