Top eventer turned sports psychologist Abigail Lufkin shares some tips for upping your mental game out of the saddle.
Top: What can you do on days when this is the closest you’ll get to riding? Photo via Lynsey Ekema.
Abigail Lufkin is a former CCI4* eventer who is now a sports psychology consultant and clinical social worker based in the Los Angeles area. You may remember seeing Abigail ride around Rolex on horses such as Lighter Than Air, Cameo or Jacob Two Two. She was a member of the 1999 Pan Am Team and was shortlisted for the 1992, 2000 and 2004 Olympics. We’re pleased to bring you a series of articles from Abigail about adapting your mental game to promote success in eventing. Have a question or topic for Abigail? Please submit it to [email protected] with subject “Ask Abigail” and be sure to check out her site at www.abigaillufkin.com. -Jenni Autry
The main thing I remember about training in England in the winter months was that it got light at 8:30 a.m. and dark at 3:30 p.m. Well that and the fact that I had never felt as cold in my whole life, nor had I ever had such a strong desire to stay in front of the fireplace, watch “Eastenders” and eat packets of chocolate digestive biscuits.
I wish I had known then about mental practice. As I have said before, our minds cannot distinguish between something that our body “really” does and something that we vividly imagine. An extraordinary study demonstrating the power of imagery used four groups of people and looked at their ability to make basketball free throw shots. Each group was assessed for their base line number of shots. Then, for the period of the study, the groups were divided as follows:
- Group 1 neither physically nor mentally practiced shooting a ball.
- Group 2 physically practiced free throws for 1.5 hours a day.
- Group 3 imagined shooting free throws for .5 hours a day (no physical contact with a basketball).
- Group 4 first physically and then mentally practiced shooting free throws for 15 minutes a day.
Not surprisingly, the study found that the folks who practiced both physically and mentally improved the most. However unexpectedly, the group who only used imagery improved the second most, improving more than the people who actually practiced with a basketball. If we apply this to riding, it would mean that our ability to see a stride while galloping across country has the potential to improve MORE in our heated living room in New York than it would if we were galloping around the sands of Florida.
Keys to Mental Practice — AKA “a more productive activity for your couch”:
- Do be very specific about the skill on which you are focusing.
- Do find video footage of yourself or someone you admire doing the skill.
- Do watch this short segment multiple times.
- Do use music to enhance the process.
- Do begin with a short time. I recommend six minutes. You can do anything for six minutes.
- Do spend the first two minutes relaxing. Focus on your breath, particularly on a long, slow exhale. Or repeat the mantra “my body feels relaxed and calm.”
- Do experiment with your imagery style. Some people are very visual and will see the picture clearly. Others are more auditory and may set the skill to music. Still others are very tactile and focus on the feel of their seat in the saddle or the feel of the reins in their hands.
- Do pick a time of day that you will do it. This greatly increases the success rate (think of brushing your teeth).
- Don’t take the voices seriously that say, “I am not good at this,” or “This doesn’t work for me.”
- Do commit to the six minutes.
As the famous saying goes, “It works if you work it.” And when else in your life can your “work” be done from the couch in your heated living room?