Marlies van Schelven: Your brain can be made

Your brain can be made: 6 tips to make good use of that

motivationmental performance rider


Written by Marlies van Schelven

When you do something often, it will become a habit in time. That makes it’s easier for you, because you don’t have to think about it anymore. But it can also be difficult for you, because you may get stuck in your old ways. These are hard to forget.

With dressage it’s just the same. Over the years you’ve trained, learned, used your intuition, which produced of a lot of habits. You make use of those habits without even thinking about it.

But some habits may not be the best ones to have and these are hard to change. For example, you get stuck in the way that you train your horse, because that’s how you always did it.

Luckily, your brain can be made. It’s possible to start developing yourself again. Because talent isn’t something you have or don’t have. It’s something you can grow. When you train with attention and motivation, it’s possible to develop yourself to higher level than you’d ever expected.

Because talent isn’t something you have or don’t have. It’s something you can grow

But how do you change those habits? I will have to tell you more about your brain to find out.

From a goat path to a highway
Every thought or movement in your body is created by the cells of your brain, called neurons. They are all connected by firing chemical signs to each other. So everything you think, do or feel, is a neural circuit of firing neurons.

The circuits aren’t that strong in the beginning. You can compare it with a goat path in the mountains. But once you start with thinking a certain thought more often of you do a specific activity again and again, your goat path will start to grow. The more you repeat, the bigger it gets. Eventually your goat path turns into a highway and your neural circuit became stronger.

The next step is getting your highway asphalted. Myelin will do that. Every time you use a certain neural circuit, the layer of myelin becomes thicker. This explains why you often have the same thoughts or react every time in a similar way. You’ve developed an asphalted highway in your brain.

All the thought you have or the movements you make during a training, if they’re helpful or not, are there because myelin has isolated them in your brain. Are you quickly annoyed at your horse? Myelin. Are you a patient rider? Guess what: myelin.

6 tips to asphalt new highways
So through time all the habits you have with riding are programmed in your brain. But, like I said earlier, your brain can be made. The program can be adjusted. It’s possible to tear down the highway and make a new, better one.

Since you now know some basics about your brain, I’ll give you 6 tips to get started.

1. Focus your attention to what’s relevant and necessary

Before even getting on your horse, take a minute to think about what’s the most relevant thing that you need to do this training. By focussing your attention on what’s important and necessary for you, dopamine will start flowing. This is basically a reward system for your body, which will make you feel good. So: what’s in it for you?

2. Use associations

Try everything to associate everything you learn with something that’s related to that moment. With association you create an exit to the highway. The more associations you have, the more exits you make and the easier it will be to get on the highway.

You can use all your senses while associating. Maybe you’ve heard a song playing during the training or there was a particular smell. They are the context you’ve learned with the actual content of the training and therefor an extra association. The next time you hear that song or smell that particular smell, you’ll associate it with what you’ve learned. Another exit to your carefully build highway.

3. Watch others, but make certain that you can relate

It can be very helpful to watch other people practice what you want to achieve. By watching, the mirror neurons in your brain develop a blueprint for a new neural circuit.

So the next time you try it yourself, your brain will help you out. But when you can’t relate to what the person is doing, for example a rider practicing a pirouette while you’re still figuring out how to do a shoulder in, your brain won’t do anything with what you’ve been seeing.

Make sure that you watch someone to whom you can relate.

4. Make sure you have a framework

Once you get all the new knowledge and skills, you have to have a framework to put it all on. You can do this by giving yourself homework after training with your horse. Write down the feelings, associations and thoughts you’ve had and gotten while riding and think about it the next time you step on your horse. Because every association is an exit to the highway that you’re building.

5. Dare yourself… but not too much!

It’s good to challenge yourself. It might exciting of maybe a little scary, but you’ll create adrenaline. This will help you to learn even better, because it makes your neural circuits stronger and bigger. So take yourself up to the challenge and plan a competition, ride a clinic or go riding at the beach. But watch out that the tension won’t get too high, because stress has the opposite effect and won’t help you learn.

6. Get an trainer that suits you

Trainers play a big part in your development as a rider. Their lessons have to make your dopamine flow by stimulating your curiosity, giving you a safe feeling and by being proud of your achievements. So make sure you get a trainer that suits you as a rider as well as a person.

There are a lot of possibilities when you want to develop your riding skills. Use these 6 tips on a regular basis while training or even while watching a video or visiting an event.

That’s how you make sure that every action you take will benefit your development. When you’re conscious about what and how you learn, you will be building some sustainable highways!

Now I’m curious about your ways of learning.

Did you ever use these techniques before? Do you have any other tips?

Let me know in the comments.

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