When it comes to supporting your child at shows or events, it’s easy to unwittingly add to the pressure instead of relieving it. Here are five ways to help you navigate your way through competition with your child and create a beneficial and constructive experience for everyone.
1. Create a controllable framework for success
Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, all of us have a set of internal requirements or rules about what needs to happen in order for us to feel successful. When those requirements are fulfilled, we feel good. When they aren’t; at best we feel disappointed and at worst, like a total failure.
Naturally, when it comes to our children, it’s no different. It’s easy for them to think that how they feel is dependent on something happening on the outside – such as a prize, an award, a ribbon, even just praise from a judge. This is something that is further reinforced when we save our praise only for good results, which we will get too shortly!
Learning to direct your children’s attention and energy towards what they can focus on and control is not only an important horsemanship lesson, but a key life lesson. Taking the time to creating a healthy definition of success together shifts the focus away from the external, and empowers your children to create a context for competing that they are in charge of.
The inherent nature of competition is very results-focused, and depending on the discipline, highly subjective. To find out what rules you or your children are currently subscribing to, ask: what does it take for you to feel successful? Are they dependent on results or the approval of others, or do they have a success framework that’s 100% within their sphere of influence?
Winning a class, having people compliment you, or receiving only good feedback are examples of things that are outside of our control. When we become reliant on those to feel worthy, competent and successful, we are essentially setting ourselves up to feel crappy.
Instead, set up a success framework that focuses on the process; winning is not something you can guarantee, but controlling your focus and investing maximum effort is.
You can’t guarantee a clear round, but you can work to maintain balance, keep your horse in front of your leg and have a forward, steady hand.
You can’t guarantee a top dressage score, or being picked for the champion sash, but you can concentrate on keeping your horse going correctly forward, in rhythm and balance, and executing your test or workout accurately.
The irony is that focusing on the result distracts you from the process, and yet the process is what will bring about the results. Having a success formula that is controllable also divorces you from the need to attain a specific result in order to feel ‘successful’ and provides you with specific elements you can tune and refine to improve performance in the future.
ACTION STEP: Before competing, talk with your child to decide on a success framework together, that is 100% controllable. Throughout the day, use this as a constant reminder of where to direct their energy and attention. At the end of the day, check back against it to see how they go on.
As a rule, praise what went well first, and then look at what can be improved for next time. If they struggled in one area, look at why, and then help map out some proactive solutions they can implement next time around.
2. Praise the repeatables
Now we’ve created a success framework that’s 100% controllable, we need to ensure that any praise and encouragement works in alignment with this. Consequently, focus your compliments on what I refer to as the ‘repeatables’; the elements of their riding that they are in control over, and are able to repeat. When we praise the repeatables, we once again transfer the emphasis to the process, instead of the result.
For example, saying: “I love the way you rode so proactively into that fence! You were really engaged and focused”, is a compliment that focuses on repeatables. It doesn’t downplay or detract from the result, but instead highlights what it was that was within the sphere of control and influence of the rider.
Is it a bad thing to praise a win, a clear round or a good result? Of course not! Celebration is important and necessary. What we are talking about here is ensuring that the majority of our energy is channeled towards the aspects of riding that empower our kids to be self-determining. Results are a by-product of good riding practice, and it’s practice, rather than result, that needs to hold the most weight.
Praising the repeatables also ensures that you are fostering a growth mindset, encouraging growth and ability through effort and dedication to constant improvement.
Studies by Carol Dweck have shown that nurturing a growth mindset promotes faster learning, and the ability to view challenges and failures as opportunities to improve learning and skills, as opposed to a threat to ability and self-worth.
ACTION STEP: Praise repeatable elements of your children’s ride. Be personal and specific with your compliments. Encouragement in this direction will motivate them to maximise their efforts and minimise the risk of shame or feelings of failure if they don’t produce the result they were hoping for.
3. Ask high quality questions
Here’s the rule of thumb: high quality questions will give you high quality answers. Low quality questions will give you (wait for it)… low quality answers.
When the pressure is on, it’s easy to unwittingly create an argument or add to the tension by saying the ‘wrong’ thing. Typically, low quality questions fall into this bracket! Low quality questions are questions that create defensiveness and are problem-focused rather than solution-focused.
Why did you do that?
What are you doing?
What’s going on here?
