Monday, October 1, 2012

Unleash Your Courage and Conquer Fear

There inevitably comes a time in every rider's life where he or she has to deal with fear.  Whether it is pre-performance jitters at shows or full-blown terror after a bad fall, fear can prevent us from doing our best and steal the fun right out of riding.  Us mere riding "mortals" are not alone, though. I have learned from some of the top riders in the nation and the world, and you may be surprised to know that even some of the best riders admit that they have experienced fear.  So, what separates the seemingly fearless, brave riders from those who struggle with confidence issues?  As I'll discuss in more detail below, the answer is action.

What courage isn't.

Despite what you may think, courage is not the absence of fear.  To think that courageous people never feel fear is a fallacy we have created to justify our own fears and insecurities.  We tell ourselves that brave people are just wired differently or are so skilled at something that they never even think to be fearful.  This way of thinking only serves to keep us terrified and prevents us from growing and progressing.  As I discussed in my last blog - "Attitude is Everything" - a negative inner dialogue can have an enormous impact on our confidence and consequently our performance.  Telling yourself you are incapable of being brave is a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

What courage is.

So, if courage isn't the absence of fear, what the heck is it?  I define courage as measured action in the face of fear.  When faced with fear, a brave or courageous person plans and takes action, while the "scared" person simply remains paralyzed by their fear.  Notice that I didn't define courage as just taking any action in the face of fear.  You can do a lot of reckless things in the name of acting "brave" that just ultimately serve to increase your fear, not assuage it.  Bravery isn't insanity.  Bravery also isn't over-confidence.  It is measured action in the face of fear. 

By following these three steps, you can be well on your way to discovering your hidden courage and conquering your fear. 

Step # 1 - Honestly Assess Yourself and the Situation. 

While riders at every level experience fear, you cannot alter reality simply by thinking positively and acting bravely.  You must assess your current ability (not your past or future ability), your horse's temperament, and your horse's current level of training honestly in order to hatch a plan to kick your nerves and move forward positively.  (Note, if you don't have a horse of your own, then you should evaluate the suitability of the lesson horses at your disposal.)  As you delve into this assessment, take note of the things you can change and the things that are truly outside of your control.  Accept the things that are out of your control, but accept responsibility for the things you can change.

You need to ask yourself some tough questions when you are doing this assessment.  Why? Because some fear is justified and a sign that a big change is necessary.  Other times, it is just a blip on the radar of our riding careers that makes us sit back, take stock, recommit, and push forward.  To determine the difference, you need to ask yourself three questions: 
  • "If I could overcome my fear, would I still want to do this?"  You first must decide if you truly want to pursue the thing that brings you such anxiety.  For some people, the fear might be just riding in general.  For others, it might be showing, jumping, trail riding, or cantering.  You have to decide if it is worth it to you to put forth the effort to overcome your fear.  There is no wrong answer.  It is just as admirable to decide a change of course is necessary as it is to commit to overcome your fear.  It may be that  you really don't want to jump and just want to focus on dressage.  Or, maybe you really do want to jump and just need to hatch a plan to improve your skill and confidence.  Only you can make this decision. 
  • "Is my horse [or are the horses available to me] suitable for me and my goals?"  This is one of the toughest questions to answer.  Not every horse is suitable for every person, and not every horse is suitable for every job.  If you are a casual rider who just wants to ride a few days a week, do some trail rides, and pop over some cross-rails occasionally, then a hot, spooky horse that requires an intense program is a bad match for you.  If you want to compete seriously over fences, then a horse that hates jumping or isn't sound enough to stay in intense work isn't for you.  If you tend to be a timid rider, a strong or hot horse or a horse with behavioral vices isn't for you.  There is no shame in admitting that your horse isn't a good match for you.  While this might be a tough decision to make, as we are all attached to our animals, look at it this way: If you aren't the right match for your horse, then you and your horse will both be better off with new partners.  If you don't have your own horse, but rely on school horses for lessons, then you need to evaluate if the lesson horses at your disposal are appropriate.  They should be well-trained and patient, with no behavioral vices.  If the horses are sour, lame, hot, or otherwise unsuitable for their jobs, it is time to find a new riding school with more appropriate horses for you. 
  • "Do I have the appropriate support system in place?"  As I often tell my students, even the Olympic team has a coach!  Some people feel that, once they have reached a certain level, they no long require regular instruction.  While I think everyone can benefit from regular lessons from a good instructor, I realize that isn't realistic for everyone.  If you have reached a place where you are dealing with fear, though, it is time to make sure you have the right coach on your side who can help you overcome your nerves.  Just as every horse isn't suitable for every rider, neither is every trainer a good match for every rider.  You should ask yourself if your trainer's style and ability is contributing to your fear, or if your trainer is a good person to help you overcome your nerves.  Hopefully, your trainer is not a contributing factor and he or she is a good person to help you face your fear.  However, if you feel that your trainer is contributing to your fears by over facing you or matching you with inappropriate horses, it is time to have an open dialogue with him or her about your fears and the best way to combat them.  If that isn't enough, it may be time to move on to someone whose style meshes better with you and who is able to help you move past your fears.  You need someone who is both patient and able to push you to slowly expand your comfort zone.  You also need someone experienced that you can trust to help you make safe and appropriate progress.   
These are difficult questions to answer.  You may not have the right answers to all of them right away.  Do yourself a favor, though, and take the time to think about them carefully and thoroughly, taking a few days if necessary.  Once you are satisfied that you have answered those questions thoroughly and honestly, move on to step #2. 

Step # 2 - Set a Goal and  Create a Plan 

The next step on your journey to conquering fear is to decide on a goal and hatch a plan to overcome your fear.  There is absolutely no shame in admitting you are fearful!  Talk to you instructor openly and honestly about your fears and concerns and decide on short- and long-term goals that will help get you back on track.

