Eyes Up! Heels Down! Grab Mane! Atta Girl!

Twenty five years ago when I was doing a sport psychology workshop for rowers we were working on their self-talk. In looking at self-talk you often also look at the kind of coaching you had—what you heard from others. Our ability to learn language and speak typically follows the same path—first language is receptive—we take in words. Then language is expressive—we use them. So looking at what you took in over the course of your life is important so that you can see what you want to keep and what you want to change.

One of the exercises the athletes did was to think of a time when someone did a particularly good job giving them helpful instructions—from both an information and emotion standpoint. And one woman, Annie, raised her hand and said I have the best example. And it was a fabulous example, one that has stayed with me for these 25 years. Annie’s story was that she had been a horseback rider when she was a young girl and one day she was riding a particularly difficult horse. It was a new horse to the barn and she was riding it to test it out and see if they could train it and it began to try to buck her off. Her mother both ran the stable and was the riding instructor and when she turned around and saw the horse bucking she yelled across the ring, “Annie! Eyes up! Heels down! Grab mane! Atta Girl!”

“Annie! Eyes up! Heels down! Grab mane! Atta Girl!”

Both structurally and metaphorically this coaching is peerless. Structurally Annie’s mom got Annie’s attention by using her name, saying I see you and know you are having a hard time—listen to me. She gave her the exact instructions Annie needed to stay on the horse. 'Eyes up' meant she kept her eyes where she wanted to stay—she kept her eyes on the goal. 'Heels down' meant that she had her center of gravity back down and was able to use the stirrups to hold her. She kept her seat. 'Grab mane' because it was a solid handhold that wasn’t going anywhere. She didn’t go in to long details, or instruction—just the necessary actions that would keep her on the horse.  And she followed it up with a word of praise, 'Atta Girl', acknowledgement of the success of her actions. There was no lecture, no judgment, no I told you so’s. This is the kind coaching that the brain takes in the best, and the kind of coaching that creates the most useful, sustainable self-talk

But the other reason I loved this story is that this story and the coaching is perfect for any metaphorical horse that is trying to throw us. There are just times when we hit bumpy patches—whether it is being a new parent, or starting a new job, or healing from trauma. There are days or issues or conversations that can have us feeling like we are just going to get thrown at any minute, like we are hanging on for dear life and we don’t know what to do. And we just need to hear that calm voice shouted across the ring, “________"(fill in your name)! Eyes up! (Remember your goal—see it, visualize, keep your gaze on it). Heels down! (Do what you need to feel more grounded) Grab mane! (Hold on to your strengths and resources right now). Atta Girl! (boy, etc) (Well done. You don’t need to be a perfect rider to get praise, you need to stay engaged in staying on to get praise, and you are doing that. Go You!).

So you can do the exercise that the rowers did: what was the best coaching you ever got from someone? Write what you heard down on a sheet of paper or on a bunch of post-it notes. What was helpful about it? (What worked well for you?) How can you use more of that coaching in your current self -talk to help you towards you goals or help you with your healing? Create some good mantras to have at the ready for your bumpy moments, for your learning moments, for your healing moments.

And if you are at a loss at any point you can always borrow Annie’s: Eyes Up! Heels down! Grab mane! Atta Girl!

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2016