A Synopsis of my Doctoral Dissertation: Adolescent Equestrienne Athletes’ Experiences of Mindfulness

The purpose of this research was to explore five female adolescent equestrian athletes’ experiences using mindfulness practices in competition. The equestrian athletes in this study all have a mindfulness practice that they employ to address stress and maintain focus when navigating complicated courses of obstacles. In this study, elite-level junior equestriennes were interviewed about their lives as competitive horsewomen in the hunter, jumper, and equitation fields as well as about their particular experiences utilizing a mindfulness practice in competition. Narrative analysis was used to explore the experiences described by the athletes. By focusing on the girls’ narratives about their mindfulness practices in training and competition, individual and collective themes emerged to illustrate the layers of their experiences. The data were reviewed in terms of typology and progression as well as from the psychological perspectives of developmental psychology, theories of sport psychology, and mindfulness-based psychotherapy with the intention of unraveling new approaches to support adolescent athletes both in and out of sport. The narratives were combined to create a composite cohesive narrative, which disclosed the common themes of “breath, relationship, mind, focus, and moment” as essential to each of the participants’ experiences of using mindfulness in competition. These findings may reveal phenomena that could increase understanding of the multiple layers of peak performance.

INTRODUCTION

Each year, the world of equestrian show jumping produces multiple Olympic athletes, World Cup competitors, to the equestrian sports than boys. The adolescent psyche paired with a 1,200-pound teammate is a delicate combination. A solid relationship between horse and rider is essential. Elite athletes achieve a proficient level and professional riders and trainers. In the United States, female adolescents are the majority of junior competitors, as girls tend to be more attracted of skill and usually compete at levels below that in which they practice or train. Additionally, horses operate from a mindset of fear; that is, they are prey in the wild, which means the rider must be aware of their teammate’s sensitivity. Equestrian athletes need to be emotionally attuned to an animal while focusing on executing physical skills, strategies for navigating a course of jumps, and regulating their emotions. Hence, competitive equestrians are in need of a clearly designed, accessible, and personalized protocol for developing a dependable mental practice. Basic mindfulness practices including meditation, attention to breath, and theories of yoga combined with the Mindfulness-Acceptance-Commitment (MAC; Gardner & Moore, 2006, 2007) approach to developing a customized mental practice for riders supports the relationship between horse and rider. These practices also develop attention and focus in the moment, thereby potentially increasing performance outcomes as well as deepening the experience for the rider.

LITERATURE REVIEW

The literature in this review explored flow theory (Csikszentmihalyi 1975, 1991/2008) as applied to sport psychology as well as mindfulness-based psychotherapy (Gremer, 2005; Fulton & Siegel, 2005) as applied to sport psychology. Mindfulness-based sport psychology (Gardner & Moore, 2007) delineates a protocol that supports athletes with in-the-moment experiences. The equestrian athlete is in relationship with the horse, the trainer, and the environment, making this approach essential to the support system. (Diaz, 2009; Blakeslee & Goff, 2007; Adamson, 2004) Athletes’ experiences are also explored through feminist developmental theories (Gilligan,1982; Pipher, 1994), adolescent developmental theories (Erikson, 1950; Berzonsky, 2000; Frankel, 1998; Blos, 1989) as well as neuro-developmental theories (Gurian, 2002). This review provides a solid foundation for research on equestrian athletes in competition and serves as a launching pad for further research in all of these subfields as well.

METHOD

Narrative inquiry was used to explore the experience of an applied mindfulness practice for adolescent female equestriennes. This allowed for the athletes’ stories to reveal multiplicities of the experience of using mindfulness in competition. Transcribed narratives from individual interviews are the data that were analyzed according to the methodology presented by Lieblich et al. (1998) and Riessman (1993), which essentially extracts general themes from the interview data and restructures the material in the form of a cohesive narrative similar to the intent of narrative therapy. By focusing on the girls’ narratives about their mindfulness practices in training and competition, individual and collective themes emerged to illustrate the layers of their experiences. The data were reviewed from the psychological perspectives of developmental psychology as well as theories of sport psychology and mindfulness-based psychotherapy with the intention of revealing new approaches to supporting adolescent athletes both in and out of sport. Additionally, the narratives were investigated through the lens of “flow theory” (Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi, 1998) in order to access the relationship between mindfulness practices and the athletes’ potential experiences of flow.

