Building Mental Muscle

Karen L. Waite, Ph. D.

One of the least useful phrases in the English language is “just relax”. I can’t think of one time in my life when someone said it when my response was “By golly, you’re right! Why didn’t I think of that?? I’ll just relax and knock this Horsemanship pattern/Reining run/whatever else out of the park.” And yet, we hear it all the time. Sadly though, in our modern world, full of constant information and boredom avoidance tools, “relaxing” is often a foreign concept.

The thing that’s interesting about sports psychology and mental skills training is that while the most successful competitors know they need to control their mind, few recognize that the “mental muscle” needs to be trained and developed just like anything else. And long before we get to the horse show. Would you jump onto a green broke 2 year-old and head for the NRHA Futurity? Hopefully your answer is a resounding NO. Yet why do we so often think that we can perform at our best without doing the work to prepare the actual driver of the bus, the mind?

Many elite athletes say that once you have the motor skills, everything else about sport is mental. Relaxation, visualization, setting good goals, improving self talk, developing useful competition routines, avoiding self handicapping, even getting the most out of practice takes…practice. And every one of those tools is a skill that can be developed with time. But no one ever relaxed by being told to relax.

Of course, it’s obviously not enough to develop JUST mental skills…you DO have to quite literally get on the horse, to work through the physical. You can’t just think about learning to swim, you have to get in the water. For others though, they need to think through and then work through how they’ll handle this, that or the other before it happens, so they feel confident they can deal with whatever comes along. And yes, they ultimately need to practice handling what comes along…both mentally and physically, ideally with a coach or trainer or someone else who can who can watch, make suggestions, appreciate how their client is wired, and guide them through.

Next time, we’ll talk about ways to develop the ability to relax, and why it’s an important skill to call on for both you and your horse.

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