A recurring theme on the competition fields and in the world of sport in general, mental preparation is an integral part of sport.
Horse Pilot has decided to take a closer look at it through the testimonies of Simon Casse (high level athlete, member of the French Modern Pentathlon Team) and Jean-Pascal Cabrera (sophrologist and mental trainer with the French Riding Federation).
MENTAL PREPARATION, MOTIVATIONS AND ISSUES
HORSE PILOT: WHETHER IN COACHING OR IN SPORT IN GENERAL, HOW TO EXPLAIN THE IMPORTANCE OF MENTAL PREPARATION?
Jean-Pascal: It’s not the same in the form of sport, but as far as the athlete’s behaviour is concerned, the mechanisms are the same. The specific aspect of riding is that the partner is an animal, with its temperament and character. He has his own emotions like a human being.
A horse-riding couple is forming, it is a team sport. It is this original aspect that is exciting, because it forces the rider to work on his emotions even more. The mirror effect that is transmitted to others, whether in a football or handball team, makes it possible to communicate, to agree on codes that work or not.
With the horse, it’s very different overall. It is this wealth that has led me to dig at this level.
Simon: For my part, I started the mental preparation work, to really become aware of its necessity, two and a half years ago. In fact, I had come to the realization that physically I was still on the same level as the others, that I was present but that it was in my head that I had to work. At the time when I had to be the most connected, I wasn’t focused on the right things, so I turned to a mental trainer.
It is a training, a sixth sport that adds to the five already present in modern pentathlon.
HORSE PILOT: SIMON, WHAT IS THE ADDED VALUE OF MENTAL PREPARATION IN SPORTS PRACTICE?
Simon: Concentration, confidence, especially at key moments, for example at the entrance to a course. When you get back on the track, you’re alone with your horse and that’s when you have to be very focused on the sensations, on what to do, etc. It has brought me, precisely, to always approach the courses in the same way and therefore to find common sense. Then it is much easier to analyze your mistakes, your mistakes, what worked and what didn’t work.
That’s how we progress.
Mental preparation allows you to have a little more distance, a little more precise eye, to highlight the mistakes and to correct them on the following courses. It has matured my performance and commitment on a daily basis.
So necessarily, it helps to have a better relationship with the horses and makes you more comfortable in all situations. Especially in the case of the pentathlon, you don’t know the horse, you have to adapt to all the horses.
You have to be ready for anything.
COMPETITION IS ABOUT LIVING IN THE MOMENT
“TO SWITCH TO THE KEY MOMENT, TO THE RIGHT MOMENT WHEN YOU HAVE TO MOVE INTO THE PRESENT, INTO ACTION”
HORSE PILOT: JEAN-PASCAL, WHAT DIFFERENCES CAN BE OBSERVED IN ATHLETES FOLLOWING A MENTAL PREPARATION PROGRAM?
Jean-Pascal: The difference between a high-performance athlete and a low-performance athlete is in the way they concentrate. This concentration focuses either on specific inner things (a position of the pelvis) or broad things (a state of tonicity), or on specific outer things (where the horse is going, what visual cue I will take) or very broad (the course).
Someone who takes everything in one piece, mixes it up. For example, in horseback riding, the first thing is to take care of your horse, it must be well. I will move from relevant concentration points to relevant concentration points. And the closer I get to the deadline where I will pass on the square, the more my concentration will close on more and more precise points. I will look at the tip of my horse’s ears, look 1 meter before the bar, beyond the bar when I will have passed it.
The quality of concentration is on the here and now. I’m not thinking about the medal. If I’m ever thinking about the medal over the obstacle, it’s ruined. The purpose of the concentration is to provide specific, strategic information. Obviously an athlete comes to win but in the concrete vision of performance, the engine that drives him is a motor of extreme concentration that makes him absorbed by what he does.
HORSE PILOT: SIMON, PRECISELY, HOW DOES MENTAL PREPARATION ALLOW YOU TO BETTER MANAGE PRESSURE AND STAY FOCUSED?
Simon: The mental preparation helped me to set up, let’s call it a little sequence, to switch to the key moment, the right moment when we have to move into the present, into “action”. In horseback riding, for me, it’s the moment when the bell rings. That’s when you forget everything that’s going on around you, you’re alone with the horse and the course.
