Mindset for the Competitive Equestrian

What separates elite athletes from the rest?

Talent?

Many talented athletes never lived up to their potential.

Technical skills?

All the technical skills in the world will not help if you are unable to perform those skills in the heat of competition.

Natural athleticism?

There are many examples in sports where less athletic athletes became elite, and physically gifted athletes failed to succeed.

So what is the special ingredient that produces elite athletic performances?

The biggest contributor to elite performances is mindset after all the training and talent is baked in.

Mindset is your mental outlook and how it helps or hinders your performance in competition.

So, let’s talk about mindset for the equestrian athlete.

Have you ever felt nerves or anxiety while competing? When I was younger I literally could not eat the morning of a show. Saying I had butterflies, or jitters, was an understatement! I was even known at the show grounds for getting so worked up I was sick to my stomach the mornings of the show!

For most people pre show, or pre class, nerves are a common occurrence. Often we don’t even realize how much those nerves are holding us back or how CRUCIAL mindset is for our success. Further, a lot of us pull it together at the last minute without even realizing how much better we could have done if we were properly prepared mentally.

Telling yourself to “just relax” does not work. It won’t even work coming from your mother, trainer or long time friend. A winning mindset needs to be prepared well before unloading your horse at the show or walking towards the dressage ring.

I am going to summarize the top 5 mindset skills that I feel are required to be a successful athlete. This is not an exhaustive list and, of course, there are other skills as well. This list comes from my own education, experience and training in Psychology as well as NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) as well as a long time working with athletes in my coaching programs!

  1. Choose and maintain a positive attitude.
  2. Use positive self-talk.
  3. Use positive mental imagery.
  4. Manage anxiety effectively.
  5. Maintain concentration.

Skills 1: Successful athletes choose and Maintain a Positive Attitude

Successful athletes:

  • Realize that attitude is a choice then choose an attitude that is predominantly positive.
  • View their sport as an opportunity to compete against themselves and learn from their successes and failures.
    • This allows you to focus on what you can control, which is your own attitude, performance and progress. This gives YOU the power to succeed instead of worrying about factors outside of your control, such as what Sally and her horse are bringing to the ring that day.
  • Have a coach-able attitude and do not say things like “I know that already” or “I have already tried that”. Successful athletes are open to feedback and welcome advice on how to improve.
  • Respect their sport, other participants, coaches, officials, and themselves.

Skill 2: Use positive self-talk.

Successful athletes:

  • Work through stressful situations using positive self-talk. It is nearly IMPOSSIBLE to do well in a sport if your negative thoughts are telling you otherwise.
    • I recommend my athletes begin with writing down their most common self limiting beliefs, such as “I am not good enough to do well” , “I could never beat the girls with the fancy warmbloods”, “I always mess up my dressage test” and reframe it into positive self talk, such as:
      • ” I perform well in tough competitions”
      • ” I am prepared and unstoppable”
      • “I am a great athlete and my horse is ready”
      • “My horse and I always perform our best”
      • “I am a badass and I am ready”
      • Post these new beliefs everywhere and anywhere you need to until they become your default thought process!
  • Tip: To generate a strong sense of self-belief, an athlete cannot worry about feeling arrogant. To be the best you can be you must believe you are the best. There is no shame in being arrogant inside one’s own head. In fact, it is a critical element to achieving success.
  • Use self-talk to regulate thoughts, feelings and behaviors during competition. When you feel negativity or anxiety creeping it reframe it with positive self talk. Positive self talk will also help an athlete overcome setbacks during competition.

Skill 3: Use Positive Mental Imagery

Successful athletes:

  • Use positive mental imagery to focus on the desired outcome. There is no more powerful mental tool than mental imagery and it can have a huge impact on your sports performance.
    • Imagery is used by virtually all great athletes and research has shown that, when combined with actual practice, improves performance more than practice alone.
  • Visualize themselves winning in great detail. They include multiple senses such as the sound of the horse breathing, the sound landing from a jump, feeling the warmth of the sun, the feel of the horses coat, etc.
    • You should duplicate the sights, sounds, physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions that you would experience in an actual competition. 
    • Tip: Create and use mental images that are detailed, specific, and realistic.
    • For those that struggle with visualization I recommend beginning with guided meditation to learn how to focus your mind.
  • Use imagery during competition to prepare for action and recover from errors and poor performances. Maybe you “messed up” in your dressage test. These skills will help you brush it off so it does not negatively impact the rest of your competition.

Skill 4: Manage anxiety effectively.

Successful athletes:

  • Accept some anxiety as part of sport. Pre competition jitters are not only normal but help increase performance.
    • Accept, rather than fight, the nervous energy you feel. Don’t misinterpret it by thinking that it is fear. That adrenaline rush you feel is normal and it is part of your body’s natural preparation for the competition. Notice it, but don’t focus on it.
  • Realize that some degree of anxiety can help them perform well. This is important so athletes do not allow jitters to develop into a spiral of stress and negativity.
  • Recognize ways to deal with stress and anxiety in their day to day life. This could be yoga, meditation, walks in nature, breathing techniques, etc.
  • TIP: If you connect a state with a behaviour, for example, deep breathing with your eyes closed to a quiet mind or fist pumping to pump yourself up you can INSTANTLY change your state at the competition. This, of course, must be a neural connection that is solidified well before the competition. The outcome needs to be connecting a desired state with a certain behaviour. This can be seen with elite athletes that have pre show rituals!
An example on how there is an optimal amount of arousal (“stress”) to reach a peak level of performance.

Skill 5: Maintain concentration

Successful athletes:

  • Have learned how to maintain focus and resist distractions, whether they come from the environment or from within themselves.
  • Are able to regain their focus when concentration is lost during competition. You see this with viral videos of loose horses running through a test and the rider staying focused. While the horse is often the one credited it is more so the RIDERS concentration that keeps the horse focused and relaxed. Horses feed off of our emotions and the more relaxed and focused you are the more relaxed and focused they are.
  • Have learned how to play in the “here-and-now”, without regard to either past or anticipated future events. If they are unhappy with their last dressage test successful athletes move on and focus on the current moment and the current test. Allowing the past or future to dictate emotions will cause anxiety and lower your performance.

In summary…

Effective athletes train their mind as they train their body, or, to relate to horses effective equestrian athletes train their mind as they train their horses! Keep in mind that research has consistently proven that athletes who possess a growth mindset, and believed their performance could be improved simply through effort significantly outperformed those who believed that their talent was fixed.

I hope you enjoyed this article and it challenged you to think about how your mindset may be effecting your performance!

Free equestrian community:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/426232728129685/

My YouTube Fitness and Mindset Channel, make sure to subscribe to stay up to date!

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3QQdWscURZYByuNLHF5f-g

xo

Ashley

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