Videography: Using Technology To Improve Your Performance
Have you ever found yourself bemoaning the fact that you want to be in a consistent training program but your budget is already stretched to the limit? Maybe you can swing one lesson a month but by that time, so many little habits have crept in that your instructor has to do repair work rather than going on to something new. It’s so frustrating, but you just can’t figure out how you can afford more instruction.”
Well, how about complementing your lessons with the inexpensive and readily available source of information provided by videotapes? Taping your lessons, schooling sessions, and competitive rides can give you valuable feedback but, to get the most out of them, it’s important to watch with a plan and avoid becoming so self-critical that you look at a tape once and spend the rest of the week trying to get over the damage done to your wounded self-image.
Perceive Don’t Judge
Sports psychology consultant Dr. Kenneth Ravizza, a professor at Cal State Fullerton University in California, cautions riders not to personalize their performances. He says, “Riders often do this by drawing the mistaken conclusion that ‘If I ride well, I’m great. If I ride poorly, I’m a terrible person.’ Keep in mind that you are a person first and a rider second. You must learn how to differentiate between the two to keep everything in perspective. You are a person who happens to compete. That’s one of many things you do. How you perform is not the basis of who you are; it’s how you perform. It’s very difficult for an athlete, especially young athletes, because so much of their self-esteem comes from performing. You must keep a broader perspective or your enjoyment is going to go out the window.”
“When overcoming challenges, remember you are more than just a rider,” reflects Ravizza. “Very few riders are going to end up being Olympians. There are lessons you learn in riding that help you in life; that’s the bridge between riding and life that is truly exciting.”
So when you look at your tapes, stay emotionally detached. Plan to keep a scientific point of view even if, in order to do so, you have to pretend you’re watching someone else riding. You are observing merely to gather information–to collect data much as a researcher does. Your job is not to judge whether the ride is “good” or “bad”.
Next have a realistic goal. Aim for progress not perfection. If you’re expecting to be perfect, you’re bound to be discouraged. When your goal becomes just making some progress, you’ll always feel positive about the learning process. Every little victory is cause for celebration.
Finally, change your attitude toward mistakes. Welcome them because they are an essential part of the learning process. We don’t learn from our successes. We learn from our failures.
Ravizza concurs. He says, “Riders need to realize that they are not perfect; they are going to make mistakes. But failure is part of riding. If you want to be great, there is a lot of failure that goes with it. When you watch a videotape, don’t be overly critical. If you find yourself just picking apart one flaw after another, there comes a point when all you’re doing is beating yourself up. Often athletes are so critical of themselves and so into technique that they become overly obsessed with the technique and forget that riding is really about the connection between the rider and the horse.”
“Avoiding The “All Or None Syndrome”
Most athletes–and riders in particular–are perfectionists. They see their performances in black or white terms and, as a result, become too judgmental. A rider can avoid this “all or none syndrome” by adopting a program that allows her to learn from her tapes in bite-size, digestible pieces.
So when you sit down to watch your tapes, plan to do it several times. During each viewing, focus on only one aspect of riding. This helps you to see that your entire ride was not “bad”. There are probably parts of it that are very good. This approach also helps you pinpoint weaker areas so you know exactly what you need to do for homework. For example, perhaps you decide that the rhythm, suppleness and contact are quite good, but in order to really sparkle, you need to improve impulsion.
So the first time through your tape, study your position. Take special notice of your seat. Are you always sitting in the center of the saddle? Do you maintain a straight line from your ear through your shoulder through your hip to your heel as well as the line from the bit to your hand to your elbow? Is your center of gravity in sync with your horse’s center of gravity? And particularly, take note of when your position changes. Do you lose your balance during extensions, transitions from pace to pace or perhaps in lateral work?
Once you analyze your position, go back through the tape several more times. Each time focus on one element of the training scale. The first time concentrate on your horse’s rhythm. Notice any time when the rhythm or tempo changes. Perhaps the rhythm is generally steady and regular, but you see that the tempo slows down during leg yields and speeds up during lengthenings. Or perhaps you’ll observe that you need to ride the canter more forward in order to prevent the rhythm from degenerating into four beats.
