Q & A: Brain Training for Focus & Endurance

Question: What do I do when I have random thoughts in the ring? Sometimes I am riding along and a song or detail from school pops into my mind literally throwing me off my focus.

Since the brain is a muscle, it requires training just like the rest of your body and your horse. Training your brain to be task oriented while maintaining your mind-body connection is key here. Mental distraction can be a form of resistance or overwhelm where the brain’s neural path circuitry gets over- ridden by a more comfortable and familiar pathway. Start working with your focus by observing the challenge intricately. Create a log of when this happens on and off the horse. Record every detail. Begin the brain training while doing short, simple tasks like making a cup of tea or putting on your shoes. Focus on the task at hand completely by silently narrating, feeling, and seeing each move. If you find yourself distracted, name the off task thought “thinking” and return to what you are doing. In this observation phase, notice through which sense you perceive the distractions. If it’s your internal voice, then you can work with focusing your internal narrative. If it is from your hearing, then consider wearing earplugs when practicing or competing (obviously not during a lesson) to train focusing on the task. If you receive the distraction through seeing, train yourself to keep your eyes focused on specific elements in or around the ring. If your distractions come from a day dream-kind of place, train yourself to stay present in physical time and space when eating, driving, studying, etc. so that you heighten your mind-body connection in a less charged atmosphere.

Practice this often in daily life and then take it to the barn. Focus on a barn task like putting on your boots, spurs, and helmet or tacking up your horse, again paying attention to every detail and narrating it as you go. After each foray into task-oriented mental focus training, let your brain have a break just like you do when you let your horse catch his breath between exercises in a lesson. Once you feel comfortable with the simple narration exercise, try it when jumping a round. Use present tense, first person like, “I am picking up the canter and establishing my pace. I am going to fence one...” If you get distracted, gently bring your focus back to the task at hand. Be aware of your self-judgment voice that may try to continue the distraction by telling you how silly you were for being distracted. Even if this is a challenge you experience in the show ring exclusively, I still encourage you to try this practice outside of the ring and off the horse first. Remember that task-oriented focus is not something the human brain naturally does as we are the only mammal on the planet with the ability to multi-task and our current culture has increased this habit substantially through technology. So develop a practice and stay with it!

Question: When I see my child is tired and in a slump while trying to get her horse show endurance back, what is the best way to offer support?

The first step to conscious parenting of an athlete is to be careful not to project your feelings or desires onto your athlete-child. If you are too hot or cold, hungry, bored, irritable or just wishing to be elsewhere, resist the urge to project your feelings onto anyone else. Once you are clear what your child is actually experiencing, then the question is how to help her dig a bit past her capacity. Most horse trainers have incredible amounts of energy resources so it can be difficult for them to assess when an athlete has run out of gas. Also bringing this kind of question to them in the midst of a show can be considered disrespectful. Therefore this is a great conversation to have with your athlete-child as well as her trainer before the season begins. Help your daughter and her trainer understand what you know about her energy and personality. Ask your trainer about their protocol for assessing this on show day to have a plan in place. Personally, I encourage athletes to aim to end a show day with some fuel in their tank, especially when at a multiple week circuit. Remember that the success of a circuit is the sum of the days. Help your athlete-child to find a goal accomplished in each day and all levels of endurance will develop.

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