At this year’s annual meeting, Sorcha Martin, an Area I competitor and physical therapist, gave a terrific talk about applying the science of motor learning to improving our riding. This talk was so helpful (and validating – did you know all the time you spend coordinating your tack actually helps you to be a better rider?) that we asked her if she would be willing to become a regular contributor to the newsletter. She has agreed; below, she outlines the science that is the foundation of her work, along with specific applications for riders.
“I’m perfectly happy with how well I ride,” said no eventer ever. Getting better in the saddle is important to all of us but it turns out that improving your riding, in all three phases no less, is really very hard. Fortunately, science has some ideas. People learn motor tasks, like riding, differently than how they learn new ideas. Learning how to ride needs a different approach than learning a new language or a new math concept. This series, which will appear in the Area 1 Newsletter, will include a “Trainer’s Tip” to maximize student success and a “Rider Reminder” to give riders specific science-based ideas to improve their riding.
There has been substantial research on how to get athletes to perform better regardless of the skill they are attempting to master or the level of athlete. These ideas can be used with folks getting their first up-down lessons, all the way up to people competing at the five star level. If you want to get better at a motor skill, at any level, using concepts from the OPTIMAL theory can help.
Optimizing Performance Through Intrinsic Motivation and Attention for Learning, “OPTIMAL” theory, gives us some guidelines we can use to get better in the tack. There are four key concepts that can get us riding with our heels down, shoulders back and whatever else you need to do to hear those magic words: “5,4,3,2,1 Have a nice ride…”
Enhanced expectancies for performance
When talking about expectations (positive experiences or outcomes) it’s important to remember that we carry our personal histories of experiences, both positive and negative, forward in time into new contexts and that’s designed to prepare us for future events. Expectations are not motivationally neutral; they anticipate rewarding properties of significance. For example, if a rider lacks confidence in their riding, it may detract from movement fluidity or automaticity. Skills that were previously fluid and automatic are now much more difficult to perform. Everything was great in the warm up but they went into the ring expecting things to go badly and their riding falls apart. On the other hand, circumstances that enhance the riders’ expectations of future performance success, can create even more success, even more improvement, and even more learning. I want that please!
Autonomy refers to setting the rider up to support their own sense of self. There is strong evidence that even very small decisions that the learner makes can have profound improvements in their performance. If the rider decides, I’m going to start over the red pole instead of the green, great! The color of the pole does not matter, but the active decision making by the rider matters a lot. As eventers we have to make decisions in the spur of the moment when things come up that we and our trainer might not have anticipated. We need to get good at making decisions, both large and small, and feeling confident in them.
External focus of attention
The brain learns new movement patterns not by talking about them but by understanding their context. I learn how to climb a tree because I’m hungry and the apples are up high. I know I’m successful when I get the apple. The brain is set up to understand context and success well. When the task is very clear and very meaningful, the brain understands success and can better repeat it. If we get feedback based on internal cues – sit up straight, but your heels down, don’t let your lower leg slip back – the task becomes very grey to your brain and hard to tell if you are doing it correctly. Using an external focus of attention allows the rider to know when they are successful. That dollar bill your first riding instructor put behind your calf to keep your lower leg still, that’s an external focus of attention. You knew you were successful when you didn’t make it rain dollar bills all over the indoor.
Positive Language Utilization
According to Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman, the words we use can literally change our brain. Positive words can alter the expression of genes, strengthening areas in our frontal lobes and promoting the brain’s cognitive functioning. They propel the motivational centers of the brain into action, and help build resiliency. However, a single negative word can increase the activity in our amygdala (the fear center of the brain). This releases dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters, which in turn interrupts our brains’ functioning. This is defiantly not what you need when trying to go shoulder-in down the long side or jump a giant oxer.
The language of instruction is crucially important to performance. Giving instructions about what to do rather than what not to do is essential for motor learning. There is strong evidence that instructing people in what not to do can be more detrimental than no instruction at all. Telling a rider not to lean forward at fence is worse than saying nothing at all! Telling them to sit up, an active instruction, is likely to be the most effective. As an instructor, delete the “don’t” from your vocabulary. Get rid of phrases like “don’t lean” and “stop pulling on the inside rein”. Replace them with terms like “sit up” and “soften the inside rein”. Quality instruction is really important; the brain understands what to do much more quickly when phrased in a way it knows what to do.
As riders, we need to be mindful about how we talk about ourselves, our riding and our horse: “down banks freak me out!”, “I can’t jump ditches,” “my horse hates water.” These are examples of thought viruses and they need to be stomped out!! It’s ok to identify problems, struggles or concerns, but re-framing them is important. For example, “I’m working on getting more confident jumping ditches,” “my horse is working on becoming more comfortable with water.” Using this positive re-framing will prepare your brain to maximize your self-efficacy and to improve your autonomy. If you can get an external focus of attention in there, you will have hit motor learning gold!
Trainer’s Tip: Autonomy
Have your students decide if they are going to start to the right or the left, make them actively decide. Instead of giving them a specific course to ride, let them pick the course. This will build their autonomy and give you insight into what they avoid. If they always start going to the right, you know they need to build confidence going left. If the course they pick avoids related distances, they build confidence over single fences but you know they need work with combinations to be truly successful.
Rider Reminder: Enhanced Expectations
Talk about goal setting with your instructor. Not just season long goals, but goals for each individual lesson. Do you know what the plan is for each lesson or do you just show up and wait for them to tell you what to do? Be an active participant in your learning. Identify how you know that today’s lesson was successful. A full 20m circle on the bit? Great! Get down the three-stride line in three strides, not four. Perfect! The specifics of the goal are less important than knowing that they are and recognizing when you are successful. Take this concept into each ride: what am I working on today and how will I know if I did it?
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.