This was a post I was dying to have "Ask June" (my not-so-secret secret weapon/mental ninja and unicorn sport psychology coach) cover. I think, especially for novice competitors, you see people comparing themselves to other competitors ALL THE TIME. Don't get me wrong, tt's easy to do in our sport where people roll up in $150,000 rigs, $50,000 horses, $5,000 outfits and throw down 75's cooly and calmly while you're struggling to just keep yourself afloat, not cry in front of your turn back help and get down the road. However, time and time again, I see people compare themselves to others and then completely ruin their runs because of it. Comparison is a competitive killer. This topic for June Stevens, sports psychology coach, actually came to me from outside sources - yes, for once, I am not revealing all my flaws and insecurities to ya'll! This topic actually came from TWO people who were comparing themselves to EACHOTHER. Yes, you read that right, two different competitors, coming to me at two separate times, saying "I'll never be as good as [x]." As always, If you have a question or specific situation that you think June could help you with, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
This is how I picture June every time I read one of her posts
"Dear June, I really struggle in competition with not focusing on myself, but instead I focus on others. So many different things affect me, but lately it has been the horses they ride and the scores they achieve. I've won against these people before but all of a sudden I just can't get over the nagging feeling that I will never be as good as them and that they are unbeatable. It's really bringing me down. I start to second guess myself and tell myself that these same people, and others around me, are judging me, when realistically I "know" they aren't! It's really gotten into my head! What can I do to get over all of this?! Sincerely, #FocusedOnOthers"
The struggle is real. Let me start with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
As competitors, comparing ourselves to others is natural. We are, after all competing, and we are actually paying a lot of money to be judged by someone else. It’s the ultimate form of comparison. So it’s natural that when we see someone with more glitter or a nicer unicorn, we feel threatened.
This tendency to focus on the competition is especially non-productive because their horses, scores, and performances are not within your control. In fact, the outcome is really out of everyone’s control. The competitors show up and ride, the judges judge what happens out there, and the placings happen. (I’m certain there are a few people who will want to disagree with me on this one, but at the most basic level, this is how it works.)
All competitors, from beginners to elite athletes, deal with this issue at one time or another. Much of the stress stems from having a poor goal-setting process.
When I coach riders privately, I ask them about their goals. They typically list things such as:
winning a world title
scoring a 75
earning a certain amount of money
These are fine goals, but they represent only one type of goal, called an outcome goal. Outcome goals are far and away the most common type of goal that people set.
They are called outcome goals because they have a defined outcome that measures success. You either marked a 75 or you didn’t. You are a World Champion or you aren’t.
The problem with having only outcome goals is that they create pressure, and our self-esteem tends to live and die by the outcome. Sports psychologists almost universally work to deflect their clients’ attention away from outcome goals to other types of goals, called process goals.
Process goals return the focus to you, and the things that you can control regarding your performance. The first place that I usually start is by having a rider create a list with two columns:
Things I Can Control
Things I Cannot Control
Under “Things I Can Control”, a cutter might list:
Amount of practice
Tack and attire
The cattle I choose to cut (mostly)
Getting enough sleep/proper nutrition (unless you’re a loper, then it’s all about that coffee)
Under “Things I Cannot Control”, she might list:
Other competitors who show up
The performances of others
The attitudes of others
My unicorn has an off day
Getting enough sleep/proper nutrition (for lopers)
Once we have the list, we focus on the first list—things we can control. We build strategies and processes to maximize our control of these things. We set process goals around types and amount of mental rehearsal, and physical practice.
We plan out as much as possible how the day will go, and what the competitor will do if any snags arise. A great question is “What will you do when/if_____?”
What will you do if you feel threatened by another competitor who is dripping in glitter? Will you focus on your calm down exercises? Redirect your attitude? Focus on your game plan for how YOU will execute YOUR run?
This last piece, focusing on your own execution, is crucial. If a beginner wants to mark a 70, that’s an example of an outcome goal. Rather than going to the show and watching the competition, worrying over who looks worthy of a 70, we talk about what it will take for YOU and YOUR UNICORN to mark a 70.
This requires you to begin competing with yourself—which is the hallmark of an elite athlete. Rivalries will exist, but good athletes know how to tune them out by focusing on being better than they were yesterday.
They turn their focus to a relentless pursuit of self-improvement. In other words the only rider they want to beat is the rider they were yesterday.
When you think about it, this makes beating the “competition” fairly simple. You know her inside and out, you can list her strengths and weaknesses, you know EXACTLY how she responds to every type of situation.
This is where I usually will have a rider create a list of strengths and weaknesses. We use the strengths list to create some positive self-statements, called “power words” that you can repeat to yourself when you begin to feel threatened or discouraged.
We also begin the work of shoring up weak areas. We might need to strategize with the trainer to create targeted drills, practices, or visualizations to improve hand or foot position or balance in the saddle.
What is actually at the root of the problem in the show pen? If you get nervous and stop breathing during your run, a process goal might be create a mental warmup routine that keeps you focused and lets you breathe all the way through your run.
With process goals, you might still mark some 60s, but instead of tears you will be able to focus on your self-improvement. There will be days of bad cattle and unicorn-schooling after all. In the beginning you might start off great, and lose your focus, or vice versa. Instead of beating yourself up, and playing the comparison game, focus on what went right.
When you are at a show, and you find yourself feeling threatened or intimidated by the competition, that’s the time to remind yourself “it’s not in my control.”
“I have a nice horse.”
“Last week I marked a 71.”
“Yesterday in practice my mare had some bionic moves.”
A piece of advice that many people find counter-intuitive is to actually complement the competition. Tell them they have a nice horse, or had a nice ride. This is advice that many top athletes put into practice every day.
Many Olympic athletes are exceptionally cautious about allowing any form of negativity into their thoughts, to the point that they will walk away from a group that is talking negatively about someone. These athletes understand that speaking negatively about others is a form of negative reinforcement. (A few bad apples do get some press for being jerks. Don’t be like them!)
To be blunt, we all need to practice some old-fashioned gratitude. Even if you are barely scraping by, eating Ramen noodles and wearing thrift-store socks, you are at the freaking horse show! There are thousands of people out there who can only dream of doing this, and we get to actually participate. Don’t take it for granted. #BelieveInYourUnicorn
Okay, I lied, June C. Stevens is not a highly intelligent unicorn,
she is a highly intelligent mindset coach that is human, with a lot of glitter
June Stevens, of Sharper Focus Performance Coaching, is a mindset coach for sports and health. She is a different kind of "personal trainer" - she helps people develop the mindset to succeed, and teaches them the strategies they need to make it happen. She works with riders all over the country who want to succeed. She says that getting the most out of your horse-life isn't a "happy accident." It's the result of a strategic approach. For more information on personalized coaching, and programs that June Stevens offers, check out her website - Sharper Focus, and follow her on Facebook to keep updated!