Sports Psychology: When Affirmations Aren't Enough

Sep 21, 2022 - 7:56 AM

I’ve been an equestrian sport psychologist for over 30 years, working with riders of all stripes: amateurs and professionals, recreational riders, trainers, instructors, juniors and their parents. Some of my clients rode at the Olympics or World Cup Finals, and many compete for year-end awards and in the big eq finals, although most are juniors or adult amateurs who take their sport very, very seriously.

I’ve watched over the decades as sport psychology has become an accepted and, for some, an essential part of a rider’s program. But while its role in equestrian sports has expanded, its strategies have largely remained limited to an overly familiar and smallish collection of techniques such as visualization, breathing exercises and affirmations that don’t really tap into the potential of what sport psychology has to offer. Included in that repertoire are some very un-psychological abstractions such as the forced mental strength/weakness dichotomy, relaxation as an attainable state in athletic competition, and the imposing of idealized but false mental states (“I am confident!”) over a rider’s truth (“Actually not sure I’m ready to go prelim.”).

I want to discuss an approach to sport psychology and mental health sports coaching that aligns more respectfully with human nature and appreciates that performance anxiety operates very much like a bully inside our brain. With few exceptions, anxiety like that doesn’t deserve a fraction of the attention it gets, and maintaining that its suppression is essential to peak performance keeps athletes chasing a fantasy state of mind that’s neither realistic nor necessary. I’ve found it more effective (and humanistic) to encourage riders to sideline the battles they’re waging with their performance nerves in favor of riding well even though they’re feeling anxious. How would this work?

Edgette_Molly Bailey
The author works with riders to identify how anxiety changes their performance and then helps them to compensate for that rather than suppressing it. Mollie Bailey Photo

It works when riders learn to identify exactly how their performance anxiety affects their riding and then compensate for that. For example, most riders, when anxious about a show or clinic, either “over-ride” or “under-ride.” Over-riders kick and grab, making one decision and then another and typically apply exaggerated aids that annoy or confuse their horses. They couldn’t relax if you promised them the lottery.

However, these riders can learn to s-l-o-w down their reaction time in the ring to give themselves time to think or use their horse’s rhythm as a metronome to keep them from making big, abrupt moves. Both of these choices are under a rider’s conscious control. Making them relax or excise their negative thoughts—not so much. Other strategies for over-riders include helping them figure out which memories or images bring flexibility and softness into their bodies or helping them to embrace the idea of themselves as a more economical rider (like the big eq kids) or a more diplomatic rider (like Michael Matz or Beezie Madden) and incorporate that sensibility into their riding.

Under-riders do something else entirely. Fearing mistakes, they make no decisions at all, or they trade a good, active pace for the false sense of security you get from a (too) composed canter. Some riders pick their way around courses adding the whole time or getting stuck in the corners. Riders whose show anxiety causes them to become indecisive don’t need to relax or cheer themselves on as much as they need to learn to better tolerate mistakes and grasp the irony that you make a lot more of them by not deciding than by deciding poorly. By going into that show ring committed to riding assertively if nothing else, they’ll be far more able—even if still nervous—to bring forward the skills of execution they have at their disposal when riding, say, at home. Even helping them focus less on finding the fence, and more on rhythm and track, would be ever more useful than having them visualize some imaginary round that distracts them from creating the round in real time.

A New Approach

Let’s use the example of the big eq junior riders qualified for year-end equitation finals to look at how this sport psychology approach might look different from more conventional ones in terms of addressing the (not uncommon) issue of perfectionism, that second cousin to anxiety. These riders typically share a handful of traits: They’re high achievers, academically advanced, very organized and responsible and, very often, perfectionists. Wanting to be even more perfect in the classes that matter the most, many juniors fall victim to the affliction of riding to avoid making mistakes. This, of course, usually translates in the show ring to an overly conservative, under-paced round, lacking the bold ride and brilliance that got them there in the first place.

Some consultants might choose to work with these riders on their confidence levels, others on helping them to relax while showing. Some will have them visualize their perfect round while others will tether them to time- consuming rituals or assignments such as journaling.

I’d suggest something entirely different. Knowing that these kids are going to be nervous no matter what, I would pass on the relaxation and self-affirmations and go immediately to figuring out, first, how a particular rider’s show nerves will affect her as she goes into that finals ring, as explained above. But it’s the perfectionism especially that I try to disempower.

“Perfectionism is not your friend,” I whisper to these juniors. “You don’t want to be perfect in there. You want to be workmanlike—intentional, assertive, decisive. That’s your mindset, and that’s your ride.” I’ve found kids to take this stuff and just run with it.

