Here’s a challenge: Take a moment to list your strengths.
Put another way, what attributes help you to achieve your riding goals? What skills or qualities make you competitive?
You may have been able to identify some character strengths that describe you as a person, e.g., 100% dedicated, excellent organiser; or riding specific strengths, e.g., secure lower leg; ability to maintain an excellent cross-country rhythm; precision in test riding.
Either way, if you found this challenge tricky, you won’t be alone. Many of us struggle to list our strengths (imagine if you had been asked to list your weaknesses; would your list be longer?). I cannot exclude myself from this generalisation. I was asked to engage with this exact task in a professional capacity at a workshop recently. I pondered, uuumed, aahed, and ultimately struggled to identify my strengths; felt bashful about voicing them out loud; and wondered if the attributes I had listed truly were strengths (or was I simply deluded?).
It is worth taking a look at how reflecting on past performances can help us to identify our strengths. My January blog talked of preparing for the event season ahead. Now that the season is in full-swing, most riders’ first event(s) will be done and dusted. Hopefully, this ‘dusting’ refers to the cleaning of your trophy cabinet, as opposed to brushing off dirt from grass-stained breeches. Either way, taking some time to reflect on your performance is time well spent, but only if done in a balanced way!
Consider what you tend to focus on after an event. Some riders will find themselves naturally drawn to the negatives. That one-pole-down-that-cost-you-a-placing might become all-consuming. Perhaps “should have” (kicked on for the time) /”if only” (I had warmed up for ten minutes longer) thoughts lead to dwelling; and not in a helpful way. Or, maybe perfectionist tendencies – when nothing is quite good enough – mean that you find fault in a performance that many others would be chuffed with.
It is easy to focus on mistakes. The adage “Mistakes are there to be learned from” is bandied around a lot; and undoubtedly, this is true. Learning does of course require an action plan, rather than simply dwelling. But, there is also something to be said for balancing your review on mistakes/improvement points with an equal focus on strengths and successes. For instance, think back to your most recent event. Can you identify:
(a) What went well (however big or small), e.g., jumped a clear showjumping round; got an 8 for my riding in the dressage; nailed the right-lead canter transition; got to fence 1 on the xc without napping; and:
(b) Why it went well; that is, what you personally did you to accomplish (a), e.g., maintained a great canter rhythm by counting my strides; focused on breathing to relax my shoulders; used a new start box routine and verbal encouragement to get to xc fence 1.
By identifying (a) and (b) above, the ‘whys’ (or your strengths) of a performance can be reproduced at future events. In essence, you are recognising ‘what works’ (e.g., counting strides, focusing on breathing), so that it can be repeated. In other words, by reviewing performance in a way that identifies your strengths, you are far more likely to play to your strengths at your next event.
Why would we want to focus on what is already working? Well, first of all, our areas of greatest potential reflect our greatest strengths. For instance, could you use your strengths to enhance your performance on competition day (e.g., planning a warm-up that helps you feel confident/incorporates exercises that you and your horse excel at; or committing to lines xc that suit you and your horse). In a broader sense, could you identify and market your strengths to gain a new ride, or stand out to a potential sponsor? Further, on a day-to-day level, consider how recognising strengths might help confidence and motivation. If you had a trainer who consistently pointed out only your weaknesses, ignoring any of your good work, it is understandable that you might feel demotivated and self-doubting. So why would we employ this focus ourselves? People who can identify their strengths are typically happier; have higher self-esteem and confidence; they experience more energy, vitality, and motivation, but less stress; and they perform better, yet are more resilient to weaker performances.
So, there are a whole host of reasons why identifying strengths is useful. Granted, it may not always be easy. There may be some events where ‘your plan’ and ‘what actually happened’ seem worlds apart: Your horse decides that white dressage boards and flower pots are death-traps, or you suffer the embarrassment of face-planting in the showjumping warm-up. We’ve all been there! Yet, I would still encourage riders to challenge themselves to identify a strength(s) that they used that day; for example, ‘patience and calm’ in relaxing a spooky horse, or ‘commitment’ in getting back on, having fallen off. For riders who find recognising the ‘good stuff’ difficult full-stop, reviewing sessions with a trainer/trusted friend, and/or using video analysis to help you, can be useful tools.
I am not for one moment suggested that we all put on rose-tinted glasses and fail to recognise our short-comings (aka arrogance). Rather, that change and improvement is made more possible by working on both weaknesses and strengths. So, here’s a final question to ponder before your next event: What’s going well, ‘what works’ for you and why, and how can play to your strengths at your next eventing outing?
Jo Davies MSc MBPsS