Who IS That Talking in My Head?
“What is the matter with you? Just do as you were taught by the instructor! ”
“Why can’t you just seem to do this one little thing correctly?”
“You are such an idiot. Can’t you figure this out?”
“Don’t be such a dummy. Everyone ELSE can do this. Why can’t you?”
Sound familiar? Almost every rider has heard these questions, or similar versions. And we (hopefully) don’t hear them from anyone other than ourselves. We pick at ourselves endlessly with negative self-talk and expect unrealistic and unattainable perfection. Why do we do this? And more importantly, how do we stop doing it?
The Ohio Center for Sports Psychology lists 9 mental skills for successful athletes. One of them is positive self-talk. They suggest that successful athletes train the voice in their head to talk to them just like they would talk to their own best friend. When you use positive self-talk, you reframe the conversation you have in your head from negative to encouraging. You highlight the positive, identify what’s not working and figure out a positive plan forward. Just like your best friend who offers encouragement and suggestions.
When our ego gets involved in our riding, we get focused on the end product as the reward, rather than the process or journey as the reward. The only thing that satisfies the ego is the end reward. I want to ride a shoulder –in. Therefore the reward and only acceptable outcome to the ego is executing a perfect shoulder-in. And if I don’t achieve it, the ego starts nattering away at us telling us what a bad job we are doing. The ego is that persistent voice in your head that constantly makes us worry whether we or what we do is good enough by our own or someone else’s standards.
Negative self-talk produces frustration and negative energy, both of which are counter-productive to effective riding. But we can train the ego to be our friend instead of our foe by learning how to stop negative self-talk and use positive self-talk. There are lots of self-help books and articles on the internet that offer ideas for how to use positive self-talk. For the students that I have worked with on this issue, the first most important thing they must do is recognize when their ego is getting in the way with negative self-talk. Negative self-talk becomes a habit that we fall into and don’t even realize the impact it has upon us or our horse. Once we recognize “that is negative self-talk!” we can then use something called a pattern interrupt to stop it and help us reframe our self-talk to be positive.
To create a pattern interrupt, you need to pick an image that is not at all related to riding. I had one student pick an image of a refrigerator. Every time she caught herself using negative self-talk she would think of the image of a refrigerator to stop the pattern of negative thought. Once you stop negative thinking you can shape your thoughts in a different way that help you move forward more positively and productively. Give yourself advice. “Well that exercise didn’t go so well. Let’s experiment to see what I can change to see if we can make it better next time.” This approach changes the energy to be more positive, where past mistakes become opportunities for learning and further inquiry. Your horse will thank you for your reduced frustration level, which will help reduce the tension he feels in your body.
Example of Reframing Negative Self Talk
Heave sigh. I have been working on learning the shoulder-in for weeks and weeks now and I am still not getting it. I am so BAD at this. I cannot even mange to get my horse to understand what I want. And then when we finally get close to performing a shoulder in, I go and ruin it every time by pulling on the inside rein.
“Wait a minute, what am I doing? REFRIGERATOR!
More Positive Approach
Hmm. We had really great rhythm going in that trot. But when we tried the shoulder in again we lost the rhythm again. I wonder happened to disrupt the rhythm? Let’s try that again and see if I can keep my body moving freely with my horse as we prepare for shoulder-in. Let’s try and see what happens. It is an experiment and if it doesn’t work we will try something else.”