Living in unfamiliar ways may be a catalyst for revamping our routines and renewing our mindset. Charlie Unwin explains how to develop a winning attitude in the face of adversity
From adversity springs opportunity. For me, that opportunity came in the form of Zoom technology. Within 48 hours of learning how to set up an account and use the virtual whiteboard, I found myself hosting an online conference for 40 coaches, and never have I been so nervous. In the two weeks since, I have spoken to a multitude of riders using the platform, all trying to make sense of the situation we find ourselves in.
It has occurred to me that only when we are jolted out of our daily rhythm and forced to live in ways with which we are unfamiliar, do we start to reflect back on what we considered normal before. Therefore, what a great opportunity we have to recognise and appreciate the things most important to us, but also to question the routines, rituals and beliefs that have been serving us less well.
The process of getting better at riding generally involves, well, riding. The assumption being that the more we practice, the better we get. Yet the reality is that hours and hours of practice can count for nothing if we present ourselves at the all-important moment as tense and incoherent.
It follows that everything we do has an impact on our performance on some level, from the amount of sleep we get to the food we eat and the way we engage with social media. This is a good thing, because it means we can all expand our view of what makes us better at what we do.
In my line of work, that means helping riders to show up and present the most positive, focused, and committed version of themselves. Every time.
Transforming your mental fitness
With that in mind, I am delighted that Horse & Hound has given me this opportunity to share with you my “Five Fundamentals of Mental Fitness” over the upcoming weeks. The goal is to focus on you as the rider by transforming your mental fitness for training and competition. Importantly, this is stuff you can work on out of the saddle.
The five fundamentals are for your mind what balance, rhythm and accuracy are for your riding. They never stop being important. They are:
- Fundamental #1 – win the day
- Fundamental #2 – create the space
- Fundamental #3 – relax into it
- Fundamental #4 – train your feel
- Fundamental #5 – train your nerves
“When you feel your strength waning, your courage must be firmer, your heart must be bolder, and your spirit must be greater.” These are the translated words of an Anglo-Saxon poem from over one thousand years ago, thought to be written on the eve of a Viking invasion. They are words that echo through the centuries and remind us that bad things show up.
As equestrians, we are used to our fair share of ups and downs; in fact, it’s a rite of passage – “you’re not a proper rider until you’ve fallen off at least seven times”, apparently. Yet something I’ve noticed about my fellow human beings is that some respond far better to adversity than others. Indeed, research in human psychology shows us that it’s not adversity itself that affects us during times like this, rather it’s our attitude towards it.
As I thought about the thousands of riders and athletes out there reappraising their season, this really resonated. In particular I thought of those who have invested years of time and energy into their dream of competing at the Olympics, only to have the goalposts moved due to unforeseen events. Yet for these people, it will be the very attitude that got them there that will get them beyond, stronger for having gone through it.
‘Show up every day’
Last week a former SAS commander was telling me about his experience of the gruelling six-month selection process for getting into the Special Forces. Famous around the world for its physical and mental brutality, I asked him what his top tip would be for anyone undertaking the selection. He simply replied, “Show up every day.”
As equestrian competitors, this speaks to your willingness and commitment to get up each morning (at the same time) and repeat good things, such as planning and reviewing your progress, writing things down, staying calm and patient with the horse and so on. These are basic things that even Covid-19 shouldn’t stop you from doing. Indeed, they are essential to achieving your ultimate goals.
Once a dressage rider has learnt how to execute a movement perfectly, they will only be successful if they can repeat this skill consistently, and on demand. As the saying goes: “It’s not how good you are on a good day, it’s how good you are on a bad day.”
Therefore, this is a mindset that manifests itself in the daily rhythm of highly accomplished performers, it’s not just saved for competition. More than this, my own research has shown that elite performers are deeply motivated by the sense of mastery they get from doing basic, everyday things as well as they can.
So whatever winning the day means for you, it should help you stay focused and in control of the day you are living. That way when you emerge on the other side and start competing again you will be stronger for it.
In summary, “win the day” boils down to a few simple rules:
1. Practise this simple mantra and remind yourself that no matter what your expectations for the future, satisfaction and control only exists in the quality of today.
2. Plan your day, sticking to the routines that work for you.
3. Pay attention to little goals and give yourself time to savour the small victories.
4. Repeat this as many times as it takes!
Register for Charlie’s online course, “Win the mind game”, before 24 April here.
Charlie Unwin is a specialist in human performance and psychology. His clients include Olympic champions, England footballers, elite special forces and the Royal Household, as well as a number of our international equestrian teams.
A former Army officer and British athlete, Charlie is passionate about applying the science of mental performance to equestrian sport, helping riders maximise their potential through training and competition.
Ref Horse & Hound; 9 April 2020