Tuesday 23rd of July 2024
The Gaitpost

How to Focus

It has become a well-known and accepted fact that in order to excel in sport we must train our mind as well as our body. Many high profile riders have accredited their success to personal fitness and mental training as well as learning the technical aspects of competitive level riding.  

We are delighted to bring you the first in a new series by Sports Psychologist Debbie Percy from Jigsaw Equine.  First up, how to focus and what to focus on.


Focus and Flashbacks


keep-calm-and-focus-2583What does the word Focus mean to you?  Whatever it’s meaning it can only serve us well if we can relate to it in simple, practical terms.  Challenge number one is can I provide a simple, practical explanation?


The words focus and concentration can hold negative connotations; reminding us of unpleasant childhood or school days when teachers and parents would shout at us to “focus on what we were doing”, or “to sit quietly and concentrate on our school work, homework, or chores”.


We would be labeled as ‘scatter brained’, ‘air heads’ or worse , if we found it hard to concentrate on one thing at a time.  Nowadays in our busy modern world we all have so much to do, and so much data hitting us from so many angles that it’s no wonder we don’t know where to start when trying to focus.


There’s good news! Everyone can Focus.  We don’t have to return to school to learn how to do it or read a library of self-help books.  We can all do it!  Everyone of us can lock in and give our total 100% full attention when needed.  Ever caught something as its about to drop off a table? That’s focus – where mind and body work in perfect unison!


Professional athletes refer to Focus as ‘being in the zone’.   I describe it as simply having the right thoughts and physical reactions at the right time.

With our horses, who are very present ‘in the moment’ animals, we, as their riding partners should mirror them and by improving your focus it will help you do so. 

Focus isn’t about hard mental study, or drills and repetition. It’s not like learning your times tables or passing a spelling test.  It is about knowing 3 things:-

1)   How to focus

2)   What to focus on

3)   How to refocus when you become distracted 

Before starting I recommend you complete a short self assessment exercise on my website to find out if Focus is an area of strength or challenge for your right now! (http://www.jigsawequine.co.uk/images/general/how_to_focus_a_self_assessment_tool.pdf)


How to Focus: Activity 1

Focus is about tightening what you pay attention to, so that what’s outside of the object of your attention and thoughts no longer gets noticed. 

Practice Focus with an Apple or Raisin, the smaller the better.  See how long you can study the object without becoming distracted mentally or physically.    When you notice you are paying attention to something else bring your attention back to the object.  

This will show you how thoughts compete with your intention to focus!   Each time you lose focus you will become aware and will have to re-focus.

Now try in the saddle this time, decide a routine, or movement you wish to perform with your horse.  Ask a friend to try to distract you with conversation, or comments such as ‘don’t over ride’ or ‘don’t under ride’.  Or, ask them to move around close to the arena with another horse, or move objects about inside the arena.   Keep the situation safe for you and your horse at all times as you are not testing your horse, it is YOU that is practicing being Focused. 

Remember your goal is to pay attention to performing your routine or movement and to get better at ignoring anything else.


What to Focus on

The challenge with Focus is not that we can’t do it, but that we have to apply it in different ways.  There will be times as riders when we need to use focus to solve a problem, or see the bigger picture (especially if out competing).  There are other times when we need to zoom into some small detail of a movement, technique or fence line.  We need to be able to do it all!

The basic rule is to always focus on what you DO WANT, never on what you DON’T want!

Imagine whether you want to hack out or compete, in both situations you and your horse or pony need to be relaxed in order to enjoy the outing, or to perform to your best abilities.

There are ‘anti- anxiety’ techniques to help achieve this (to be covered another day perhaps) but our ability to Focus can also help when relaxation is needed. 

Activity 2

Remember the rule above – we have to be focused on ‘being relaxed’ if being relaxed is what we WANT.  To achieve this, select a key word that describes the correct feeling of being relaxed.  For example ‘ long and low’, or use a metaphor ‘bobbing on a lilo’!  Then use these words as you ride, or at important moments competing to signal to your brain and body where to put your focus!

Developing specific key words like this, for specific ways you want your horse to go in different scenarios, is a proven technique for learning to focus on the right things!

Simples right!


Knowing how to re-focus

The last of our 3 steps is about bringing back your focus when needed.  Activity 1 above helps to develop this ability by trying to focus on an object and noticing how tricky that can be!  Awareness that you have lost focus is an important lesson to learn.  We can’t re-focus without knowing we have lost our focus in the first place!


Activity 3

When you find yourself distracted in any important moment throw an imaginary Harry Potter Invisibility Cloak around yourself (and your horse).   In that instant turn down the volume of sounds and movement and be still in your privacy cloak.  Now chose what you want to focus on and give that your full attention.  It’s a great way to re-focus.

In summary, the bad news is that like all things; practice makes perfect!  No matter how daft some of these activities may sounds, the more you do them the more you’ll see the improvement in your focus.   If you don’t do them – guess what,  your focus wont improve.

Knowing more about Focus may not always be enough as riding horses can be emotional and physically tiring and stressful, especially when things don’t go right.  Such tensions fight against our ability to focus and can trigger other counter productive feelings such as anxiety, worry, fear or anger.  But to close on a good note, we can learn how to combat each of those in turn, on another day!

Working on your mind as a rider to improve your riding and the quality of time with your horse, is a daily work out in itself, but well worth the investment.


About Jigsaw Equine & Debbie Percy

image16It has become a well-known and accepted fact that in order to excel in sport we must train our mind as well as our body. Many high profile riders have accredited their success to personal fitness and mental training as well as learning the technical aspects of competitive level riding. 

JigsawEquine was formed in 2006 and specialises in delivering the ground breaking concepts: “Equilates”- pilates based exercises to straighten and stabilise the rider’s seat, and, “Mind Factor™” – a unique approach to sports psychology using proven techniques and exercises to focus the rider’s mind.

Debbie Percy is trained in Neuro Linguistic Programming, Psych-K, Metaphysics and Mindfulness for Coaches. Originally from Cheshire, she now lives in Berkshire with her husband Ian, their three dogs and three horses.  Debbie has a strong vision for helping riders and heaps of energy that makes her coaching and presentation style interactive,fun and compelling.

Check out www.jigsawequine.co.uk to find out more about seminars, workshops and online learning. You can also follow Debbie on Twitter




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