Last week I saw an obituary in the New York Times online and a blog post by a fellow dressage rider that rang a loud bell in my head about the positivity vs negativity balance.
The obituary was for Dr. Jimmie Holland who had died at the age of 89. I had never actually heard of this woman but when I read the obit I knew I agreed with her stance on “positivity” in illness. Dr. Holland established a division of psychiatry at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan in the 1970s. She was the first woman to head a clinical department there. Dr. Holland spoke against what she described as: “the tyranny of positive thinking.” She felt that a good attitude was a good thing but when a patient had cancer the treatment was bad enough without pressure to be “positive”.
“When all of your family and friends are saying that you have to be positive and you have to fight this thing and the patient is exhausted and beaten up by the treatments —it seemed to me that adding that burden to be positive was just ridiculous.” She told Medscape.com in 2015. She urged doctors to screen for emotional distress as well as physical vital signs and to give physiological symptoms treatment as well as just treating the body.
I am a cancer survivor myself and I am often told it was because of my positive attitude. I tried to be as positive as I could because it made me feel better but perhaps I was just in denial. Perhaps that was my loophole. If I had not survived would I have been accused of not being positive enough or being too weak? I am in agreement with Dr. Holland . There can be a negative affect from too much emphasis on “positivity” in illness.
Dressage is an equestrian discipline that offers innumerable opportunities for negativity. From the lowest levels up to the international levels of the FEI (International Equestrian Federation) there is a quest for perfection in the execution of the movements that requires exacting, detailed focus and persistence. There is no ‘flying on the seat of your pants’ with dressage.
The same day that I read the obituary for Dr. Holland I also saw a blog post from a fellow dressage rider. It was about how hard it is to look at pictures or videos of oneself riding and not despair at the less than perfect position or execution of the riding. Don’t laugh! Dressage riders beat themselves up on a regular basis; even the best of them do it. I have heard Olympians say things like: “Oh…look at my right hand! What is it doing up there? Why do I do that?” There were a number of comments on the blog post with each comment admitting, confessing or despairing about some detail of their position or their effectiveness as riders. Self criticism and negativity aplenty.
Competition dressage, at all levels, focuses on what is wrong or needs improvement and to a lesser extent on what is correct or good. After you have finished your test ride you collect your test from the show office and look at what the judge has given you for marks for each movement and what their comments are about each movement. The judge’s job is to explain in the comments the reason for the mark given. These marks range from 0 (not performed at all) to 10 ( this is an exceptional mark rarely awarded and although it should mean “perfect’ it actually means “excellent”. A 5 is “satisfactory”, 7 “fairly good” an 8 “good” and a 9 “very good”. So as you can see it is hardly a “Whooo-hooooo! Yaaaaaay!” even for a very good test. The judges final comments can have some helpful suggestions of what to work on for better marks next time and sometimes a nice comment about the horse and rider partnership. Over my years of dressage competition I have learned to talk with my coach and go over the test comments before I decide to put my head in a gas oven. That always brings perspective to the test, the marks and the comments.
Even for those who stay at home and train without entering into the fray of competition it can be hard to remain positive. This is why having a coach that can push you and correct you in a positive way is essential. I’m sorry to say there are many coaches out there who take out their own frustrations on their students and those students are demoralized and certainly in a negative headspace. My advice would be to leave those coaches and find one who can give you the training you want and also give you confidence as a rider. They do exist. I have two of them; Belinda Trussell at home in Canada and in Florida during the winter season Luis Reteguiz Denizard. They push me to my limits and do it in a way that makes me believe I can do it.
Maintaining a positive attitude is not easy in dressage and quite possibly in the other equestrian disciplines as well. The reason positivity it is so important is that a positive attitude forms the base of confidence. Without confidence it is not possible to ride well or to even enjoy riding.
The day I saw the obituary and the blog post I saw this on the wall at the gym.
It seemed like “positivity” was the theme of the day. My conclusion was that it is nice to think we can “always” be positive but there are times when it is not possible. Severe illness may be one of those times. That may be a time when we need extra help and support and not have everyone just telling us to “be positive”.
As a dressage rider I know it is very important to have a positive attitude. But I also need some help in the feedback I get from my coaches and also by looking back to a year ago and reminding myself of how much my horse and I have improved. And finally I would like to say that I think that the root of “positivity” lies in “persistence”.
What do you think about positivity versus negativity in illness, life, sport or your work? Leave me a comment I’d love to know your thoughts.