The Psychology of Performance, Part 1. Deliberate Practice.

The Psychology of Performance, Part 1. Deliberate Practice.

“I don’t want riders who work physically hard. Work by thinking.” – Nuno Oliveira

If you want to excel at anything, you have to learn how to manage your thoughts and feelings, both the good and the bad. Excellence is not normal or natural, and cultivating excellence in anything requires hard work and sacrifice. This hard work and sacrifice require a degree of physical talent, but predominantly rely on self-discipline and mental strength. If you want to excel in riding, natural talent will help you out, but it won’t get you all the way there. To really succeed, you are going to need to get into the right headspace and have the right attitude toward training and competition.

In this series, we look at the neuroscience and psychology underlying high performance and discuss ways in which you can use knowledge of these elements to your advantage. In this first article, we look at the role of practice and how deliberate practice is critical for improvement.

The importance of training and psychology

It is worth considering that, in the last hundred years, the human race has cut one hour off the marathon world record time. In fact, this year, Eliud Kipchoge broke the two-hour marathon world record under controlled conditions. Humans have not evolved significantly in the last century, but we have improved our techniques, equipment, training and nutrition. The body is the same, but these advances in the understanding of human physiology and psychology are having big effects. Learning about these elements in order to optimise them is, therefore, vital for any serious athlete in any sport. Dismissing psychology or training philosophy as a ‘waste of time’ would be naïve and, as recent data suggests, performance-limiting.

Deliberate practice

There is a science that tells us how we need to be practising and training. Unfortunately, most of us are not aware of it. As athletes, a lot of our focus tends to fall on how we compete, which is obviously important in terms of measurement and evaluation of progress and performance. However, competition is not when we are doing most of our learning and developing as riders. It is instead during our training sessions that skills are built, habits learnt, and the foundations of greatness laid. And what is the secret to successful training sessions? Deliberate practice.

Goals

Deliberate practice has very specific, well-defined goals. In essence, you have to know what you want to do, and exactly how you want to do it. It is not a case of spending more hours, but spending those hours in a better, more targeted way. Practising in this specific goal-directed way has been shown to improve performance dramatically, but it is hard work and requires a lot of thought and planning.

We now know that practising more and more hours, without spending time considering what you are doing, is a waste of time. You need to know where you are going and what you want to achieve. You then need to decide the steps you need to take to get there, and then you need to specifically practise those steps. Naïve practice is useless – simply repeating something endlessly is not going to work. As Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.” If the shoulder-in isn’t right the second time, doing it 55 times in the same way is not going to make it better. You need to change your approach.

Analysis and adaptation

Goals are not the only essential element of deliberate practice. Other vital facets are the post-performance analysis and then adaptation. When you have completed your shoulder-in, you need to analyse what went well, what didn’t, and how you will approach it next time around to get a better outcome. It’s great if you can have an instructor or coach on the ground to tell you what to do next, but if not, you need to analyse it yourself, consider the feedback your horse is giving you, and then tailor your approach accordingly. This is the only way your outcome can change. You need to go through cycle after cycle of analysis and adaptation to get the results you desire.

Focus

Focus is also vital. We often perform unfocused, naïve practice, thinking about what we’ll be having for dinner, or when we need to get off and do the next thing on our to-do list. These sessions are a waste, and while your horse may appreciate the attention and the exercise, he isn’t going to benefit from the session in the same way as if you were focussed on what the two of you are doing. You need your attention to be in the moment, and on you and your horse.

In summary, you need to set goals, analyse feedback, fix what you need to for your next round of practice, and remain focussed throughout the entire process, from start to finish. This is the schema you need to follow if you want to grow and develop as an equestrian. This makes every session count and every repetition of a movement or skill significant.

A note: the dangers of the comfort zone

Most of us prefer to cruise in the comfort zone. We practise all the things we can already do, and ignore the exercises we should practise, leaving them for another day when we feel ‘up to it’. Remaining in the comfort zone is ‘comfortable’, but ultimately does not challenge you or help you and your horse to grow. Deliberate practice is hard, as it demands that, each and every time you master something and establish a new boundary for your comfort zone, you don’t sit there and enjoy it, but instead push the boundaries again and keep your growth going! This is very difficult and goes against human nature. In equestrian sport, the challenge is even greater, as you don’t just have your own comfort zone to consider, but also that of your equine partner.

Just as with humans, it goes against a horse’s nature to step out of his comfort zone, and this must be borne in mind by all of us. Asking a prey animal, like the horse, to leave his comfort zone and embark on something new is challenging and needs to be approached with sympathy and understanding. If your horse is struggling to grasp a new concept, getting cross is the worst thing you can do. Instead, you need to explain yourself differently, reward even the slightest improvement, and accept that ‘new’ is difficult.

It is also important to understand that horses need to spend some time in their comfort zone (which may be different to yours) in each session in order to have the confidence to perform for you outside of their comfort zone. Let your horse remain in their comfort zone for plenty of the session, with just a few brief episodes where you ask a bit more. Beware of asking too much in one go, as this can totally over-face your horse and lead to a stress response. Just like very stressed humans, stressed horses can’t learn! You need to navigate between the comfort zone, the ‘just outside the comfort zone’ and the ‘stress zone’ in order to optimally educate your horse. These are fine lines to negotiate, especially when you are also trying to grow yourself as a rider but, over time, your skill in reading your horse in these situations will allow you to handle them more instinctively.

‘Practice makes perfect’ is a lie. Only perfect practice makes perfect.

Take-home message

If you want to be in the top 1%, you have to be willing to do something that the other 99% are not doing. The pursuit of excellence is difficult and often painful, and deliberate practice is hard work. Fundamentally, we all need to remember that sport is not just about physical excellence. As Yogi Berra said about baseball, sport is “90% mental, and the other half is physical”. Focussing on mental and psychological skills may seem like a ‘softer’ or ‘easier’ option than getting out there and putting in a hard training session, but it absolutely is not. In fact, without mental strength and an understanding of performance psychology, you will struggle to ever truly achieve what you are capable of.