Remember the “Boy who lived”, aka Harry Potter?
As it turns out, J.K. Rowling didn’t just manage to set a trend for so called “crossover books” – books that appeal to children and adults – she also knew a thing or two about sport psychology…
Picture the scene, if you will: It’s the morning of the first Quidditch match of the season. Griffindor is playing Slytherin with Ron Weasley as their new keeper. Harry and his friends are just settling down for breakfast.
“How’re you feeling?” Ginny asked Ron, who was now staring into the dregs of milk at the bottom of his empty cereal bowl as though seriously considering attempting to drown himself in them.
“He’s just nervous,” said Harry.
“Well, that’s a good sign, I never feel you perform as well in exams if you’re not a bit nervous,” said Hermione heartily.
Hermione is right. Nervousness, anxiety, stress, whatever you want to call it, can be a good thing. Adrenalin is the body’s very own energy drink. It energises people, boosting reaction times and the ability to concentrate. Faster breathing rates and a pumping heart means more oxygen and the release of glucose (facilitated by cortisol). The result? More fuel for hard working muscles.
Stress can be a very good thing. It can help improve performance. As long as people – Ron, Hermione, or, most importantly for the purpose of this blog, riders – are mentally tough enough to deal with it. Several groups of researchers, among them Dr. Graham Jones and his colleagues, have gone about trying to define this concept called mental toughness. It is summarised as
“having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to, generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands (competition, training, lifestyle) that sport places on a performer and, specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure.”1
Quite a mouthful, right? In essence, what Jones and colleagues are saying is that individuals who embrace the stresses of competitive sports generally end up outperforming their peers time and time again – not because their necessarily more skilful or talented, but because they thrive on the stress of competitive life.
So how do you develop mental toughness?
Well, one of the key elements to it, is the concept of “self-belief”. Jones and colleagues have managed to distil it down to four elements, that I have summarised for you as follows:
1. Reminding yourself of all the things you had to do to get to where you are now. Remember all the hours learning, training, refining you and your horse did over the years? They will pay off. They always do, as long as you keep at it.
2. The conviction that you can achieve anything you want. (We’re often told that being arrogant doesn’t win you any favours. Well, in sports, it’s a necessity to think you’re excellent at what you do. Think of it as being your own biggest fan.)
3. No obstacle is too great to overcome. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to go out and buy yourself a top show jumper – and even if you had a spare 8 million lying around, London’s no longer for sale. But you do need to develop solid coping strategies.
4. Be passionate! Passion, if it’s strong enough (and with riders it usually is), will give you the necessary staying power to enable you to reach your goals in the end.
So what about Ron? Did he come to see his nerves as something positive? Well, not for the first few games. In fact, the Slytherins were so delighted with his abysmal performance, they came up with a this little ditty:
“Weasley cannot save a thing,
He cannot block a single ring,
That’s why Slytherins all sing:
Weasley is our King.”
Not particularly encouraging, is it? Especially when you’re already struggling to believe in yourself.
But then (this is one book later, by the way), on the morning of yet another Quidditch match, Harry pretends to spike Ron’s juice with Felix Felicis, a lucky potion. Ron, believing luck is on his side saves every single quaffle (the ball Hogwarts students play with). After the game, Harry admits that it had all been a ruse to help Ron believe in himself.
“I wanted Ron to think I’d done it, so I faked it (putting the potion into Ron’s juice) when I knew you were looking.” He looked at Ron. “You saved everything because you felt lucky. You did it all yourself.”
Finally, realisation hits and Ron starts to believe in himself for real:
“See! I can save goals without help, Hermione!”
Sure enough, from that day on Ron’s nerves stop being a problem and he becomes a very good keeper. (He also ends up having a blazing row with Hermione, but that’s beside the point.)
The moral of the story? Believing in yourself, trusting in your own abilities, knowing that you are good enough to do what you have to do, will hone your mental toughness and turn your pre-competitive flutters into the wings you need to excel.
1 Jones, Hanton and Connaughton (2007) A Framework of Mental Toughness in the World’s Best Performers
More on Dr Inga Wolframm: https://aspireequestrian.wordpress.com/guest-bloggers/affiliate-blogger-inga-wolframm/