Imagine that you are about to set out cross-country at your next event…
As you make your way towards the start box, you can smell the grass – damp from morning dew – becoming dry under the sun. The ground has a perfect cut for galloping. You hear the starter call you over, and feel a shot of adrenalin run through you; a flicker of excitement. As you circle the start box, your horse shakes his head, snorts loudly, and humps his back. You scratch his neck to settle him, and quietly talk to him: “I think you’re ready to get going too!”. “Thirty seconds”, the starter tells you. You can taste the anticipation, the buzz of what’s to come, and the eagerness of your horse; and take a few deep breaths to calm yourself and focus on how you’ll ride fence one. And, before you know it: “5..4..3..2..1..Go!”. You jump out of the start; and immediately create a positive, forward rhythm. “Let’s do this!”
How well were you able to bring these words to life? You might have been able to smell the grass, hear the starter’s words, or feel the adrenalin and your horse’s powerful canter; despite this information not actually being present in real life. By experiencing these senses within your mind you are essentially using imagery.
Imagery allows mental practice of a task before physically undertaking that task; in other words, a mental dress rehearsal. It is also true that imagery contains two key elements:
- The environment: Sensory information that we experience (sight, feel, sounds, smell, taste).
- E.g., Feeling adrenalin; hearing your horse snort; the starter counting you down.
- Your response: Your interpretation of the environment, and your emotions, physiology, and actions that occur as a result.
- E.g., Interpreting adrenalin as excitement, and your horse snorting as him being ready to go. Responding to being counted down with positive forward riding and a “let’s do this!” attitude.
When the environment (e.g., the starter counting you down) and your response (e.g., positive riding and a “let’s do this!” attitude) interlink within imagery, the brain produces a stronger mental association between them. We can call this association a ‘mental blueprint’. This mental blueprint then prompts our responses in real life. In other words, imagining responding to that “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” countdown with forward riding and a positive mindset will make this response more likely to actually happen in real life. This link can be summarised as:
Imagery environment + Imagery response = Mental blueprint (which guides real-life responses)
The rider in the opening scenario is likely to feel confident in responding to the cross-country start box environment in a helpful way. Quite simply, this rider has already imagined their ideal, ‘helpful’ responses to the start box environment. Adrenalin is interpreted as excitement. The horse snorting and humping his back is responded to in a calming manner. The ‘thirty-second’ marker is responded to with a deep breath and a focus on the approach to fence one. And, the starter’s count-down is associated with positive riding and a positive attitude. That is, a helpful mental blueprint has been set.
What about the flipside? Consider how problematic it could be to foresee ‘unhelpful’ responses within imagery. Read through the following start box scenario, which contains an identical environment to the opening scenario, but an entirely different set of responses (highlighted in italics)
As you make your way towards the start box, you can smell the grass – damp from morning dew – becoming dry under the sun. “What if we slip?” you wonder; “Have I used the right studs?” . You hear the starter call you over, and feel a shot of adrenalin run through you; a flash of overpowering nerves. As you circle the start box, your horse shakes his head, snorts loudly, and humps his back. Your grip tightens on the reins as you croak: “How am I going to hold you today!”. “Thirty seconds”, the starter tells you. You can taste the anticipation, the buzz of what’s to come, and the eagerness of your horse; and feel your legs go weak as you picture the imposing, almost un-jumpable combination at number 7. And, before you know it: “5..4..3..2..1..Go!”. You jump out of the start; and immediately feel overwhelmed. “Don’t mess this up!”
Notice how in this second imagery scenario the rider’s response to the environment has switched from helpful to unhelpful. Adrenalin is interpreted as overwhelming nerves. The horse snorting and humping is interpreted as him being difficult to hold and the rider tenses. The rider’s response to the ‘thirty-second’ marker is to worry about an ‘un-jumpable’ combination. And, the starter’s count-down is associated with a focus on failure. Unfortunately, these unhelpful responses create an unhelpful mental blueprint. In turn, this unhelpful mental blueprint is likely to guide unhelpful emotions, physiology, and actions in real-life; an unlikely recipe for confidence and success!
Priming your ideal performance
In sum, imagery can prime your ideal performance state (emotions, physiology, actions) if: (a) imagery mirrors the helpful responses that you want to experience within a real life situation, so that; (b) a helpful mental blueprint is created, which guides real-life performance.
It’s worth noting that the imagined environment need not be perfect, e.g., in the above start box scenario the horse appears to be rather excited – which may reflect your horse’s typical behaviour in real-life! What’s important is that your imagined response to the environment is the ideal you would strive for in real-life, e.g., interpreting your excitable horse as keen, and using deep breaths and patting/talking to calm your horse.
Consider what your imperfect environment might be. Do you worry about unruly behaviour in the dressage arena, showjumping in bad weather, or a hold on the course before you set out cross-country? Now consider what your ideal response would be, including a helpful interpretation of the situation, and your helpful emotions, physiology, and actions. You might like to note these considerations down, to prompt the most important aspects of your imagery.
Next time: Top tips for putting imagery into practise!
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