Monday, April 11, 2011

Sports Psych 101

"Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted -- one moment --
Would you capture it or just let it slip?"

I've really been thinking a lot about Sinead Halpin's COTH blog entry from last week. When I first saw the title ("Fear is My Friend"), I thought to myself, "Yes, now I can really sink my teeth into a piece of writing that speaks to my lower-level ammie sensibilities....but written from a talented and well-respected professional's perspective!" However, Sinead revised my preconceived notion of what simple "fear" meant, and she introduced an entirely new level of "fear" to an already complicated equation: the fear of being left behind in an ever-improving field of peer competitors. This isn't exactly the idea of "fear" that I had in mind when I began reading her entry. I was thinking of the standard definition of fear; that is, the fear of pain or injury. If anyone can experience, live through, and prevail over that very real fear, it is Sinead. That fear does exist for her, somewhere I'm sure, but she has come so far in overcoming that. It is such a testament to her as a true professional to no longer be overwhelmed by the danger of our sport, but rather to fear the possibility of not being, experiencing, and realizing everything she believes she is destined to be. 

This speaks to me and what I've been pondering when I think about the psychological impediment of "fear" as I see it. I find that what I fear most about eventing isn't necessarily the fear of harm or danger (although, I'd be flat-out lying to say that isn't in the wayback of my mind at all times, somewhere/somehow). What I fear most is probably the fear of failure. What, exactly then, would denote "failure," to me? I'm not the type of person who sits down in January and takes out a calendar and sets goals like "by ______ day I will have accomplished _______" or "by _______ I will be ready to ______ at ________ or else I will be a total failure." The second that I do something that concrete, the wheels have already been programmed to fall off. What I will do is sit down and say, "Right now, I'm going to focus on _______ so that I will see an improvement in __________." That might mean an improvement in a week, a month, or sometime that's just not that set-in-stone for me right now. That is how I avoid prescribing "success," so that "failure" is more abstract. I am more concerned with seeing growth and evolution, and not tangible, date-based/performance-based results. 

However, when I do enter a competition and head off to the event, I become very stressed about what will inevitably be a tangible result before the weekend is over....there's just no question about it at that point. That is when all my time put in at home has to be realized out there, in the real world, like it or not. There are no small goals, no excuses, and no wrapping things up when I feel like it (whether we're finished with the course or the test, or not). This is when I become most "fearful." I cannot afford to compete much at all in any given year, so when I do, the pressure is definitely on to ensure I do not waste my time or my money. I want to do the best I can, no matter what, so my fear of failure is very real. I'm not looking for any certain placing, position, or a "magic number." It's not that easy to articulate. But once we've begun, I know how and where I need to finish in order to feel as though I have "succeeded." A high-score in dressage, a rail in stadium, or a run-out on XC can throw me off the edge of the precipice in a way that a minor thumping in the dirt might devastate anybody else. I'm not worried so much about falling off and getting hurt as I am afraid of letting myself down by doing something stupid (not riding deeply into the corners in dressage, or riding badly through a turn in stadium, or jumping ahead of my horse). These are the things I obsess over at home, so a show is the place to get these things right. And, as you can see, this can be just as paralyzing an impediment as the fear of getting hurt. I am very demanding of myself, so living up to my own expectations is a stressful undertaking. 

In order to deal with this, I try to find "average" goals for a show weekend. I don't go intending to score in the upper-20's/low 30's in dressage. That's just not going to happen anyway. So, if I say, "Anything below 40 is good," then when I get a 35 or 36, I'm ok with that and I can continue to breathe and exist. I then say, "I'm not going to worry about rails in show jumping as long as we don't have any dumb run-outs," and when we go clear, I can sigh with relief. Before cross-country, I will decide which is going to be the "problem" fence, and I focus on that like a maniac. Inevitably, that fence rides very well, and thusly I haven't allowed myself to obsess over the ENTIRETY of the course and I just ride everything like it's nothing. When I come home clear, I can feel like I've conquered my fear (the one fence I focused on), when in reality, I've just tricked myself into riding the whole course by just RIDING it, and not handcuffing myself by breaking it down into 10 or 15 individual "issues." 

I find that everyone I know has a slightly different definition of fear when they ride, train, or compete. What I fear is most likely not the most pressing concern for any number of my fellow eventers, and what they fear may not be my greatest worry. This sense of anxiety or preoccupation is something we all know exists (especially at show time), but it's not something we really talk about.....even with our friends. Maybe there are circles of riders/friends out there who take a type of AA meeting approach to their mental preparation: "Hi, I'm Holly, and I define fear as......" I don't really talk about these things with anyone, though. I find that I try and solve my own problems and provide my own "tricks and tips" to handling what makes me most anxious. Perhaps this should be a more commonplace discussion we have with other eventers (since it seems that in all reality, talking about our "fears" is frowned upon or seen as a sign of unpreparedness or weakness). It's not as though we all have one universal fear (the fear of falling off and breaking bones) or one single area of frustration (we all just want to finish in first place). Our challenges and anxieties are just not that easy to categorize across the board.

So, in reading Sinead's blog and seeing how she recognizes and faces a fear that isn't as simple as being scared of injury or being afraid to jump big jumps, it made me feel as though I need to better understand what exactly fear means to me, and then I need to make that fear my friend. Ultimately, I really do believe that at the lower-levels, the fears involved in eventing truly have nothing to do with impending physical disaster. It's all of the other fears (fear of disappointment, fear of lack of knowledge/preparation, fear of failure, fear of losing confidence, fear of embarrassment, fear of unfulfilled expectations, fear of failing my horse, fear of wasted time/investment, etc) that really do make a typical competition become a mental mountain for me. I'm not sure exactly what a sports psychologist would make of this, but I do know that -- although I get what he was saying -- FDR didn't know anything about the complexities of the eventer's psyche when he declared: "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

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