With each subsequent viewing, examine only one element of the training scale. Next time through check your horse’s suppleness–noting his flexibility and elasticity both laterally and longitudinally. Is he able to maintain his balance during transitions forward and back as well as side to side?
Then concentrate on the contact. Do you keep a straight line from the bit to your hand to your elbow as well as a firm, consistent, elastic contact with your horse’s mouth at all times? Look particularly at what happens to the contact during transitions.
Next evaluate your horse’s impulsion. Does he always move with power from behind. Are there times when he is just going fast rather than moving with impulsion? Does the impulsion die when you start a lateral movement such as shoulder-in?
Look at the straightness. Are your horse’s hind feet following in the tracks made by his front feet? Does his spine always overlap his line of travel both on straight and curved lines or do you sometimes bend his neck too much to the inside?
Finally, check your horse’s degree of collection. Does he consistently carry himself to a degree that is appropriate to his level of training? Are there moments, such as during transitions from pace to pace or within the pace, when his balance shifts to the forehand? Does the elevation of his head and neck correspond to the amount of engagement behind or are you artificially raising his head and neck with your hands?
Ravizza suggests, “Evaluating your ride by the individual criterion, can show you what you need to focus on in order to pull you back to where you need to be for a good performance. For example, simply by concentrating on keeping the rhythm regular, you might find that everything else seems to fall back into place.
After you’ve studied all the pieces, however, watch your tape one more time. This final time, put it all back together and view your ride as a whole. You want to “feel” all of those qualities like rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness, and collection at once because that is the way you experience it.”
The Mental Game
Ravizza, who works with amateur and professional athletes–including Olympians–in all sports, says, “biomechanics are important, but riders need to look at the ride as a whole, to connect with the feelings and thought processes they were experiencing while riding the test. Sometimes when we watch tapes, I ask the athlete where her focus was. We review not only what was going on physically, but what was going on in terms of the mental game.
This is important so that the rider can recognize when she starts to lose focus or when she starts beating herself up with negative self-talk. I liken it to driving a car. If the light is green, everything is fine and you just keep going. If the light is yellow, you check the intersection, look in the rear view mirror for the police, and then make your decision. If the light is red, you better stop.
It’s the same with riding. A really bad ride doesn’t become that way quickly. It’s a gradual process that builds up until you are totally out of control. Watching your tapes can help you to pinpoint what was going on mentally so that you can recognize the “yellow light” and nip it in the bud early. That way you don’t let it escalate to the point where you lose focus or your self-talk becomes negative.”
Ravizza also suggests that riders learn to break things down into smaller segments and focus on only one part at a time when they look at their tapes. “Segmentation is key. In dressage you need to stay in the moment and concentrate on doing one part at a time. Do not get into doing the whole performance at once because it’s too overwhelming.
To do well, you have to stay focused on what is happening only in the present moment. Too often you’ll be doing one part of your test but you’re not really present mentally because you’re worried about a difficult movement that’s coming up in the future. If you get too far ahead of yourself, your technique starts breaking down because you’re not focused on what’s happening right now.
When you finally get to that difficult movement you’ve been dreading, you end up nailing it. But then once again you lose focus by not staying in the moment. You’re feeling so good about what you just did in the immediate past that you proceed to make a mistake on some very basic element that’s coming up next.”
Have you ever heard the expression “Practice makes perfect”? Well, the truth is that practice doesn’t make perfect–especially if all you’re practicing are your mistakes! “Perfect practice” makes perfect, and videotapes give you a wonderful opportunity to do some “perfect practice” in your mind.
Visualization helps to increase a rider’s confidence and conviction. After all, nothing succeeds like success. “Viewing tapes of yourself during a good ride can be helpful with your training program,” comments Ravizza. “I encourage riders to watch tapes and use them to help with their imagery and visualization. Sometimes I’ll have riders splice together different tapes, especially if they’re having problems with a difficult movement. We’ll put together a two-minute tape, showing the rider getting through the movement again and again. This can be a real confidence builder because the athlete sees herself doing well.”