RESULTS

The overarching themes of focus, mindfulness, mind, relationship and breath combine to illuminate the essential elements of the participants’ experiences of using mindfulness in competition. Additionally, the themes of breath and moment are consistently at the foundation of each of the participants’ narratives. All of the equestriennes acknowledge that their teammates’ breath is as important as their own. An associated theme is the connection and relationship between horse and rider, which is essential for success in this sport. All the participants indicated that the inclusion of connection with the horse as a conscious part of their mindfulness practice greatly enhanced their experiences in competition as well as their results.

  • Relationship is the theme that creates a container for these narratives as the equestriennes all described their relationships with their horses, trainers, families, and friends—and with me—as being affected by their evolving mindfulness practices. Because female adolescents tend to be relational by nature and are constantly assessing situations to understand where they fit in, the relationships close to their experiences in competition are actually elements of their mindfulness practices. These relationships create the outer edges of the container and the horse show ring is the nucleus where the horse and rider deeply connect to create the experience of mindfulness in competition.

  • Increased focus emerged as a subtheme in these narratives. The equestriennes described enhanced ability to focus on the task at hand when employing mindfulness techniques. Descriptions of increased focus in competition included deeper connection to the horse; less need to make something happen, thereby increasing in the moment presence, often allowing multiple elements of flow to emerge as a result of mindfulness.

  • Visualization was described as another consistent theme accessed to capture in the moment experience in competition. The equestriennes utilized visualization as a means to connect with the horse by sharing imagined mental pictures of the intended route on course.

The overarching themes and subthemes that emerged were universal, while the individual experiences were filled with personal stories, nuances, and discoveries.

SUMMARY OF FINDINGS

  • When elements of flow emerged for the participants in the study, experience outweighed outcomes.

  • The application of mindfulness practices in competition potentially supports equestrienne athletes to access flow.

  • Some equestrienne participants’ narratives suggested that they experienced a relationship between flow and mindfulness.

  • The adolescent equestriennes collectively referred to their equine teammate, delineating the connection between horse and rider as a potential conduit for peak performance, optimum experience, and/or flow to occur.

  • Mindfulness practices increased understanding of heightened focus and connection.

  • Focus on the moment and the task allowed challenging thoughts to flow through their minds without becoming highlighted.

  • The inside-out data offer personal depictions of experience as well as emphasize the elements of mindfulness that might pose challenges for athletes under the pressure of competition.

  • Attention to the present moment allowed these equestriennes to access the physical tools they had mastered more easily as well as to override their analytic brain functions that interfere with optimum performance.

  • Mindfulness tools were successful for all of the participants in this study regardless of developmental stages.

  • Mindfulness may be a healthy approach for a female adolescent athlete to develop a relationship with her changing body. Mindfulness in competition allowed participants to experience flow rather than focus solely on goal orientation.

  • The inside-out exploration of the equestriennes’ experiences of mindfulness in competition complemented the numerous studies based on psychometric tools to measure mindfulness.

IMPLICATIONS OF RESEARCH FINDINGS

The field of sport psychology and the subfield of equestrian sport psychology are at a crossroads between results-oriented behavior control and focus on present moment experience of intuitive connection. The evolution of understanding how the human brain optimally functions has circled back to ancient Buddhist principles of mindfulness, which focus on paying attention to the present moment nonjudgmentally. This study exemplifies the power of consistently emphasizing focus on the moment under pressure and how this practice can greatly shift athletes’ experiences in competition.

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