Dr. Haefner's Blog post # 7: The Plain Of Possibility - Increasing the Probability of Peak Performance


One of the things that many people don’t know about me is that I hold Bachelor of Science degree in Physics.  I have always been interested in the scientific knowledge of our natural world and how the insights from advanced scientific study enrich our understanding of ourselves, our horses and our relationship with them.  On occasion, I stumble across an intersection of the the worlds of theoretical physics and  psychology that is directly applicable to our engagement in equestrian sport.  Daniel Siegel’s book Mind: A journey to the heart of being human provided one of those moments where human experience and the theories of Quantum Physics collide in a particularly meaningful way.  Dr. Siegel’s ideas relate directly to our efforts to increase the probability of peak performance.

For those less mathematically inclined, I would ask that you bear with me a moment as I indulge my not so inner physics geek.  I promise this will bear fruit in just a few short paragraphs.

We have been acculturated to a world that primarily values what is known as Newtonian Physics.  This is a physics of straightforward cause and effect, an understanding of the world where A causes B or A + B causes C.  This idea of direct causal relationships is particularly seductive since much of our world seems to work this way.  Remember all the times our trainer offered a suggestion and, when we were able to effectively implement it, our ride transformed in miraculous ways. There are an infinite number of examples of things that actually do seem to work this way in our riding, so why not stop there?  Why look beyond these simple, understandable, and reliable ideas when working to improve our performance?

The answer is simple, they don’t always work.  I would even venture to say that for most of us, the answers to our greatest challenges are not simple and straightforward.  There is no “magic bullet’ or “holy grail” no matter how much we wish that to be true. To think of the solutions to our challenges as simple, leads us down a trail of disappointment and self-doubt, because we can never seem to find “the answer”.  If there is a simple answer, what is wrong with me that I can’t find it or apply it effectively?

Enter the world of Quantum Physics.  At the risk of profoundly oversimplifying, Quantum Physics opens a door to a world that is govern less by linear equations of cause and effect and more by equations that represent the relationship between contributing factors and the probability or possibility of certain outcomes.  The greatest benefit of this perspective is that it accounts for a complexity and variation of experience that the Newtonian models do not.  In his book Mind, Daniel Siegel talks about this complex world of human experience as a mathematical plane of probabilities. The fundamental idea is that changes in some or all of the factors that affect a behavior or outcome, create changes in the probability of that potential outcome.  It may be obvious from this simplified presentation of his ideas, that we are talking about a multitude of factors that contribute to increasing (or decreasing) the probability of success and not just one “magic pill.”

So how is this helpful to us as equestrians?  First, it points to the obvious.  Equestrian sport is an endeavor which relies on a highly complex array of knowledge, skills, attitudes, behaviors, emotions, etc.  Honoring this complexity should be at the core of any attempt to grow in our sport.

Second, if we accept the complexity we also can accept the responsibility to grow in the many facets of ourselves that impact our riding.  If we are to grow and improve, we must be committed to grow in all of these areas and more.  Our commitment must be as much to personal growth and physical fitness as it is to skill attainment and knowledge of horses and riding.

Third, if the factors that relate to improving our performance are complex then the journey to improvement and change are also likely to be complex.  Often, our frustration is rooted in expectation.  If we perceive solutions as simple, then frustration arises quickly when our problems are not solved quickly. Appreciating the complexity of the endeavor helps to adjust our expectations and reduces frustration.  It also helps us in orienting ourselves to ongoing efforts and the hard work associated with improvement rather than the eternal search for the quick fix.

Fourth, when we see our efforts as increasing the probability of a desired outcome rather than the absolute achievement of that outcome, we become more realistic in our goals and hopefully more forgiving of ourselves when we fall short.  We allow for the existence of all the factors we cannot control and adjust our expectations accordingly.  Even the best prepared of equestrians fall short on any given day.

The next time you face a significant challenge in your riding, I encourage you to think about the “mathematical plane of probability” or perhaps it is easier to think about a physical “plain of possibility” where the mountains and plateaus represent the increased likelihood of success.  Know that there is much you can do to transform that landscape.  You have influence over a multitude of factors that will move you toward your achievement goals.  You can work on your mind and emotions as well as your body and behavior. You can also remember that you do not control everything. At times we will fall short. Finally, appreciate yourself for your willingness to engage in all the hard work and commitment that it will take to shape and climb those mountains of success.

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