It’s funny how you draw inspiration from the most innocuous situations. I had one of those “light bulb” moments while wearing my “daddy hat.”
Being a father of two little girls, I have become an aficionado of all things Disney and DreamWorks. One of our favorite movies is “Kung Fu Panda.” In one of the scenes Po the Panda is in serious stress mode and seeks the advice of Master Oogway…and man if that turtle doesn’t deliver!
“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why they call it The Present.” That is one smart turtle! That line sums up what makes great athletes great. They are present in the moment with uncluttered and focused minds. Easier said than done right?
In eventing the pinnacle of our sport in America is the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. At this year’s Rolex, we witnessed some truly masterful riding and athletic skills, especially from the overseas riders. There is not a more brilliant rider in our sport today than Michael Jung. For all of the athletic brilliance and technical skill he again showed the world that weekend, the most impressive moment to me was a moment when none of his physical skills were needed.
Midway through his brilliant cross-country round on FischerRocana FST, he was held on course right in front of one of the biggest fences on the course. If ever there was a fence you would want your blood up and zero distractions for, this was it.
Michael, however, did not have this luxury. As the steward waved him down, he calmly gave a thumbs-up and hacked the mare around without giving the slightest hint that all of his momentum had been broken. His concentration never faltered, and the look on his face was downright serene.
When he was re-started, he jumped that massive fence right out of stride as if nothing had ever happened. This, to me, was the epitome of athletic brilliance. Despite the endless possibility for distraction, he stayed completely immersed in the moment, not allowing outside distractions to take him away from the task at hand. More importantly, he was able to convey that sense of ease and focus to his horse.
Sports psychology plays a vital role in all athletic endeavors, especially in equestrian sports. Not only do we riders walk a tight rope of absorbing a huge quantity of technical skills and tactics while implementing them all in a free flowing way, we must impart those aids to our horses who are our virtual emotional barometers.
This is easier said then done! Paralysis through analysis is pretty common in our sport. The very best competitors have learned to balance their analytical side in their daily training with their instinctual side during competitive performance.
Fear and anxiety are killers of athletic performance and something we see frequently in equestrian sports. Fear of making a mistake, fear of what others will think, fear of injury, and the list goes on. Every rider, from the adult amateur beginner novice rider to the Olympic gold medalist, has dealt with those anxieties at some point in their riding careers.
Personally, my worst moment came 10 years ago at the Virginia Horse Trials fall competition. That fall season I was returning to competing after almost a year off recovering from a rotational fall on a young horse that left me with a displaced pelvic fracture and several severe internal injuries. This was following my recovery from a broken neck I had suffered on course with one of my advanced horses a year and half previous.
That entire fall campaign was a great example of how important the mind is in sports. While my body was healed from the injuries, my mind was not.
I had all the typical anxieties: “I’m not any good anymore,” “What do people think of me,” “What if I fail,”, and the biggest one: “What if I get hurt again?”
As I entered the start box on my preliminary horse, these emotions became so strong that it paralyzed me. I believe I made it over the third fence before I pulled up, shamefully walked back to the barn, packed up and left for home without so much as a word to anyone.
When I got home, I immersed myself in all things related to sports psychology. After all these years later, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from that day is that your anxiety is NOT your reality.
Anxiety is a self-created fear in the mind, created from mental models of our past and moments in our future that we have the ability to either positively or negatively influence. While the mind has the ability to clutter and distort reality, it also provides us the tools to center ourselves and stay productively in the moment. That is achieved through focus and mental training.
The more you train yourself to focus on the positivity of the moment, the more the anxieties fade away. The more you focus on the anxiety, the more the focus of that anxiety becomes your reality. By choosing to focus on the positivity of the moment you are literally creating a more positive reality for yourself and your horse, reducing stress and increasing the positivity of the outcome.
So maybe it's not as complicated as it seems: when you choose to stay present with a greater, positive focus, you are choosing a more positive outcome…and who doesn’t want that?!
What Michael Jung displayed this year at Rolex was the epitome of staying present and focusing on a positive outcome, then achieving that outcome. Who knew one of the top riders in our sport and an animated turtle had so much in common!
Eventer Sean McQuillan started riding in Maryland at age 12 and by the time he was 20 he was eventing at the advanced level. He worked as an assistant trainer for the O'Connor Eventing Team (Va.), but also has a wide breadth of experience. He has hunted professionally with the Orange County Hounds (Va.), trained steeplechase horses and competed in the jumpers. His wife, Kendra, is an experience eventer, groom, barn manager and saddle fitter. Together, they run McQuillan Equestrian & Kilfinnan Stables.