The Mental Game - Sport Psychology for Equestrians
Integrating sport psychology training into our daily lives
By Annika McGivern
Ten years ago, I was moving up a level in three-day eventing and fell off during cross-country at my first two events. They were simple falls and luckily neither I nor my horse were injured, yet something still felt seriously wrong. After my second fall, I struggled to see a distance to even the simplest cross-pole. My confidence plummeted and my horse started stopping. I felt as if I had forgotten how to ride overnight and the frustration and embarrassment were completely overwhelming. I am forever grateful that it occurred to me to reach out to a sport psychology coach for help because after several sessions I finally understood what was happening and felt equipped to solve the problem. It was an “aha” moment for me because it opened my eyes to a whole new side of competitive sport that I had not been considering: the mental game.
Most riders are like I was, unaware of the value of mental skills until crisis strikes. Mental skills help in high stakes moments but learning them in the middle of a crisis doesn’t produce great results, sort of like schooling a 3’6” oxer for the first time the day before you compete in a 3’6” class. Like horses, we learn best when we are relaxed and have time to build expertise. If we learn and practice mental skills ahead of when we need them, they become available to us in the fast-paced performance moments when we need them most.
By learning and practicing mental skills ahead of time, they will be available to us when we really need them. Photo: Clix Photography
Let’s look a little closer at two opportunities to integrate mental skills by following the experience of a client of mine. We will call her Sam for the purpose of this article. Sam struggled with low self-confidence in the saddle. She constantly felt overwhelmed at shows and these feelings were impacting on her riding, her results, and her enjoyment of competing. Sam was considering quitting competition altogether.
Opportunity #1 — Our daily dialogue with ourselves.
The language we use to make sense of our daily experience is extremely important because it directly shapes our emotions and focus. Notice what you’re saying to yourself in difficult moments. Once Sam started paying attention to her thoughts, she realised there was a pattern that always showed up in high-pressured situations.
Here are some examples:
- I can’t do this.
- I’m not good enough.
- I look ridiculous.
- My poor horse deserves a better rider.
I encouraged Sam to pay attention to her thinking in all aspects of her life, and she noticed similar thoughts when she received critical feedback or made a mistake at work. These thoughts seemed to pop into her head unsolicited and always made her feel sad, overwhelmed, frustrated, and tired.
Here’s the secret: Just because you think something doesn’t mean it’s true. Sam practiced taking a step back, observing her thoughts, and getting curious about them. I gave her the task of asking herself: Is this true? Is this a useful thing to be thinking? Very quickly Sam reported that although the thoughts still appeared, she was no longer overwhelmed by them. Instead, she learned to keep space between herself and her thoughts by refocusing her attention on what she was doing and the result she was looking for, whether in the saddle or at work.
Develop an awareness of your thoughts and the way you respond to them, and trust in your ability to learn and improve. Photo: iStock/Mark Hatfield
Opportunity #2 — Our daily decisions.
We all face an astonishing number of decisions every day. To streamline things our brain develops habits or patterns of behaviour that help us make those decisions without having to think about them. This is advantageous until we realise a habit isn’t serving us any longer. Working together, Sam and I identified several patterns of behaviour she was falling into that were contributing to her low confidence and nervousness:
- Every time she made a mistake or received critical feedback, Sam immediately ran the mistake over and over in her mind, focusing on what she did wrong and how mad she was at herself.
- Sam thought of herself as an unconfident, anxious rider and regularly described herself that way to coaches and other riders.
- When things felt challenging, Sam took it as a sign that she wasn’t good enough, so stopped trying and backed away from the challenge.
Awareness is only the first step. Once we have identified a problematic pattern we must then decide to change. This decision can mean standing out from the crowd and doing things differently, or looking at oneself in a new light. Either way, even positive change is uncomfortable and we tend to naturally avoid it.
Based on our work together, here is what Sam decided to do differently:
- Every time she made a mistake or received critical feedback, Sam chose to take a deep breath and be kind to herself. She chose to remind herself that mistakes are inevitable and there was something to learn here. She then challenged herself to manage the mistake well and find one take-away lesson.
- Sam decided to start thinking of herself as a determined, resourceful, brave rider and worked to describe herself that way to others. This also meant remembering to no longer refer to herself as unconfident or anxious.
- When things felt challenging, Sam decided to remind herself that discomfort is a sign of learning and growth. She chose to see discomfort as a cue to work harder instead of backing away. She chose to trust in her ability to learn and improve.
Of course, these decisions all seem simple enough on paper, yet are sometimes incredibly challenging to implement. It took a good eight to ten weeks of practice, but with time Sam developed her awareness of her thoughts and behaviours, chose to respond differently, and then practiced those new responses until they felt normal both at the barn and at work. It’s important to note that Sam did not just make those decisions once. She had to choose her new responses repeatedly every time she was faced with a challenging situation, mistake, or negative self-talk. It takes two to three months to form new habits, so it was essential that Sam stuck with her plan for a minimum of eight to ten weeks to start seeing results.
Here are three rules that Sam took from our work together. She continues to make choices and develop her awareness in line with these rules in her riding, her work, and her personal life.
Rule #1 — Simple is best. Break the overall challenge into smaller parts and tackle one at a time. A course becomes one jump at a time, a test becomes one movement at a time, a mistake at work is fixed one conversation at a time. Keep things simple.
Rule #2 — Stay curious. There is no such thing as a bad ride or a bad day at work if we remember to engage with curiosity around what happened and why.
Rule #3 — Actively reinforce self-belief. Self-belief doesn’t come naturally to most of us, so it requires regular reminders. When doubt creeps in repeat the following: I am the right rider, doing the right thing, with the right horse. Or, I am the right employee, doing the right work, with the right company.
Sam gradually started to feel sure that she could perform well at competition. With better control over her thinking, Sam’s head was clearer, and she was able to focus on riding well in the moment instead of getting distracted by negative emotions. She felt less sadness and frustration and more curiosity and determination. She proved to herself that she could push through a challenge, learn what needed to be learned, and improve. Sam is now enjoying competition and feels that her “confidence muscle” is growing stronger and stronger.
Knowing and practicing mental skills ahead of my own mini-crisis ten years ago might not have prevented me from falling off in those two competitions, but I know without a shadow of a doubt that those skills would have spared me the weeks of confusion and struggle that followed. Today, I am a different person and rider. I am kinder to myself and put more energy into learning and curiosity about my sport rather than self-criticism and meeting expectations. I recover much faster from mistakes and failures, and no longer feel plagued by the fear of messing up. I feel more clear-headed at competitions and know I can manage fear and worry when they appear. I have more fun now and feel more in control and successful.
I hope that my story and Sam’s can serve as evidence that change is possible and that the idea of this possibility lights a fire for you. Begin to integrate mental skills into your daily life and routines. It’s never too late to start and I promise you won’t regret it.
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Main Photo: Clix Photography