The art of making mistakes

By April Clay, Psychologist

The real truth about mistakes is that they will inevitably happen. Sometimes we will need to make mistakes to further our learning and sometimes we will want to let go of mistakes as fast as our minds will allow. Observe some top riders you admire and watch the way they handle their errors (yes, they do make them). If they are truly good at what they do, watch long enough and you will be able to tell what their philosophy is about making mistakes and also how they cope with them.

Through your observations, you will likely pick up on this: the artful mistake maker doesn’t judge. Think about it. As soon as you label something as “bad” this changes the thoughts in your head, which in turn, change the chemistry in your body. An error is not the end of your ride or performance; it’s just a wandering from the path. And wanderings can be corrected smoothly, with practice.

Practice “perfect mistake-making”
You may have heard the expression “practice makes perfect.” You may have also heard this clarified to mean “perfect practice makes perfect.” In other words, you have to watch carefully what it is you practice every day, because you may well be training yourself to do the wrong thing. You may be putting in hours of sweat-inducing, mind-bending practice but if it’s not correctly targeted, your effort will be for naught.

Now, the very same principle applies to the art of mistake making. If what you practice every day is stopping whenever you make a mistake, consider what you are training yourself to do. You may be inadvertently teaching yourself to stop your mind and horse (and keep in mind you are also training your horse!) whenever an error comes up. What happens when you get to the competition? Well, your first (and very trained) impulse will likely be to stop in some way when a mistake occurs when we all know what you have to do is keep going.

So, to encourage this skill you have to practice it. Take a day every week or every two weeks and make this “mistake practice day.” Whatever comes up you work through, you keep moving. You also use this to practice with cues or strategies to help you recover gracefully.

This may sound scary to you, practicing with mistakes, like “what if I get too used to it?”  Remember this: it is not the mistake you are practicing, those happen all by themselves. It is the recovery portion you are practicing, or teaching yourself to cope with.

You have to have a plan
In the show ring, you need a way of redirecting yourself after a mistake happens. Because time is of the essence, this strategy needs to be simple and quick. No time for lengthy talks with yourself or mega analysis. Save that for your training work.

There are popular tried and tested ways, but bear in mind you are free to create your very own. Among the tested, there are visualization cues, word or phrase cues, and emotional cues.

Martial artists have been known to use the term “back to form” when distracted by an error or an emotion. This is a good example of a meaningful phrase that quickly said to yourself, gives the cue to get back to your task. Visualizing parking the error in a stall or in a container is also effective. The message to you: put it away; take it out for understanding purposes when it’s more appropriate.

Emotional cues are anything that helps you connect back up with your fortitude to carry on, or be competitively tough (because that’s what you want, right?) Smiling is one of my all-time favourite emotional cues. Whether you smile slightly on the outside or big on the inside, it has an impact on how you feel. One ingenious rider came up with this emotional cue for herself: “Grrr.” She growled at herself under her breath to remind herself of her strength. For this rider, it helped her to connect to the determination she already knew she had.

Whatever cue you choose, make sure you incorporate it into your “mistake practice.” If you use your chosen strategy enough in training, it will be there to help you out the next time you really need it in a show — guaranteed.