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Monday, April 22, 2013

Athletic Mind as a Horse

A friend once used this analogy to illustrate how our bodies respond when learning new skills. With the help of a knowledgable horse woman,* I've tweaked it to represent general temperaments of our minds as athletes. As a disclaimer, I know that generalizations are never the entire picture, but I'm particularly fond of this "Athletic Mind as a Horse" concept. I see my own mind in each horse type as I've moved through a few years of Girevoy Sport training.

One last thought about the Mind as a Horse: This equation is symbolic of mental maturity and evolution. It acknowledges the potential power of the well-trained mind, and the potential chaos it creates when the mind is left wild. In my perception this addresses Girevoy Sport athletes. None of us are exempt from physical discipline and hard work, and any one competition can illustrate the mental game involved. See if you can relate with some of the descriptions below.

The Light Horse: Most commonly known as Thoroughbreds, these include Arabian or other riding breeds. These horses, known to be "spirited," twitchy, and distractible, have been painstakingly domesticated from their wild, lightening-fast ancestors. Historically these horses were a main force on  battle fields. Horse and rider developed a symbiotic relationship as they faced victory or death together. Through time Light Horses were bred specifically to maintain the "hot blood" qualities that make them excellent racing and riding horses. Now they are seen in equestrian events such as jumping, hunting and show riding competitions, sports requiring subtle cues from the saddle thus a well-trained rider. These light-weight horse are not suited to haul a heavy load, but will pull a light carriage or work in teams. They are likely to throw an inexperienced rider rather than endure that person's learning curve.

This athlete's raw skill shines in individual sports. As a mental perspective, this is when I want to perform according to what I already know. As a learner my Light Horse Mind has difficulty learning from someone who is not attuned to my subtlety (horse-people joke about this quality in Arabians). I expect to be the star even if I'm on a team. When I am in Light Horse Mind, I do not like excessive prompting. I would rather be appreciated for the hours of training I've already done. I want helpful reminders of my training like "slow down" or "active breathing," not overplayed encouragement like "Okay, that's 2 minutes! Only 8 more! Good job, Christian!" And I do not want to be recruited to count someone else's reps.
Poor attitude and resistance is to be expected when I am this type of athlete. You can see how this is a problem...

Just because the mental space of this athlete is light-weight does not mean he/she is physically delicate. For instance a Light Horse Mind athlete might be able to compete with 32kg LongCycle, but refuses to do cardio conditioning between seasons - it's outside the comfort zone. Or perhaps it's a light-weight lifter who refuses assistant strength training for fear of going up in weight class. In essence, the Light Horse Mind puts up resistance to skills that could change his/her relationship to that specialty move. In the world of horses it's a matter of matching the task with the animal; in Girevoy Sport reality this Mind-set will only last so long (unless the lifter only plans to do exhibition meets). If this is you, or one of your athletes, I advise a Reality Check. Check out your competition. What is your closest "rival" doing to win? Also, how long do you plan to be in this sport? As we know in GS versatility supports longevity. Maybe this is your Year of Snatch, but next year, Biathlon-a-thon!

The Warmblood Horse: This includes several breeds of stock horse, including the Quarter Horse, that are carefully crossed between sure-footed Light Horse breeds and sturdy Work Horse breeds. In riding stables, "warm bloods" are known as the "nannies;" naturally agile and patient, they are safe for beginner riders due to the willing, even temperament of these animals. In history, these mid-weight horses were loved for their versatility, having capacity for long distance running and cattle drives. Now they are used to race, carry riders, pull in teams, herd cattle and in equestrian shows. This type of animal has a bond with its rider, and needs surprising little prompting to do new tasks. Because they are willing and intelligent, these horses can be pushed to injury, which could be their only weakness. If a rider is confused, the Warmblood Horse will go the way it sees fit.

This athlete's natural physical awareness seems to grant innate skills. This is when my mind is "grounded in my body" and I am interested in refining technical skills that will improve my lifting. In my Warmblood Mind I will persist, incorporate new movement skills and enjoy the fruits of intense concentration. As with my animal counterpart, I can take corrections constructively and integrate new physical awareness with familiar techniques. I want to use training sessions interactively, alternating between physical practice and cognitive processing. In the Warmblood Horse Mind-set I am inspired to train outside my comfort zone, share training sessions and support my team at competitions. This is the phase that has me preparing two different events for three different competitions.

