Do Affirmations Really Work?
By April Clay, M.Ed., Registered Psychologist
It’s a new year and time for a new you, right? If one of your goals is to gain more confidence in your riding, that’s certainly a worthwhile focus.
Just think positive! You have likely heard this familiar advice at some point in your riding career. A popular way to encourage you to do this is to get you to write and recite affirmations. These are short, positive statements about your riding, such as “I am relaxed and confident” or “I am a winning competitor.”
But do these feel good statements work? Can they really help you boost your sagging sport esteem? There are mixed reviews on the effectiveness of affirmations. If they work so well, why are we not all wealthy or draped in first place ribbons?
I believe... I think
If you are one of those people who has tried but failed to use affirmations effectively, you are not alone. Research points to some specific reasons why this strategy may not work.
The weakness behind the use of affirmations has to do with our ability to really believe the statements we are making to ourselves. That’s right, in effect we “get in our own way.” You make the affirmation to yourself: “I am an effective rider.” Your subconscious mind then kicks in and says something like “you haven’t placed in a class in the last year — get real!” If the message you just sent yourself does not match your deepest belief systems, the subconscious then interprets the statement as a lie, and goes right back to believing what it has always believed.
Another reason affirmations may not be as powerful as we would hope has to do with the old “what resists, persists” principle. Whenever we have a strong feeling about something, it can be tough to just will it away.
This is exactly what Virginia psychologist Daniel Wegner’s research revealed. He put his subjects in a room with a tape recorder and asked them to talk about whatever they liked. There was only one rule — they were not to think about a white bear.
Wegner found that subjects mentioned the bear very often, despite numerous attempts and tricks to keep the image from their mind. His research informs us that the thoughts we most want to keep from ourselves have a nasty habit of growing in strength the harder we try to keep them at bay. What this means is that your attempts to recite your affirmations may be overrun or in conflict with another belief that you are trying to push from your mind, which is proving to be just as stubborn as that darned white bear.
So there you are, desperately trying to repeat good things to yourself and your own mind is sabotaging you! What do you do?
Tricking the Mind
Fortunately, there are ways to get around your mind saboteur. Part of the difficulty with using affirmations may come from using the statement: “I am.” When you are saying to yourself “I am an excellent rider,” or “I am calm and collected,” these statements may open you up for attack. Then your mind says “you are not!” and you feel defeated.
But what happens if you drop the first part of this statement and just focus on the descriptive words? You no longer have a condition for conflict. What you have now is a “power word.” So you say to yourself “excellence” and just let this word resonate within you. Let your mind freely associate about excellence, and what it means to you. What would your behaviour be like if you achieved excellence in your sport? How would you hold your body? Who would be around you?
What this does is enable your mind to personalize the word for you. It also allows you to freely explore (without working out the conflict of “am I?” or “aren’t I?”) what you would be like with different beliefs. This is the very first step to being able to have them. Your mind needs to be able to contemplate and visualize what “a changed you” may look like, bringing this new vision into the realm of reality.
There are a few ways you can develop words to use as affirming power words. You can choose a word that represents a goal you want to accomplish or a state you wish to achieve. Here are some examples:
To support your goals: excellence, poise, resourcefulness, commitment, persistence, success, achievement, focus, competence, progress, knowledge, proficiency.
To create a state: power, grace, energy, light, engage, soft, release, forward, compress, elevate, patience, strength, connect, harmony, confidence, dance, converse, shine.
Try this exercise as a test run. Sit comfortably and take a few minutes to relax your body, taking a few deep-clarifying breaths. Next, for a few minutes choose one of the preceding words (or one of your own) to hold in your mind. Don’t try to force anything, just be with the word and let your mind go. See what visual images, emotions and videos pop up.
Here is one rider’s experience: I think of the word “harmony” and my mind floats to the way my horse feels when he is responding to my aids. I feel and see myself being consistent and clear in how I communicate to him. I can almost feel his happiness because we are really connecting. I can feel a difference in my own body: it’s so flexible, yet the way I hold it is definite somehow. I see myself competing with harmony. It’s way different than I thought, like I always thought competition had to be stressful. It doesn’t! I can really see how it’s possible to ‘take harmony to the show-ring’.” I can really see how continuing with this kind of focus just for a few minutes daily could help me. It sort of sets up my mind for what I want to do, it feels great. Like a really pleasant daydream.
This example illustrates the interesting process that can flow from just one word. It helped to connect this particular rider with a different possibility about herself in competition. She began to believe that she could be relaxed and merely focused on her horse while doing a dressage test in front of others. In effect, her perception shifted. She actually ended up somewhere that surprised her, as she did not set out to get to this specific realization.
Now, if she had tried to use an affirmation like “I am a harmonious rider,” there is a chance her mind might have objected and cut her off. It would have certainly gone off searching somewhat to assess whether this was a true statement. Certainly some of her energy would have been diverted to this search, instead of just contemplating what “harmony” meant, or could mean, for her personally.
You will of course have to do numerous sessions (which fortunately don’t take long) to see results. Think of it as a rehearsal, and know that rehearsals get easier and more powerful as time progresses. If you do experience resistance to a word, don’t panic, but rather, go with it. Get curious, not furious.
Write down what you notice about this resistance. What kind of images come to you? How do you feel in your body? You might end up with some clues for some other kind of work you need to do with your confidence. Perhaps you need to better strengthen a physical skill for example, or seek out more clarification of what your coach has been asking of you. Persist with your practice, without trying too hard to make things happen. Eventually this kind of resistance resolves itself. It becomes easier and easier to conceive of a different kind of riding reality.
Also, keep in mind that some words just won’t do it for you. It’s definitely a trial and error process. You often have to try them on, see them in action, to assess their impact on your personal psyche. You may find it helpful to set up your practice as an experiment. Again, by using this word, you help dissolve resistance and as well the pressure of certain expectations. Have fun with your mental games, play a little!
Now, it may be that you are someone who likes the “I am” kind of affirmations. They do seem to work for some athletes. The world of sport and other psychology can only tell us what works for the majority. This is always the ultimate test for any mental training tool you develop — does it really work for me? Develop your own system, your very own physical and mental riding style.
Main article photo: Soul Touch Photography