On Mental Toughness
If you've been following along with this blog for any length of time, you know that my MO is to squeeze out every little bit of good, learning, and personal development from each and every difficult, challenging, defeating situation I find myself in.
I tend to find myself there a lot, so I've gotten really good at finding the positive and being able to move on from tough situations in a productive way, even if I have to have myself a good cry and a beer before I get there.
This past weekend's clinic had a lot more to do with mental toughness than riding skills. While I did get a whole bunch of new tools and ideas to apply to my jumping, as I reflect on what I learned with Lainey, I am very, very proud of how both Dino and I handled the intense pressure of this lesson.
I am, by nature, not a big risk-taker. Especially in areas of my life outside of riding, I don't want to attempt anything unless I'm reasonably sure that I'll be successful at it. Switching from H/J to eventing has so far been a test of my willingness to fail, and an exercise in strengthening my perseverance. And as evidenced by some of last year's competitions, when the pressure is on the wheels fall off, and I can completely lose it mentally. Add to that a history of anxiety fed by lots and lots of poor riding resulting in many falls, and you have a recipe for someone who is not likely to fare well when asked to go outside her comfort zone in a high-pressure situation.
When I first signed up for the Lainey Ashker clinic, I noted in my application that Dino and I were competing at Beginner Novice and schooling some Novice-sized fences. I, a bit vainly, didn't want to get placed in another Starter-level group like I had at the Andrea Leatherman clinic in the fall, and felt that it was an honest description of where we were. If I want to be successful at BN this year, I'd need to start pushing myself a bit more.
Then, when the schedule came out and I saw that I'd been placed in the Novice lesson, I freaked out.
But after indulging in a small panic attack, I decided not to beg to be switched into a Beginner Novice lesson, and that I would suck it up and ride in a group that would push Dino and I past where I knew beyond a doubt that we could be successful. It would be a serious challenge.
And let me tell you, a lesson with Lainey at any level is no joke, people.
Lainey is, if nothing else, a very intense person. While also friendly and personable, Lainey's ferocity, drive, and demanding nature are evident from the moment she steps into the arena. She does not take no for an answer, she does not accept giving up, she does not tolerate excuses, and she definitely does not put up with yellow-bellied, whining weenies who show up with less than their best effort.
Needless to say, this made for a serious pressure-cooker of an experience that would have normally sent me into a psychological tail-spin, even if I didn't end up being "that rider" in the lesson who fell off twice and had to have her pony schooled for her.
Looking back on the experience, I see that I would not have been mentally ready for this clinic a year ago. Or maybe not even six months ago. Somewhere along the line I developed the mental toughness to be able to handle an experience that would have left me reeling just a short time ago.
When the jumps went up, my heart leapt into my throat. I was scared, no way around it. But I was able to push through that feeling and ride to the best of my ability in that moment. Despite how anxious I was about those giant fences, I did not pick and pull to a nothing distance. I did not ride backwards to that first stop. Sure, I wasn't riding nearly as well as I could have been, but I was riding instead of shutting down.
Then I got dumped. Twice. I got yelled at by a very frustrated Lainey. I had my own crop thrown at me in exasperation. I was hurt and covered in mud and sand and a better rider had to get on and show Dino what his job was.
Was I disappointed in myself and in Dino? Absolutely. After feeling fantastically confident through the first half of the lesson, I had fallen so far from the place where I started.
But I didn't cry. (Anyone who has spoken to me during/after a terrible performance at a horse show or elsewhere knows that this is a big deal!) I didn't shut down. I picked my ass up out of that mud puddle, twice, and I got back on. Somewhere along the line last season, I developed the mental toughness to be violently knocked off my pedestal and not suffer a seriously bruised ego. I was able to take criticism with grace, learn everything I could from the situation, and try again - this time, successfully.
There was so, so much pressure heaped on me during this clinic: The pressure to perform, because let's face it, a clinic is a learning experience, but it's also a performance. The pressure of being asked to do something WAY outside my comfort zone. The pressure of being "that rider" and knowing that yeah, everyone at that clinic was watching, and was going to be talking about my spectacular dismounts and naughty pony.
Instead of being "that rider" who fell off twice, had to have her pony schooled, and then cried and gave up, I was the rider who remained poised. The rider who accepted her mistakes with maturity. The rider who accepted instruction, and tried again. The rider who remained present and attentive and ready to learn. The mentally tough rider.
And that, friends, is something far more valuable than putting down a perfect 3' course. I know now I can take the pressure. Dino can take the pressure. Neither of us is going to break, because we are far stronger than we were a year ago.
Bring it on, Eventing Season 2016.