Mindset training: Developing ‘feel’ through a visualisation process *H&H Plus*

  • Charlie Unwin challenges riders to develop their “feel” through a visualisation process – and explains why practice doesn’t always make perfect

    These are, for your mind, what balance, rhythm and accuracy are for your riding:
    Fundamental #1 – win the day
    Fundamental #2 – create the space
    Fundamental #3 – relax into it
    Fundamental #4 – train your feel
    Fundamental #5 – train your nervesTrain your nerves to respond positively to the intensity of competition

    What qualities make great equestrians great? “Natural feel” will come high up on your list. After all, it’s a degree of feel that allows a jockey to control their pace, a showjumper to see a stride and a dressage rider to make tiny corrections before the mistake has even happened.

    This is not unique to equestrian sport – or sport overall. Good feel is also important in musicians, surgeons and pilots, to name just a few. So the question is not whether feel is important, but if it can be developed. This is where psychology has the potential to have an effect on the way we learn our craft and develop intuitive skill.

    Feel and intuition are closely linked. And it’s thanks to intuition that we can respond to deviations in the horse’s behaviour – be it in the saddle or when walking a course, for example, when you’ll rely on subconscious information to give you a “gut feel”. Some people are more in tune with their intuition than others, and they’ll make better decisions and be more confident in those decisions.

    So how can we improve these subconscious processes that guide our performance?

    The quality of feel

    The first ingredient for training feel is experience. Without practising the physical experience of a half-pass or pirouette, we don’t have an internal representation for what good feels like. However, I believe there is an over-reliance on experience in equestrian sport (in the form of physical time in the saddle), sometimes to the detriment of the horse.

    If you have to repeat a halt rein-back five times to get it right on the fifth attempt, the horse has reinforced the incorrect version four times out of five. There is an inevitability to this as both horse and rider learn, but we can reduce inaccurate repetition through better mental preparation and simulation.

    Imagine you could train the same quality of feel in one rider in half the time it took others. This was the challenge I had with the British skeleton team when I worked with them before the Sochi Winter Olympics. Speeding down a mountain head-first on ice at 90mph with extreme G-forces means that athletes are limited to two to three training runs per day. That’s a total of 1min 56sec of physical practice a day. It’s been suggested that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become expert in any skill, but if this means physical practice then for a skeleton athlete they will be about 820 years old by the time they reach their best.

    Therefore, we adopted the philosophy that the best athletes in the world would be those who learnt from their experience faster than their opponents.

    As Aldous Huxley said: “Experience isn’t what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.”

    Therefore, we applied the principles of accelerated learning to every aspect of their training. It turns out that 90% of the principles we applied affected not what the athletes did during their practice, but what they did before and after. For example, they’d become more proficient at managing their mental and physical state before training sessions, visualising the sequence of events and skills they were about to undertake. They also had to get much better at memory recall, because if an athlete cannot accurately recall what just happened, the experience is wasted.

    It turns out most athletes are poor at recall unless they practise it. This meant avoiding distractions until they had gone back through their performance in their head, taking accurate notes and linking back to what they were trying to focus on. Only after they have internalised it in this way would they invite external feedback from their coach.

    A dramatic effect

    This is an approach I’ve taken into the equestrian world, helping riders to simulate their goals and routines in their head while staying calm and confident within the imagined environment. I have seen the dramatic effect it’s had on riders’ abilities to perform with more confidence, focus, positivity, patience, control and intuition. Studies also show that it can enhance physiological functions such as muscle strength and speeding up recovery from injury.

    But do we spend enough time practising our performances in our head? It’s perfectly possible, using the following technique.

    Effective visualisation

    The practice of visualisation is built upon one core principle: by imagining a specific experience as accurately as possible, you will activate the same neuro-muscular pathways as if you were doing it. It can even evoke the same emotional responses you would get in the real situation, allowing you to practise emotional control as well as physical.

    Visualisation is best done in intense 10-minute bursts, including time to get into the right state of mind to do it properly.

    • Identify something simple you would like to improve, such as a new skill you’re learning, an existing skill you’re perfecting or a routine you have for coping better in competition.
    • Start by taking 10 deep, relaxing breaths. You must only ever visualise in a state of mind in which you’d be happy to perform. If you are tense in the body or busy in the mind, you will not be teaching your brain the right cues. Fundamentals #2 and #3 from previous weeks will give you the skills to be brilliant at this.
    • Visualisation is as much about what you feel while in the saddle as what you see. Therefore, practise using all your senses – notice what’s around you, feel the contact of the seat and reins, hear the wind as you move.
    • Identify and exaggerate the key kinesthetic cues – such as rhythm, power, collectedness, accuracy – and stay focused on them.
    • Whatever you visualise, keep it accurate and positive – it’s better to imagine a few simple skills done perfectly with a break in between, than a whole performance done averagely.
    • Keep it steady – rushing round a course of jumps to remember where you are going is not visualising; you are training your brain to rush, which can be the source of errors. Instead, practise slowing everything down, staying calm and methodical. And time yourself to see how accurate you are against doing a real course, test or race.

    If you struggle to visualise, don’t worry. Try these helpful tools…

    • Do it little and often. The more you practise, the better you will become.
    • Keep it simple – it takes a while to train the ability to do a brilliant test from beginning to end. Break it down into small chunks and put them together over time.
    • If you imagine mistakes or inaccuracies, try reverse-visualisation. This is when you practise doing it on the horse first and when you get it right, repeat the experience in your head a number of times. We are simply encouraging the repetition of “good” in your mind.

    All the practical skills in this series are covered extensively in Charlie’s online course for riders, “Win the Mind Game” here. Register by 3 May for the next course, quoting “inspire15” on checkout to receive a 15% discount to use during the lockdown.

    About Charlie: 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; 30 April 2020