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The Bulldog Must Be Leashed

I'm headed to the American Eventing Championships today! Rebecca Farm in Kalispell, Montana, just three hours away, is hosting which is almost unbelievable. About five weeks ago, I spent a full week competing at the same venue. I had good results on both horses, but there were a lot of strange emotions that tumbled out of that long, hot week. I've spent a considerable amount of time naming, dissecting and fortifying myself against those emotions ever since. This week will be a test of my new mental elasticity.

I've been doing a lot of things to become a better rider; taking weekly lessons, consuming shelves of books about posture and poise, riding more horses more often, daily stretching, and setting aggressive goals for competition. However, in July 2022, I realized that I needed to stop pretending that the next level of my chosen sport was physical. My mental game needed tuning as well.

The first step was to name the two mascots that rule my personal and competitive life. One is a blue heron- competent, calm, and confident. I've known this graceful bird to be my spirit animal for quite some time. It's been tattooed on my person for nearly 10 years. This heron, perched at the base of my neck, is serious but secular, shy but loyal, elastic but focused. It represents many of the things that I accept and/or like about myself.

The other mascot is a bulldog. The bulldog part of my character has its strengths and weaknesses- it's neither the proverbial angel or devil on my shoulder. The bulldog is advantageous to me for many reasons not the least of which is its power. I remember the very first time that I used anger to mask fear. Even as a child I felt the power shift, and I learned how to use that anger to keep me safe. The confidence of the bulldog fortified me against criticism. The tenacity of the bulldog made me good at my job. In short, for over 30 years, I've used the bulldog strategy to protect myself against fear, rejection, and disappointment. But, sometimes, this strategy backfires.

There are disadvantages to this bulldog too. If not trained appropriately, not leashed at the right times, that bulldog's bite can cause harm. The bulldog, attacking at inappropriate times, is part of what is keeping me from reaching the next level of who and what I want to be in this world. The word agility comes to mind. A bulldog is not exactly bred for agility, so I need to leash that bulldog when it's not needed and let the heron take flight.

The breadth and scope of performance psychology is vast, and I am no where near tying it all up neatly with a blog bow. I've accomplished Step #1, The Naming, and now I'm in Step #2, The Exploring. I feel like I've just been pointed down a new road, and the road looks like a swampy, windy ATV trail. I also don't often hear my story reflected back in so much of what I read and listen to. A lot of what I seem to come across in equestrian performance coaching are strategies for the flight response, not the fight response that plagues my personal and performance goals. As, I finish out my 30's, I foresee an entirely new Natalie waiting for me on the far side of 40. Like Heraclitus said many many eons ago, "the only constant is change", and I'm totally ok with that.

Anyway, this article has been sitting in my blog queue for quite some time. I'm afraid of what many of you will think of it, but maybe it will resonate with one person. Or maybe, it just helps me get my thoughts down. Thanks for reading!

Recommended Reading

  1. "Do Hard Things: Why we get resilience wrong and the surprising science of real toughness" by Steve Magness- Amazon Link HERE

  2. "The Champion's Mind: How great athletes think, train and thrive" by Jim Afremow, PhD- Amazon Link HERE

  3. The Performance Project by Cadence Coaching- Link to Website HERE

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