Obstacle n°1, how to approach it, which curve, which impulse? Stay focused on what to do then.
I visualize quite a bit after the recognition to check if I have assimilated well when to do this action, how to approach this obstacle. Now we can’t predict anything, so it’s always difficult to visualize, especially with a horse we don’t know. But once on the horse, it’s really about concentration, about the present moment and about the actions to be done in the moment.
CONCENTRATION, THE KEY TO PERFORMANCE
HORSE PILOT: IN THE FACE OF A MAJOR DEADLINE, REGARDLESS OF PHYSICAL PREPARATION, TO WHAT EXTENT DOES MENTAL PREPARATION HAVE CONSEQUENCES ON RESULTS?
Simon: Competition is about being the best at the right time, the right moment, when everything will be decided. This is where you have to make the most of your physical abilities. Mental preparation helps a lot to get to that moment, to live those moments.
Many athletes talk about zones. An area of concentration and self-confidence, where nothing can happen. Whatever happens, we have a solution, we anticipate everything. The important thing is to be ahead of everything. To get to this area, you have to work mentally because in reality, it doesn’t happen every day like that.
You have to know how to take advantage of it, how to manage your mistakes and failures, and always move forward in a positive way.
Jean-Pascal: The psychological factors of performance are at the heart of performance to make it as optimal as possible. The goal is to be the best possible, and to be the best possible, I must be as cold as possible in my judgment (what should I correct, what should I put more or less and not what is it worth?
This is why it is necessary to practice not to make value judgments, but rather to have a phenomenological perspective (observation of phenomena).
In horseback riding, we train with a specific horse, a specific trainer on a specific place. While the mind…
SINCE WE WERE BORN, WE HAVE BEEN WORKING WITH OUR HEADS AND WE HAVE THE IMPRESSION THAT WE ARE USING THEM TO THE BEST OF OUR ABILITY. IF WE COMPETE, WE HAVE TO TRAIN HER TO COMPETE, AND OUR HEADS WILL DO EXTRAORDINARY THINGS, THEY WILL SURPASS THEMSELVES.
The notion of physical limits or concentration limits is only a subjective one. It is at psychological limits that we set ourselves. We can push our limits by practicing, precisely, to overcome these psychic signals.
The higher the level, the more difficult it becomes to push the limits. These “small gains” require enormous efforts in terms of upstream work. The sum of these details is incredibly difficult to progress, but that’s what will make the difference.
“A DETAIL IS NOT A DETAIL.
THAT’S WHAT CREATES VALUE”
A THOROUGH WORK, A DAILY TRAINING
Jean Pascal: The interest of sophrology is that one can train in the absence of the external context. We practice bringing images into the head, according to well-established protocols. When you do a visualization, you need a certain state, a particular state that triggers certain brain waves. This will allow us to achieve much more dynamic or, on the contrary, much more peaceful tonus.
Sophrology, by juggling between states of tension and visualization, will play on the identification of emotions. When they appear, we perceive them faster than other people because we know how to develop our own phenomenology. Well trained, we are able to manage our emotions appropriately, which influences concentration in competition.
The athlete will have representations, images, behaviours that will mark his presence in a competition. If the preparation path is not traced, the approach to the competition is not marked. There is a good chance of being disturbed and leaving room for improvisation. This does not mean that you have to be rigid. We learn to have a flexibility that will adapt.
In the preparation process, we need to prepare for the unexpected, by having flexibility, while keeping this framework. This is what we call automatisms.
Mental preparation is a pyramid that is set up. We start by building the very wide base, then the more the pyramid is built, the narrower it gets to an extremely precise point at the top which could be for example the Equestrian Games.
Mental preparation is not a gadget, we work on the human, the behavioural and it is built in stages without waiting for the last moment.
LEARNING TO MANAGE YOUR EMOTIONS, STAYING FOCUSED, ACTING HERE AND NOW… IT’S NOT THAT EASY.
As in the technique, mental preparation is a fundamental work. Competition is only the end result. So, ready to perform? All you have to do now is get equipped!