The athlete with Warmblood Mind has mental patience and agility, but might not immediately excel at all physical skills. In Girevoy Sport this could be an athlete who wins the Absolute Lifter award (for total volume) but does not win all three events. The Warmblood Mind is coordinated, so a trainer might attempt to pack too much into one lesson. This will frustrate the athlete, being unused to repeated failures. He/she will eventually  change coaches rather than follow erroneous guidance. My advice to this athlete/coaching team is to examine challenging techniques as a composite of various awarnesses: body positioning; breathing; and visual/mental focus. Using physical compartments the athlete will improve skills in solo-practice and look for fine-tuning in coached sessions.

The Work Horse: Well-loved for strength and patience, in history the draft and pony breeds were used for pulling heavy carts and plowing fields. Also called "cold bloods" these heavy-weight horses can pull immense loads alone or on a team, and carry riders. Historically these animals hauled loads and carried the cannon-wagons on the stage of battle. They were, and are, a staple of agricultural cultures. Strong musculature and power are the most notable attributes of this horse type. These calm, docile animals perform best with a handler who interacts with them as they work, thus avoiding the tendency to plod along into complacency. This quality is seen in the Pony Ride at a circus, where the horses are harnessed to a central hub and prompted by the ride boss. Out of laziness rather than a dull mind a Work Horse will come to a stop with lack of guidance.

This athlete's work capacity produces impressive results. When my mind is a Work Horse I need to be guided with technical accuracy. Once in gear I will run to exhaustion, and once out of gear I will rest until directed to move. As with my four-legged counterpart, the most effective training style for me in this Mind-set focusses on efficiency. This is when my trainer and I need to agree on the goal. In my Work Horse cycles there are only two words in my vocabulary: "Okay" and "Coach." I train with staunch determination, devoid of emotions, to master my one lift. Eh, one lift....

It is inaccurate to say an athlete with Work Horse Mind is big and slow. This person might be amazingly adept with one skill-set but stumbles over less complex tasks. For example, a lifter who can LongCycle (Clean+Jerk) but lacks capacity for Jerk Only may be a natural Work Horse, or in a Work Horse Mind stage. This lifter will power his/her way to the Co-Efficient (Relative Strength) award in one event with the right coaching. And the coach is key. Work Horse Mind will do whatever the coach wants. It is important for an athlete's longevity in GS to not burn-out with one lift, so if this athlete/coach team hopes to make use of our sport's extremely long athletic career potential I suggest changing events every few seasons. This may translate into less-than-perfect results for a few competitions, but it will round out the athlete's physical repertoire. A time-tested training method that is well suited for the Work Horse Mind is "chunking:" a complex movement sequence is segmented into smaller parts and trained as separate movement skills. Over time, the segments come together with technical precision.

So what are you saying, Christian?.....  Although I did advise a GS athlete to only stay briefly in the Light Horse Mind, I am not saying it is "bad." My real purpose for this article is to suggest that athletes consider their natural mental tendency. Once you can honestly recognize yourself, then you can endeavor to look outside and refine your Mental Skill-set. Ultimately, we will all do our best work if we allow a variety of perspectives to enrich our original natures. This does require some self-examination and the ability to be uncomfortable with new ideas while their value becomes apparent. In the long run, looking at the Mind as a Horse helps to make it a little less personal and vital for our true being. And this, in my opinion, is an important step in living up to our potential as athletes.

*Thanks to Rachel Jarvis, who knows more about animals than anyone I know, and her friend Christina for helping direct my comments on horse training. To contact Rachel for riding lessons in the Sugarloaf Mountain area, or advise on your horse, dog, cat, snake, or whatever creature you love, email :

As always, your comments and opinions are welcome. Please see my website for more information about my services :


  1. Hello,

    I have a question about your blog, could you please email me? Thanks!!


    1. Please feel free to continue your observations in comment, Milady.