Concentration upon a single idea has been the hallmark of success for countless people and organizations.
Napoleon Hill, Keys to Success: The 17 Principles of Personal Achievement (Plume 1994, p. 137)
Trainers work hard to instill discipline in their students. You work endlessly on technique, perfecting timing, giving proper cues, and so on. What happens when that student who has improved so much goes into the ring at a competition and bombs?
Many riders are challenged with the seeming lack of ability to concentrate during competition. You may hear them talking about having difficulty staying focused during a competition. Common distractions are:
- Other horses around them
- Golf carts going by
- The person on the loud speaker making announcements
- Worry about who is watching (e.g., a spouse, a trainer, an ex-trainer)
- The presence of someone who might be interested in buying their horse
The list goes on, and basically their brains are occupied with everything BUT what they are supposed to be doing. All of this “busy-ness” occurs on the conscious level, and it’s all so loud to them that they find it almost impossible to block out all of the unimportant information that surrounds them.
So what exactly is concentration? Concentration is the effortless ability to stay focused and in the present on the tasks that you are performing, or need master, in order to achieve your peak performance. We all have this ability, but most of us have difficulty concentrating consistently and when we know we need to.
Concentration seems to come easily for some, and for others it appears to be hopeless. Fortunately, if you have a student who struggles with concentration, there is hope. They can improve it dramatically with some practice.
Let’s first explore some common concentration busters. The majority of people can lose their concentration pretty easily. It doesn’t take much, so go easy on your students until you are able to identify the core issue, and then assist them in improving. Here are some common causes for your students’ loss of focus while riding:
- Anxiety – your student may be concerned about the quality of their competition, or their horse’s readiness.
- Lack of Confidence – when your student is struggling with confidence, much of their mental energy is wasted on second-guessing their abilities and even their talents.
- Distraction – we covered a few common distractions, but it can be as simple as outside noises from the crowd, or even unrelated concerns about their personal life.
- Boredom – even your best students can fall into this trap. When you have mastered an activity the mind can wander, so their minds may start wandering while they are riding.
Start by looking for signs that your student lacks concentration. When you aren’t able to concentrate, your body tends to get stiff. Your student will be holding the reins in a non-flexible way because they are so tense, and fixed hands make it difficult to gauge the horse’s stride. Their stomach and legs will tighten. Once they are in this position, their horse will usually react by getting nervous.
Once you identify that the student is struggling with concentration, talk to them about what is going on mentally. They may talk about trying to eliminate the distractions so they can perform better. Eliminating all potential distractions is impossible, so they much learn to change their relationship to them. In other words, they must choose to experience them as neutral rather than disruptive. Once they learn to simply acknowledge that they exist, and forget about them, their brain will be able to focus better. It will no longer be drawn to sounds, sights, and feelings that they ordinarily experience as distracting.
Here are some conscious level techniques I use with my clients to help them gain concentration. The core idea behind these techniques is attention, or rather, attending to something. This can be practiced throughout the day, whether riding or not, and the more your student practices the more automatic this will become.
Handling the noise inside your head
Have your student attend to their thoughts during the day, and pay attention to when they find their thoughts wandering. When they notice, have them choose a short mantra to pull them back to the task at hand. Words like: “concentrate,” “be present,” or “be here now.” Students who have experience with meditation may already have a mantra that works for them.
Do this yourself, and you will find that the more attention you pay to your thoughts, the more you will realize they wander around a lot during the day! Just remember, and remind your student as well, that each time your thoughts wander you can simply retrieve them back to the present and the task at hand.
Handling the noise outside your head
This exercise is about learning to allow the noises or movements that occur around you without looking and reacting to them. This in not to say that your student should completely block out what is going on around them – it is about not being distracted by their surroundings; to be able to attend to anything to anything you need to concentrate on in spite of your surroundings.
Reward is a part of this equation for you and your students. When you have concentrated on something to completion without having used your mantra dozens of time, praise yourself. When you’ve completed a task without attending to potential distractions, reward yourself as well.
Another simple, yet powerful, exercise for concentration you can teach your students is something I call the Advanced Concentration Exercise. The key to this is finding a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Sit comfortably, close your eyes and focus your attention on the space between your eyes. When you notice your attention moving away, notice where it went and bring it back. Next, repeat the exercise with music with lyrics playing in the background. Notice whether it is harder, and note where your mind goes.
Once your student is able to hold their attention on the space between their eyes for a full minute, they should have no problem concentration on their event regardless of outside distractions.
Focus is not just a matter of inserting “concentration” into your subconscious. It takes attention and practice. These exercises will heighten your students’ awareness of what they are doing to subvert their focus, and doing exercises to hone it. A bonus of increasing concentration is that these exercises improve memory as well.
As with all of the work I do with clients, no single “fix” results in peak performance. It is the combination of techniques tailored to the clients’ needs that create powerful change. Start layering the techniques I am sharing with you in these articles. And always remember that the CANCEL technique used for negative self talk also works great for focusing the mind. So if your student finds using a mantra difficult or strange, simply have them cancel the outside distraction and think of the purple elephant to neutralize the distraction. Their mind will easily pull back to the task at hand.