One of the biggest myths of sport psychology is that it encourages athletes to think, think, think. Ironically, a lot of thinking is actually not so great for your performance. While it’s the left brain that assists us in analysis, it’s the right side that puts everything together. Have you ever noticed how your very best performances had that “flow” quality? That’s because you let go and allowed things to happen. The right brain helps you to trust in your training, allowing your instincts and muscle memory to do what you know how to do. By “thinking too much” things tend to fall apart. This breakdown is referred to as paralysis by analysis.
Paralysis by analysis frequently happens when we are nervous; an unfortunate part of the flight-or-fight syndrome. Your body pumps more blood to your major muscles, acid floods your stomach, and your left-brain starts chattering away at you, saying, “I’ve analyzed this and it doesn’t look good for you” or “What if you arrive at the next fence too short or too long?” Pretty soon that chatter turns into reality and you choke.
There are a number of strategies you can implement to combat paralysis by analysis. They all involve the activation of your right hemisphere, aka “performing in your right mind”:
Direct your focus to physical sensations:
Put your focus on the feel of your body, or better yet, the feel of the connection with your horse. The more you concentrate on what your senses have to tell you, the less you will notice all that chatter in your head.
Generate a mental image:
If you need to “attack,” try conjuring up a picture of a charging rhino. If you need to be brave, try picturing a well-armored knight riding into battle.
Play a mental sound-bite:
What soundtrack would best fit the ride or kind of mood you would like to encourage in yourself? No one will ever know what tunes you are playing in your head, but they’ll see the confidence in your ride.
Develop a cue phrase:
This is not to be confused with a lot of left brain talk. It’s just a simple phrase that tells your body what to do, such as “wait” or “soft.” If you are unsure what to use, chat with your coach about what he/she wants to see you do most when approaching a fence, and come up with a cue together.