Keep in mind that visualization is most effective when the mental pictures are vivid and seen in great detail. Ravizza suggests that you watch yourself doing something well and then ” close your eyes and implant it in your mind. The video helps you to fill in details and make the image richer. By using imagery, you’re placing in your mind a graphic picture of what you want a movement to look like. Look at it every once in a while then close your eyes and just imagine yourself doing it well.”
In addition, research has shown that visualization is more than simply running the tape in your head. Studies have been done showing that when a person visualizes a specific activity, his muscles demonstrate small but detectable amounts of the same electrical activity that occurs when he is actually performing that activity. For example, when a person imagines himself running, small, measurable amounts of contraction actually take place in the muscles associated with running. Imagined running excites the same neurological pathways as running in reality.
So it stands to reason that if you a study a videotape of, for example, an exceptional transition in your dressage test and take the time to visualize it vividly in your mind, your neurological pathways and muscles will remember that activity. Your body will have the advantage of your mind directing the recreation of those perfect movements.
Videotapes can also be useful when recovering from an injury to yourself or your horse. When athletes are injured, Ravizza says, they sometimes can’t imagine themselves getting past the injury. They replay the moments leading up to the injury again and again in their minds so that not only can’t they perform the movement successfully, they can’t even imagine themselves doing it at all. Watching videotape highlights of a successful performance, however, helps to get past the mental roadblocks that often accompany injury.
“When horses are lame or riders are recovering from injuries,” comments Ravizza, “watching a videotape can be very helpful in keeping the rider’s mind sharp. You can exercise imagery and visualization while you’re viewing the tape, as well as nurture your love for riding. Often a rider is so into her injury or her horse’s injury, every time she thinks of riding, it’s depressing. But by watching a video, she can at least check in on some positive thoughts.”
Another way you can utilize videotapes to do “perfect practice” is to study tapes of top riders. Watch Anky van Grunsven on Gestion Bonfire doing perfect canter pirouettes. Plant that picture firmly in your mind’s eye. Then take the process one step further. Put yourself in Anky’s boots. Then place your entire body on Bonfire and “experience” riding the perfect pirouette. Finally, visualize sitting on your own horse who is doing a pirouette which looks identical to Bonfire’s!
Ann Guptill, silver medalist in the 1987 Pan-American Games and owner of Equestrian Arts productions in East Haddam, Connecticut recognizes the importance of videotapes as an educational tool. She states, “Video cameras are a good investment in a rider’s education because you can see and correct your own problems. Using a camera for one session may be better than taking three lessons to learn and analyze one aspect of your training. Cameras require an initial investment, but in the long run they more than pay for themselves. A camera can really speed up your learning process. When viewing the tape, you can slow it down, stop motion, rewind and watch it again and again. This is especially helpful when viewing a tape with your trainer. You can freeze frame the tape, analyze the movement, and play it again. It is an indispensable training tool.”
” You can also ask your videographer to zoom in on specific body parts such as your hands or legs as well as your horse’s mouth, jaw, poll, and legs,” reports Guptill. Record his leg action and footfall in all three paces from various angles–from the side, head-on, and from behind. The videotape may provide answers about your horse’s performance that are only apparent in a frame-by-frame analysis. Not only does this give you useful information but it may also be valuable to your farrier, trainer, and veterinarian.
Edit together several tapes from throughout a season to keep a visual journal of your progress. This job can be easily accomplished by “cutting and pasting” with two video cassette recorders. This visual record will help you remain positive about the fact that you are indeed making progress.
When reviewing your competition videos, keep your judge’s test sheets in front of you to compare what you felt to what the judges saw. “If you’re working with the same horse for a few seasons in a row, it’s really interesting to look at the muscle development in the horse,” adds Guptill, “not just the ability level and what movements you’re able to perform, but also the whole outline of the horse.”
This article is reprinted with permission from Dressage Today ©1999.
Reproduction is prohibited without written permission from the publisher.