Last month we talked about the OPTIMAL theory of motor learning and how to utilize those ideas in Eventing. Please click here if you missed it. This month I would like to highlight a key principle and discuss how we can apply it when in the tack.
External Focus of Attention
How many riders have listened to our instructor say the same thing over and over? You understand the words, understand what they mean but can’t seem to make it happen? How many instructors feel they give the same lesson over and over again? When we hit these training road blocks, the science tells us that poor instruction or willfully bad riding is not the problem, how we learn is.
Let’s take the example of looking down over fences. We all know that looking down at a jump as you sail over it, hopefully still attached to your horse is not ideal. Why do we do it?? Is it a bad habit? possibly. Are you just checking that you found the “right spot”? maybe. Have you tried not looking down? Of course, you have. How about looking up at trees instead? Absolutely, but then at the last minute there goes the eyes, right to the base of the fence!
There are many potential solutions, but the science indicates that when we are in a high-pressure situation we default to our habits as a strategy to keep us safe. Sometimes those default habits are the problem. Failing to find a way break the habit in a competitive environment allows us to continue to be unsuccessful. Not only that but we are continuing to practice the wrong motor pattern.
After years of hearing “look up” at the base of the fence I finally decided to take science’s advice and use an external focus on attention. Instead of chanting “don’t look down” in the rhythm of my horse’s canter, I used an external focus of attention. Not focusing on something I have to remember, or what my instructor has to say, but a cue to help me do the right thing when it matters. The lovely people at SmartPak thought I was nuts when I asked for a crown piece that says “Look Up”. My horse’s bridle now has a lovely name plate on it that says “Look Up”. Her name is not Look Up, but every time my eye drops down, I see those instructions and up I look!
If you find yourself making the same mistakes over an over see if you can work with your instructor to think about other strategies to help you fix it. Maybe it’s tape on your reins to stop them from getting too long, or too short. Maybe it’s riding with a crop under your arm to help you figure out when you are sitting with a twist. Using tools that are not the rider responding to verbal instruction but a process that they actively interact with allows them to build their riding autonomy
and practice better riding when not in a lesson. Recognize that it has nothing to do with your ability as a rider to follow instructions, but rather your brain following the comfortable path. Help your instructor, your nervous system and yourself out. Use an external cue as much as you can, until you don’t need it any more. One of these days my horse’s crown piece will have her name on it!
(photo from Rider Biomechanics Coach on Facebook)
Trainer’s Tip- The language you use matters.
The language of instruction is crucially important, giving instructions about what to do rather than what not to do is essential for motor learning. Instructing riders in what not to do can be more detrimental than no instruction at all. According to the science, telling a rider not to lean forward at fence is worse than never addressing the error. Telling them to sit up, an active instruction is much more effective.
Trying to change the way you teach all at once is really difficult. Just like those students who always seem to lean forward at the fence, you have language patterns that are hard to alter. Changing “stop pulling on the inside rein” to “push your inside hand forward” takes effort, so be patient with yourself and work with your students to make your instructions action based!
Rider’s Reminder-let’s talk failure
Great news my fellow eventers, failure has been found to be an essential prerequisite for success. Since my failure rate is pretty high, I’m looking forward to that success come along any day now…
Unfortunately, not every failure leads to success. Every time you make a mistake, take a tumble or have a run out it’s an opportunity to take that failure and move along to the success portion! That success portion only happens when you can determine what did and did not work. Identifying the underlying problem and working to make those changes is crucial to taking a disappointing ride and using it to make yourself better for the next round.
Remember, don’t change everything all at the same time. Give yourself a change to build and improve on what you’ve learned. Don’t forget, successful riders didn’t necessarily work harder, they just work more cleverly!
Dr. Sorcha Martin is a Physical Therapist and Faculty Member at Boston University where she treats patients and teaches in the Physical Therapy Program. Sorcha and her mare, So Much to Offer, compete at the lower levels in Area 1.