How often as riders do we hear ourselves say, “why did I do that?” after making the same mistake again when we come out of the show ring? It can be especially frustrating when we have done it correctly numerous times at home. I hear this constantly around the horse show and from clients on a daily basis, and still struggle with this myself as a rider- more often than not, our mental game is what lets us down, not our physical ability. Even though strong mental skills can’t make us ride beyond our potential as athletes, weak mental skills can for sure cause us perform far below.
Despite its increasing popularity, sport psychology (and psychology in general) is still stigmatized and folks don’t want to be seen as “crazy” or “having issues,” so they avoid working on their difficulties. Top riders all over the world, including McLain Ward and Liza Boyd, have openly discussed how the inclusion of sport psychology has been integral to their success, yet I still regularly encounter this stigma as a major barrier to seeking support. A large part of why it is so stigmatized is because most people don’t understand what sport psychology really is and how it can help us. Hopefully, in learning more about how this field can help us as well as the significance of the presence/absence of a strong mental skillset, we can all become better equipped to experience our equestrian pursuits to the fullest.
So what is sport psychology really? To use the more academic explanation, the American Psychological Association defines sport psychology as "the study of the psychological and mental factors that influence and are influenced by participation and performance in sport, exercise, and physical activity, and the application of the knowledge gained through this study to everyday settings." Sport psychology techniques are designed to help athletes optimize performance. Specifically, this includes working to improve focus and deal with distractions, increase confidence (particularly post-fall or injury), develop coping skills to deal with setbacks, find the right zone of intensity, instill a healthy belief system and identify irrational thoughts, develop healthier and more accurate self-talk, balance motivation for optimal performance, identify and enter “the zone” more readily, reduce unhealthy perfectionism, increase composure, plan training more intentionally, and improve development of sport-specific strategies and game plans. In other words, it can help athletes enhance their performance and enjoyment. It is designed to help those athletes/coaches that truly want to improve the mental component of the game and believe that it is possible to do so.
More specifically, the following are some of the ways that riders/athletes can benefit from sport psychology:
Enhancing concentration and managing distractions effectively> There is so much chaos going on at the horse show (or even at the farm), it is natural to be distracted by any number of things- the weather, our horse’s energy level, flapping tents, things going on at work or school, results, our own thoughts/self-talk, etc. However, as we all know, if we can limit the impact of those distractions, we will absolutely perform better. Learning to stay in the present moment is just one of the ways we can improve our ability to focus.
Cultivating confidence> It is extremely common for riders and athletes to be plagued with doubts (about ourselves, our horses, etc.). If we can practice different exercises to enhance our confidence, we can begin to establish a foundation going forward. Having this strong foundation will provide a base from which we are freer to make productive mistakes and grow as athletes. Further, if we experience a setback, it is usually much less threatening. Some of the ways to approach this include tracking goals, challenging perfectionism, and simulating competitive conditions.
Increasing resilience and grit> Developing a repertoire of coping skills to deal with and overcome adversity is instrumental to developing our potential as riders (AND PEOPLE). Being able to recognize, manage and limit the impact of our negative emotions while fortifying ourselves with resilience-building practices can make all the difference in the world. For example, being able to bounce back after we encounter our old trainer just before we walk through the in-gate or recover well after a fall will only contribute to a more productive and enjoyable experience.
Finding the optimal zone of energy/intensity> Knowing ourselves is critical as we are all different. If we have a tendency to become tense or nervous in our body, engaging in practices that will help decrease the tension (relaxation, breathing, etc) is often useful. On the other hand, we also need to be able to sustain our energy over the long horse show day, and knowing how to access that extra adrenaline (going for a brisk walk, listening to music, eating strategically, etc) is helpful too, especially when our class goes at 5 when we thought it was going at 3! It is a balance, and it is important to understand how things like sleep, nutrition, and exercise affect us.
Maintaining a healthy belief system/challenging irrational thoughts> Given the level of perfectionism among equestrian athletes, it is no surprise that we tend to have pretty terrible self-talk. We are hard on ourselves in a way that actually diminishes motivation and detracts from our performance, contrary to popular belief. We will find ourselves thinking, “I should never miss,” “I always make mistakes when so-and-so is judging,” “I can’t let so-and-so beat me,” “I stink at bending lines,” when this self-defeating (and INACURRATE) way of talking does nothing but interfere with learning, growth and our development as athletes/people. Being able to recognize more realistic and supportive ways to talk to ourselves is critical in achieving our potential.
Developing effective short/long term goals> Ironically, when we stop thinking about the desired outcome or the results we want and focus on the process, we tend to realize our goals. It is helpful to have a clear vision of the rider we want to become- that way we can break it down into smaller, more manageable steps and create a plan for how to become that rider, but it is important to be intentional about how that vision is utilized on a daily basis. Designing specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely (SMART) goals will not only help us keep our focus, clarify purpose, and increase confidence, but also provide us with the reinforcement/feedback we need to maintain motivation.
Understanding why it matters> Being able to really connect with why our riding is meaningful and important to us is critical. So often, we lose touch with why we got involved in the sport to begin with or the specialness of the partnerships we have with our horses. We get caught up in who won what class, qualifying for indoors, going double clear, getting called back for the test, being perfect etc and miss the whole point. Being able to recognize (even after chipping to the single oxer when we were about to get a 90 or having a rail at the last vertical in the jump-off) that we are all so lucky to be doing what we are doing is going to make everything better- not only will we feel more appreciation and enjoy ourselves more, we will also probably ride more effectively.
Most of us believe (at least at one time, myself included) that we can’t really manipulate and change our ability to concentrate or manage things like our emotions. As a result, we don’t really work on our brains like we do the physical skills of our sport. However, if we can approach it differently, and treat it just like we do our position or learning to counter canter, we can see tremendous improvements in our mental game. Given that this is where we tend to struggle the most, isn’t it nice to know we can do something about it? In the same way that we might practice using an automatic release until we can do it comfortably and routinely (if that is a goal), we would use repetition, time, and patience no matter how awkward and uncomfortable we felt initially. The same can be said for learning a mental skill; for example, if we are trying to learn to help keep our body relaxed with muscle relaxation exercises, we need to give ourselves that same repetition, time and patience to overcome that initial awkwardness and discomfort we did with the release.
The benefits of sport psychology are remarkable and it’s exponential growth in popularity and utility among riders and trainers of all levels across the world is undeniable. However, many riders/trainers/parents only seek this type of support when there is a problem to remediate or something is “wrong.” While this is a normative reason to consider tapping into this type of resource, it is just as important for all of us to work on our mental game when things are “right.” We can use that information to identify and capitalize on what works, which can help us progress as riders. In exploring different mental skills we can also discover new and powerful ways to enhance performance and overall athletic functioning. What do I mean by all of this? Most of us wait until there is a problem, when thinking about our mental game before we have a setback is actually the optimal time to start. If we can take some time to reflect on our experiences and ask ourselves some challenging questions, this can help us discover some powerful insights that can really improve our overall experiences as athletes.
Dr. Jennifer Speisman is a licensed clinical psychologist as well as a Certified Mental Performance Consultant with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (CMPC). Dr. Jen is an avid equestrian herself, and has been riding and competing for over 20 years. She is passionate about blending her love for athletics (particularly equestrian sports) with her training and education in psychology and feels extremely lucky to be able to watch riders/people develop and thrive. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 917-549-1000 for more information regarding individual sessions, consultation (parents, trainers, etc), barn clinics or with any questions.