Depending on your answers to the above questions, your plan might be to spend a few weeks going back to basics and working on your seat.  If your soul-searching has revealed that your horse is really not appropriate for you, your plan might be selling your horse and looking for a more suitable match.  If you were riding a less-than-stellar schoolie, it might be riding a different school horse for a while or finding a barn with more appropriate horses for you.  If you had a bad fall and jumping gives you near-panic attacks now, it might be time to go back and work hard on strengthening your position on the flat first, then over ground poles, then over small jumps, slowly expanding your comfort zone and working back up to your prior level of jumping.  There is no "one size fits all" plan.  This is why the self-assessment is so important.  You cannot properly plan to overcome your nerves if you don't understand and accept the source of them and don't have the proper support system in place to help you. 

Step # 3 - Mind Your P's

The key to success in anything, including overcoming fear, lies in the 5 P's.  Okay, I know that seems like a lot of P's, but they are extremely important and we've already touched on one of them. 

Plan - You've made a plan, now it is time to commit to it.  A plan is not action without follow-through.  So, once you have a plan you're comfortable with, you must commit to it.  Committing to your plan means that you will put in the hard work necessary to succeed and that you and your support system will commit to evaluating your progress along the way.  As you evaluate your progress along the way, you may find that your plan needs occasional tweaking. 

Patience & Pushing Yourself - It is imperative that you balance these next two P's - being patient with yourself and pushing yourself to expand your comfort zone.  Both are absolutely necessary, but if you tip the scales in one direction or the other, you will set yourself up to fail. 

First and foremost, you must be patient with yourself and not get frustrated with the amount of time it takes to overcome your fears.  It is normal to be excited and enthusiastic after setting a goal and making a plan to achieve that goal.  I want you to be excited and enthusiastic, but I also want you to temper that with a little bit of patience.  You need to give yourself the time it takes to get over your fears and develop your confidence.  You will have good days and bad days at first.  Don't let the bad days get you down - they are all part of the process of growing and improving.  Be patient with yourself and it will pay off. 

At the same time, you must also push yourself.  Don't use patience with yourself as an excuse to stay only within your comfort zone.  Eventually, you need to push yourself to expand your comfort zone.  You cannot grow and achieve without pushing yourself.  This is an area where it pays huge dividends to have the right support system in place.  You need an experienced trainer who is capable of assessing your abilities and understanding your fears.  He or she must also know how and when to push you forward on your journey.  While I advise going slowly to overcome fear so you don't wind up increasing fear, you do have to push yourself.

So, don't be so patient that you stall your progress and never expand your comfort zone.  At the same time, don't push yourself too hard too fast so that you run the risk of increasing your fear. 

Positive Thinking & Visualization - As I discussed in my last blog - "Attitude is Everything" - you cannot accomplish your goals without thinking positively and having a good attitude.  Apply the tips from that blog to your commitment to your fear-annihilation plan.  Change your internal dialogue from self-defeating thoughts like, "I'm so terrified I'll mess up today!" to self-motivating thoughts that focus on the things you already do well and confidently like, "I'm so excited to trot today!"  If you're really grasping at straws, then even think, "I'm really excited to spend time at the barn and get to groom my favorite horse."  Whatever you do, don't show up for your ride or your lesson focusing on the things that scare you.  That will just make you tense and nervous even when you are operating entirely within your comfort zone.  Fear is powerful.  At first, you will have to actively and consciously make yourself change your thoughts from ones of fear and nervousness to positive, confident ones.  If you commit to doing so, however, it will slowly become second nature. 

I also want you to take positive thinking one step further and start to use the power of positive visualization.  Oh great, you're probably thinking, a bunch of self-help crap! Wrong.  It's a bunch of self-help crap that really works.  Top athletes and sports psychologists have long known the power of positive visualization and have used it to calm nerves and improve performance for decades with incredible results.  Still not sold on it?  Think about it this way:  Every time you feel fear, you are playing a negative visualization in your head.  You are seeing everything that either went wrong in the past or could go wrong in the future.  If that didn't have power - negative power - you wouldn't be so fearful.  You can flip the script on yourself and start replacing your negative visualizations with positive ones. 

Every day, spend just 5 or 10 minutes alone, eyes closed, quietly visualizing yourself riding confidently.  You can even do this lying in bed at night before you go to sleep.  Visualize every step and feel calm and confident while you are visualizing.  Start with things you do confidently at first to get a feel for it, but you really need to work up to visualizing yourself doing whatever it is that scares you (cantering, jumping, showing) confidently and calmly.  Feel how the horse moves, feel your strong position, feel calm, and feel confident.  Feel like you are having fun - that is, of course, the goal - to enjoy riding!  Banish negative thoughts and feelings from your mind and just feel yourself riding confidently and calmly.  Visualize everything being done perfectly - your perfect horse, your perfect position, your happy, calm, confident attitude.  Repeat this process before you ride to replace the negative thoughts and fear in your head with calm, confident thoughts.  If you spend time doing this every day and repeat it every time a negative, fearful thought creeps into your mind, it will pay off tremendously. 

Perseverance - Finally, commit to persevere.  As I said before, you will have good days and bad days on your journey.  If you commit and persevere, you will start to have more good days than bad days, until every day is a good one. 

So, if you're experiencing fear or attempting to overcome any obstacle in life, take action!  Honestly assess yourself and the situation, set a goal, and hatch a plan.  After that, commit to the 5 P's: following your plan, being patient with yourself, pushing yourself to expand your comfort zone, positive thinking and visualization, and perseverance.  With a little belief in yourself and a commitment to put in the hard work, you can do anything you set your mind to! 

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