• Christa Dillon

One small step for man

Christa Dillon brings a personal aspect to sports psychology

Sports psychology has been used to help athletes and competitors to improve mindset and performance, for many decades. Over the years, knowledge and experience around the practical application of sports psychology has grown, developed and expanded. Years ago, when I was given my first book to read on what was at the time for me, a totally unheard of practice, I learned about the three main concepts in use at the time. These were ‘thought stopping’, ‘positive reframing’ and ‘goal setting.’ While these ‘old reliables’ still make up a large part of the sports psychology tree, we have since identified many other branches on that same tree.

In 2018, I remember watching a video by the American entrepreneur, Gary Vaynerchuk. In the video, Gary spoke about the fact that everybody gets hung up on the things that they feel that they don’t do well, and in turn, begin to shape their futures with self-limiting beliefs – often setting themselves up to never achieve their goals. His advice was simple; “Go all in on your strengths.”

As a rider, I spent many years battling with a deep-rooted perfectionist mentality and, my perilously fragile confidence. I had been to countless lessons and training sessions over the years, where the focus was usually on my perceived weaknesses, or the horse’s perceived shortcomings – or sometimes, both. When I started coaching other riders who were struggling with confidence and self-belief, I got to wondering if perhaps there was another way to look at things. I began trying to coach from a position of identifying the strengths of the horse and rider combinations and, expanding a little more on growing the good, before we started worrying about the less-than good. My theory was that in putting our initial efforts into working on things that the horse and rider already did well from a more confident mindset, I would be able to help them with their skill set, timing and consistency. In time, the things that the rider and horse found more difficult would automatically begin to improve, as would their collective mindset towards overcoming those difficulties.

Alongside working to promote a more positive and growth-oriented ethos for rider and horse, I realised that for most people, the journey ideally needs some sort of destination from the outset. Having something to work towards can be important, as it gives purpose and structure to the work and commitment. However, herein lies a potential trip hazard which has the potential to do more harm than good….

Goal setting

Goal setting – in the traditional sense, was at one time the first and arguably most important piece of the sports psychology puzzle. Having a target to shoot at is a great idea…..unless you keep missing the damn thing. Pretty quickly, that oh so fragile confidence becomes harder to hold on to, feelings of failure creep in, motivation drops and all of a sudden, forward momentum is lost.

Missing a goal can happen for an infinite number of reasons. There isn’t much anyone can do if accident, illness or injury occur – a global pandemic has taught us that. However, if you are missing your targets due to setbacks in training, performance and/or other associated factors, it can be difficult to separate things out. Mental resilience is a necessary key component for any athlete regardless of sport but, we are all only human. Sometimes we have to try to set ourselves up as best we can, in an attempt to grow, preserve and maintain a strong and progressive mindset.

A different approach

If we move away from the framework of traditional goal setting and begin instead to think in terms of ‘process’ and ‘outcome’, we can begin to paint a different picture. If we factor in ‘short’, ‘medium’ and ‘long’ to that picture, it begins to look a little better. If we then go wild altogether and allow ourselves to set as many short, medium and long process and outcome goals as we like, the picture begins to come to life. The formula is pretty infinite, and used wisely, it can work wonders.

For example: Let’s say that you want to take a horse to a big competition in three months’ time. The competition is a grade above the one that you compete in at the moment. You feel that you would benefit from some training beforehand, and you would like to compete at the new grade at least once before the big show. Your horse needs to be a little bit fitter and you, need to try to tidy up a few things in your riding that would be helpful overall.

Your long-term outcome is the bigger show. Your medium-term outcome is the smaller show (and is also a process goal as it relates to the bigger show). Your short-term outcome is improving horse fitness, and those few things in your riding.

If we think of the outcomes as towns on a map, we then need to plot our route between those towns. These are the processes and, they are where the real magic happens. If we start with the short-term outcome of improving horse fitness and rider ability, then we can work backwards from there to set out our processes. The key thing in doing so is to make each step of the process as close to the next step and, the step before, as is possible. The purpose in doing so is to make each achievement or set back as small and as manageable as possible. Taking a small step back-instead of a giant leap helps to stave off the crushing feelings of defeat, that we often experience when things don’t go to plan. Our resilience and our ability to learn and apply forwards are preserved, and we can remain rational and objective in our observations.

Likewise, the same applies in the opposite direction; incremental steps forward allow for careful stretching of our comfort zones, gradual upskilling and easily mappable progress. Making small daily deposits into our ‘confidence bank’ through steady improvement and achievement, can be a complete game changer for rider and horse alike.

Process and outcome can be applied to as many things as you like and, can be broken down even further if needed. Essentially, you can tailor the concept to best work for you. It is definitely a case of thinking in terms of ‘one small step for man’, rather than ‘one giant leap for mankind’.


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