Embracing your processes for success

What goals do you set for competitions? What do you focus on when you compete? I was really interested to see event rider Sam Griffiths’ distinction between the two in his recent tip for dealing with nerves, published in Horse & Hound:

“I try not to think about the situation I am in, but more about the process of what I need to do. For example, in the showjumping I concentrate on the canter I need and my position, rather than thinking “I have to jump clear”. I try and stay in the moment rather than getting ahead of myself or dwelling on the past.”

Jumping clear will often be a goal set by riders ahead of a competition. This clear round may be necessary for a win, placing, or qualification. However, it may not be fruitful to focus on ‘jumping a clear round’ or on ‘qualifying’ when riding. To help illustrate this, imagine you have set the following goals at an event this weekend:

  1. “Finish in the top 6 to qualify for the championship” (an outcome goal; i.e., the outcome of the competition, compared with other competitors)
  2. “Jump a clear show jumping round” (a performance goal; i.e., a score or standard that is individual to the horse and rider)
  3. “Focus on maintaining a forward, rhythmic canter and soft arms” (process goals; i.e., what you have identified as key ingredients of a good performance – likely steps towards 2, and possibly 1).

This could well be an appropriate trio of goals for a given horse and rider, set ahead of a competition. However, now imagine that these goals have become instructions to focus on within your actual jumping round:

  1. “Focus on the qualification you need to attain”
  2. “Focus on jumping a clear round
  3. “Focus on maintaining a forward, rhythmic canter and soft arms”

Which instruction for you, would bring the most and least pressure when jumping? Typically, most people would prefer to focus on the ‘processes’ – i.e., the rhythmic canter and the soft arms – rather than the ‘outcome’ – i.e., the qualification. This is because #3 describes tangible processes – or methods/ingredients – that help to achieve good riding and crucially, are controllable. Processes such as a rhythmic canter and soft arms are skills and elements of riding that are practised from session to session; they can be improved; they are within your personal control, and they direct focus to the here-and-now of riding.

In contrast, directing attention to achieving a clear round or qualification takes focus away from what we can control and what needs to be done in the present moment. Have you ever started to think about the implications of qualifications or placings before you enter the ring and suddenly felt nervous? Quite simply, we cannot control other competitors’ performances – so qualifying or placing is largely uncontrollable (compared, for example, to keeping a rhythmic canter). Or, has your focus ever been diverted during a jumping round because you are rueing a pole that has just come down, or because you think you are ‘home and dry’ before clearing the final fence? Perhaps you then lost your rhythm or tensed your arms, to the detriment of your round…

So, where does this leave us? Here are some thoughts:

  1. Set a mix of goals – including your processes

I am certainly not suggesting that outcome and performance goals should be avoided. Outcome and/or performance goals can be motivational for riders and can help set ideal parameters. The target of jumping a clear round or scoring sub-30 dressage should also inspire helpful preparation. However, I do advocate supplementing these with process goals. These process goals (a) instil confidence, since they set out how you are best placed to achieve the outcome you want and they are within your personal control; (b) provide more refined measures of success and improvement. For instance, could you target a personal best in some specific processes (e.g., by using self-rating criteria or discussing a performance video with your trainer). In turn, a rider who develops consistency in their processes will develop better consistency in their performance (and hopefully outcomes) over time.

  1. Focus on your processes when riding

When the pressure may be on (you need a clear round to qualify for example), come back to your processes; your rhythm, your line, your position – whatever you have identified as your personal ingredients for success. These are your ‘controllables’; the tangible elements of performance that – whatever the situation around you – can be trusted because they are practised, refined, and within your personal control. Focusing on these processes will help attention remain in the present moment of your round.

So, over to you! What are your processes? What do you find helpful to focus on when competing? Interested to know your thoughts: tweet me @jdpsychology

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