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U.S. Dressage and Achieving a Positive Mindset

by Betsy LaBelle | Sep 11, 2018, 10:00 AM EST

Mill Spring, N.C. - The U.S. Dressage athletes are strong contenders for medals at this year’s FEI World Equestrian Games™ Tryon 2018. Technical Advisor and Chef d’Equipe Robert Dover, U.S. athlete Laura Graves, and her coach, Debbie McDonald share their philosophies and the importance of a positive mindset, care for the horses’ mental states, and envisioning a goal when competing and preparing for major events.

During competition, six-time Olympian, Technical Advisor, and Chef d’Equipe for The Dutta Corp. U.S. Dressage Team Robert Dover’s goal is to support the athlete in their focused effort to take on the test of high-powered competition. “My goal as a Chef d’Equipe is to make sure each competitor’s mindset is focused on the job at hand. They should have already worked out every detail with the fluidity of their horses in the Grand Prix tests, and now they have to head down centerline to show off the beauty of their work,” Dover said. “Each athlete must have a huge amount of self-confidence, as well as confidence in their horse for the task at hand. Most importantly, the athletes possess great self-awareness and are seeing themselves and their horse, as if in a movie, in their minds eye.” He added, “I believe their biggest goal is to have a fantastic ride each time they get on. Ultimately, they are wishing to achieve true excellence, while loving their horses, and to be great in the sport.”

Robert Dover, Debbie McDonald, and Laura Graves at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games (Shannon Brinkman Photo)

With years of day-to-day training with many athletes and their horses, Debbie McDonald, newly appointed Technical Advisor and Chef d’Equipe for the U.S. Dressage Team as of December 1, 2018, shares a tip she discovered to be a huge game-changer in her coaching technique and strategy. A large part of McDonald’s job as a coach is to assist athletes and their horses to perfect the finest of details, earning each point they can from the precise movements that the sport of dressage requires. She finds that being cognizant of the positive verses negative communication used with her athletes can make a big difference in how that athlete processes that information and moves forward.

“I learned a long time ago, long before we had sports psychologists, about using the word ‘don’t’ when teaching,” she shared. “The book I read pointed out certain words in our language, negative words that can be said in a positive way, yet are received still in the negative. Words like ‘don’t,’ ‘you cannot,’ and ‘you should not’ may be said without a coach realizing that we are adding more to the rider than we think. Often we are not conscious of the words we speak. In order to keep it as simple as possible, it’s important we know the meanings of the language we use.”

“For instance, if you say, ‘don’t pull,’ the rider will probably only hear the word ‘pull,’ even though they know they shouldn’t. A person’s brain often only hears what comes after the negative word. It’s an interesting concept to become aware of. Alternatively, I have learned over the years to say, ‘try not to…’ or something similar to get my point across, instead of using those negative words from our language.”

“In coaching, positive communication goes two ways; it goes for the horse and for the athlete,” McDonald explained. “It’s important to have that positive connection with the horse. It’s important to say to the rider, ‘Let’s not take this personally and let’s try to let the horse have a chance to build confidence in this moment, and move on. It’s all about positive reinforcement.”

Each athlete named to The Dutta Corp. U.S. Dressage Team works hard in preparation to garner every point they can from the judges, in their quest to achieve a personal best score. In order to accomplish that feat, the horse-and-rider combinations spend countless hours honing in on the power and fluidity of moving from one movement to the next.

The Dutta Corp. U.S. Dressage Team members Laura Graves and Verdades (Shannon Brinkman Photo)

One such combination, Laura Graves and Verdades, or “Diddy” as he is affectionately known, have honed their communication and positive mindset. Graves also shared a great concept she’s learned to find the key to unlocking Verdades’ brain. Graves explained her approach to training has been influenced by the book The Talent Code, by Daniel Coyle.

“When I read this book, what intrigued me the most about the information is how these small pockets in the world are producing extreme talent,” explained Graves. “Daniel Coyle looked into why lots of athletes are coming out of these certain programs. The book talks about deep practice and not overlooking the mistakes. His findings are to work through each mistake you find, not going around it and to learn everything you can about that mistake until it no longer exists. Then, you go back through whatever series of athletic moves, or in my case dressage movements and you breeze through them.”

“My mindset with each horse, including Diddy, is a little bit different than how most people may look at the training in our sport and how they may look at training in general. I am often surprised by the feedback I get [from people watching] because they can see the horse has actual learning going on,” Graves explained.

“Diddy and I are in the dressage ring for four focused days with that deep learning, and then we take three days off with trails, hacking, or just getting out, letting their minds rest. If I pick up the reins to work the horse, it’s going to be in that deep practice.”

For building blocks of learning Graves said, “Because I train him only four days a week, the intensity of the time we are training is so specific that the overall learning happens rapidly. It’s not that there is never confusion or frustration; it’s how we deal with the mistakes that determine how quickly we progress.”

“My job, number one, is to advocate for the horse, and if the horse is learning, they are also enlightened and they want to participate in that learning,” she said.

The positive mindset of an athlete, whether during an international competition, training with positive language or building great brain-to-body connections with the horses are the great building blocks for the U.S. Dressage Team. We all look forward to cheering them on the first week at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games™ Tryon 2018. Be sure to watch them in action.