Context is everything, but these types of questions typically lead to dead-end conversations and do little to create constructive change. They set up a right and wrong situation, and naturally the person to whom the question is directed feels the need to defend their position.
Conversely, high quality questions are proactive, foster connection and the feeling of positive possibility, even if the answers aren’t immediately apparent. Examples of high quality questions are:
What’s the one thing we could do now to get you moving forward?
What do you need from me right now, how can I help?
And my personal favourite: What does your pony or horse need from you right now?
Asking this question gives you a shared point of focus that’s not about you and it’s not about them – it’s about the horse. Does he need us to be calm? How can we help him be more relaxed? What do you think we could do to make him happier right now?
ACTION STEP: Make your questions solution-oriented, and open-ended. Questions which can be answered with a simple yes or no do little to foster constructive discussion. Directing attention back to the horse and what he needs from both of you will take the focus off either one of you, and give you a mutual point of focus to work with.
4. Establish a shared intention
Just as asking low quality questions can see you looping around in unhelpful directions, time pressures, the jangling of nerves and a splash of atmosphere have seen more than one relationship derailed at competition.
Disagreements often come up over details; you might like doing things one way, while your daughter or son might like to do things another. They have one expectation about how something is going to play out, which is different from yours.
When we dance in the details, it’s unlikely that everything is going to run smoothly. If you find yourself bickering or the tone of communication has taken a downhill turn, take a deep breath and look for the commonalities between you; search for the shared intention.
While the finer points may differ, it’s often easy to find a point of agreement when it comes to your broader points of view. How you go about things might not line up, but overall, you are both wanting to have a happy and successful competition experience. Dragging yourself out of the detail and establish a shared intention helps to move your focus away from how you are different and towards what it is you share.
That said, what is it you both want from being at this competition? What is it you want for each other?
Drop the need to be right independently and instead search for what’s right between you.
ACTION STEP: Establish a shared intention for being together at the competition. Get out of the details and reframe the situation from a broader perspective.
5. Learn to be okay with being uncomfortable
As a parent, competition can be a tough gig. There’s the potential disappointment of not attaining a much hoped for result, the social dynamics (which can be many and varied!), and the performance anxiety which can manifest in a variety of ways, just to name a few.
Naturally, the desire is to fix things – to downplay losses, to work things out for your children, to gloss over instances of fear or nerves – is strong.
It might be the natural reaction, but it’s not necessarily the best one. Honing your empathetic skills means getting used to uncomfortable or undesirable feelings, both for yourself and for your child. Short-circuiting this process by diminishing what it is they are feeling, fixing every problem or preventing them from cycling through natural processes such as disappointment and loss prevents them from honing their skills or resilience and determination and undermines their self-confidence by teaching them that unable to deal with such matters themselves.
More often than not, children don’t want to be fixed; they want to be heard. If your child expresses nerves and anxiety, avoid the urge to shut them down or gloss over it. Acknowledge how they feel. Share a personal story of a time you felt nervous and continued on in spite of it. Join them in their vulnerability; teach them that it’s ok to be nervous, but that doesn’t mean giving up. It means finding a way of working that lets you navigate your way through.
Ask good questions. Focus on what they want to do rather than what it is they want to avoid; what is it you would like your horse or pony to do out there? What do you need to focus on to make that happen? Put the attention back on their horse or pony; what do they need from you right now?
If it’s a social situation, remind them that they are the only ones that they can control. Other people’s behaviour says much more about them than it does about them. Being brave is a choice. We have to make ongoing choices every day, sometimes every hour to do what we want to do in the face of criticism or lack of support? What would be a brave decision right now?
If they don’t get the result that the want, revisit your success framework. Look at what went well. Look at what could be tweaked or adjusted. Make a plan for next time that considers all of the elements and empowers them to think proactively. Successful ‘winners’ and also successful ‘losers’ so model behaviour that celebrates the success of others and sees all results as feedback, rather than failure.
ACTION STEP: Avoid the temptation of glossing over or downplaying expressions of anxiety, hardship or discomfort. Hone your empathetic skills by getting comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. Allow emotions to move through their nature cycle without the need to fix, interfere or cut things short.
- This article was first published in the March 2019 issue of NZ Horse & Pony. Our February 2020 issues is available from January 27 where all great magazines are sold