Music and lyrics in eventing: What’s on your playlist?

I can’t believe that over a month has passed since Badminton Horse Trials! I always love the spring trip to Gloucestershire for one of the pinnacles of the eventing year. This year’s event did not disappoint, by way of both a British win and the bags of shopping I returned home with!

One of my favourite things to do on cross-country day is to spend some time by the warm-up area. It’s relatively quiet there, and you can get a great up-close insight into how the riders work in and get prepped before setting out on course. From a psychological perspective, I was interested to see several riders wearing ear phones on their way down to the cross-country warm-up, and as they headed to the start box. I would love to know what they were listening to!

As you are probably aware from experience, music can evoke different emotions and physiological activation in us, depending on the tune, tempo, and lyrics on play. Music can ‘pump you up’ or calm you down – mentally and physically. Thus, it is no wonder that some athletes use music to help maximise their performance at training and competitions. According to The Telegraph, the artists that were inspiring athletes at the 2012 Olympic Games ranged from Chemical Brothers (Chris Hoy), to Ed Sheeran (Andy Murray), and 2Pac (Mo Farrah). Here are some thoughts around how music could help you as a rider, and what to consider when selecting a soundtrack…

Genre / Pitch

Do you tend to listen to heavy metal or rock, ballads or chill-out music, and what changes this preference? Listening to upbeat, high-pitched, dramatic music tends to be stimulating and activating, and actually increases the levels of cortisol, growth hormone, and norepinephrine in our blood, i.e., heightened nervous system activity. This response to music may be in-built and related to our survival (take yourself back to cave man times). High-pitched, upbeat music mimics sounds in nature that relate to danger/alarm calls. On the flip side, soft, low-pitched music mimics maternal sounds of purring and cooing; and it is this music that tends to have a calming effect.

Rider consideration 1:  Think about how physically energised/activated you want to be when you ride (note: A good way to do this is to compare best and worst performances). This may differ according to each discipline (dressage, showjumping, cross-country) and the horse you are riding (backward or ‘hot’!). Consider whether upbeat, high-pitched (for high activation) or soft, low-pitched music (for low activation), or somewhere in between, is most appropriate.

Tempo

Our heart beat and movements tend to synchronise to the pace of a soundtrack.  An athlete who listens to a fast tempo track is (1) more likely to increase their movements to a faster pace, yet (2) may actually perceive that they are working less hard (useful info for event riders doing cardio to keep fit?!). Likewise, if slower, graceful movements are the order of the day (do any event riders do pilates or yoga to build core strength?), then slower tempo music could assist.

Rider consideration 2: If our physical movements align with music, how about schooling to a music beat that matches our desired rhythm on the horse (why dressage riders spend so long picking their music for the kur!).

Rider consideration 3: We know that horses are sensitive to our heart beat and mood, which can both be influenced by music. Think about times when you tend to have a fast heart rate, perhaps when you are agitated or nervous (e.g., running late on the way to an important competition). Could you pick out some softer, slower music to lower your heart rate and influence how you are feeling?

Lyrics

Meaningful song lyrics can be powerful in influencing our emotions. For instance, ‘Lose yourself’ by Eminem – which contains ‘against the odds’ lyrics – is said to be the song most frequently played by premiership footballers during the 2002-3 season. Dame Kelly Holmes revealed that part of her routine at the 2004 Olympic Games involved listening to Alicia Keys ‘If I ain’t got you’; applying the words of the song to the gold medal that she wanted (and won).

Rider consideration 4: Are there any lyrics that inspire, motivate, energise or calm you? Consider what emotions (e.g., enthusiasm, drive, calm, happy, fight) you experience when you ride at your best, and what soundtrack stimulates those feelings.

Emotions, distractions, and associations

What soundtrack do you really enjoy listening to? Does it provoke a certain memory or mood? Music can actually be a good distraction from competition. For example, an ‘over-thinker’ who simply wants to avoid overanalysing an afternoon event, might listen to their favourite tunes in the morning as a type of positive distraction. Equally, music can help to focus in on the task ahead. One of the riders I work with always walks the cross-country course whilst listening to a self-selected soundtrack, to avoid distractions. She then pops her headphones in between the showjumping and cross-country phases and uses this same soundtrack to help get her in-the-zone as she mentally runs through how she wants to ride the cross-country course. In this way, the soundtrack is associated with focus and peak performance.

Rider consideration 5: Could you use music as a helpful distraction (e.g., down-time at an event), or as a tool to help you focus in on the task ahead (e.g., to get some alone-time, or use with visualisation).

Given the potential benefits of music, its well worth considering compiling a personal playlist, and thinking about when and how you will use it. What’s key is to first identify the level of activation, emotions, and mindset that create your ideal performance (you can draw on previous experiences to help you); and then to select the genre, pitch, tempo, lyrics, and/or favourite tunes, that will help to (re-)create that ideal performance state. This may take some thought and experimentation!

I’d love any feedback from riders as to what’s on their playlist! Tweet me @jdpsychology

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