Visualisation is more than a just pretty picture

Jo had previously failed her Stage 3 Riding exam, despite having been told she was well above standard. She was therefore very anxious about retaking the exam, to the extent that, as the day got closer, she just spent her time worrying about what might happen. In her mind she was imagining making all sorts of mistakes and just freezing up so that the whole day would descend into a complete disaster…. That sort of thinking feeds a self fulfilling prophecy. As one of her riding coaches I knew how important the exam was to her.

We had a session where she visualised the exam day. Having already been up to the exam centre for a lesson, she could imagine the layout, and having been through the exam she knew the format of the day. We started by setting up an ‘anchor’ for staying calm and confident, so that she could have this resourceful feeling at any point she needed it.

Rather than just imagining a perfect exam, I then asked Jo to imagine the sorts of things that would she would do, building in the importance of checking stirrup leathers, noting what tack the horse was wearing, looking around at other candidates when riding in open order, listening attentively to the instructions given, and relating to the horse in a sensitive way. All of these details were important.

Then we added in the sorts of little errors that could happen, like striking off on the wrong leg or refusing a fence. We visualised how she would cope with them: what she would do to correct it, then how she would stay calm and unflustered and what she would say to the examiner afterwards.

Then we imagined what it was like to be the examiner, stepping into their shoes and seeing it from their perspective. Jo found this very surprising: they actually wanted to pass the candidates, they were not ogres at all!!

We ran through the visualisation as if we were watching a movie a few times, with Jo noticing where she needed to improve it and then discussing what she would do differently. Then she ‘stepped in the movie’, imagining it actually happening to her step by step.

As I saw her happy relaxed expression and confident stance I knew she would pass. She did more than that, getting a pass plus and she was thrilled!

As Jo explains : ” Rationally, I found it easy to visualize passing, but found it difficult to actually believe it deep down. It was only when we ran through the visualization of the whole exam, slowed down with all the detail that I could believe it. Then I felt calm and confident and that I could sort out anything that went wrong on the day.”

She reflected “I realised that I had been fooling myself that everything was alright, yet I needed to face a deep rooted problem of exam nerves and deal with it. And it was a fun way of sorting it out- Liz made me laugh as we worked it out and in the end I really enjoyed the exam.”

As her story illustrates, our approach to Visualisation is much more than positive images, or saying unrealistic affirmations to yourself. When effectively coached, you can go back to your best performance time after time, and add in how to get even better.