Learning to ride well despite feeling anxious may not sound as attractive as riding without anxiety, but it is a lot more attainable. Besides, who do you know who’s really relaxed at horse shows? The only ones I’ve ever known to be relaxed were the ones who got there by “accident”—they were thrown into the ring on a strange horse at the last second or were riding under other unforeseen circumstances that made their expectations (and everyone else’s), well, soft. For the rest of us, once an outcome really matters, everything changes, including and especially our anxiety levels. That’s just human nature.

House Of Cards

In the past I’ve written articles (see them on sportpsychforriders.com) explaining why I don’t teach relaxation, load clients up with affirmations, or spend a lot of time helping clients change negative thoughts into positive thoughts. These techniques will help some riders feel equipped to manage their show nerves, but for many, they simply wither when going up against the robust anxiety most people feel when competing. Like a house of cards, the confidence or respite from anxiety comes crashing down at the worst of times—driving over to the showgrounds, in the warm-up, as you enter the ring or arena. Moreover, these techniques are sometimes used in ways that invite riders to wage war with their internal selves, where they end up thinking of themselves as weak or afraid, tamping down the thoughts they don’t like and the feelings they don’t want to have.

This is a strategy with a big downside: Riders who renounce their own truth (e.g., “My horse feels too fresh for me to safely get on,” or, “I really am very nervous to do the 1.10-meter”) in order to manufacture false realities (e.g., “OMG he’ll be fine,” or “Hey, my trainer says if I just relax, we’ll be fine”) are left vulnerable to panic, their horse stopping, or having a ride that shakes them to their core. Feelings don’t fall in line with your thoughts just because you repeat them over and over in your head. And just because you don’t like a thought doesn’t mean it’s negative. Sometimes it’s plain good judgment.

Setting Boundaries

In equestrian sport psychology, some practitioners look at riding problems only through the lens of anxiety, thereby missing other factors interfering with a rider’s success.

One such example would be a rider whose problems when mounted stem not from any undue anxiety or loss of confidence or fear of getting hurt but by their difficulty setting boundaries or a strong aversion to conflict. Chloe (not her real name) came to me seeking confidence-building strategies when what she really needed help with was understanding that the relationship she had established on the ground with her horse was negatively affecting the one she had with him when mounted, where he was not respecting her aids. I suspected something like this might be in play because of her docile and strikingly compliant demeanor in our first session. I asked about her grooming routine and learned that she was allowing her horse to rub on her, intrude into her personal space when being led, and nip. My job became one of helping Chloe to feel comfortable assuming an authority with her horse and setting clear boundaries in a manner that would command his respect. This can be really quick work—one, two sessions. An engaging encounter, coupled with a dynamic conversation and a sport psychologist’s sanctioning of a rider’s authority, can be enough to help a rider draw on forgotten aspects of herself, embrace some new ones, and change how she asks for what she wants.

Riders often go to great lengths to acquire state-of-the-art services for their horses’ health and welfare, as well as for their own training and physical well-being. Most of these services are easily identifiable and embrace standardized practices. More important, they are regulated. Not so for services in the sport psychology field.

Practitioners/performance coaches go by a host of different names—sport psychologists, mental game coaches, performance enhancement coach and sports therapists, among others—and there are no requirements for certification or continuing education. (“Sport psychologist” is the only legally protected term.) This, of course, makes it harder for consumers to make informed decisions about obtaining and evaluating services.

Sport psychology is a lot more than just relaxation exercises, visualization and positive thinking. When those limited strategies don’t work, many feel stuck, seemingly with nowhere else to go. I think that there is too wide a gap between basic and more nuanced, sophisticated levels of service—not just in equestrian sports but in all sports.

I hope this article might spark a national dialogue among equestrian sport psychologists, mental coaches and other performance professionals to collectively raise the bar of service by presenting the range of services available to the public and the best that the fields of sports performance and clinical psychology have to offer. We keep raising the bar everywhere else in this sport. Why stop here?


Janet Sasson Edgette, Psy.D., M.P.H., pioneered the application of modern performance enhancement principles to the equestrian industry. She served as a sport psychology consultant for Practical Horseman magazine for eight years and wrote a monthly column on sport psychology. She’s author of the book “Heads Up!: Practical Sports Psychology for Riders, Their Families, and Their Trainers,” which advanced the field past the limiting traditions of relaxation and imagery work, and she wrote “The Rider’s Edge: Overcoming the Psychological Challenges of Riding.” She consults to recreational, amateur and professional riders, trainers and other industry professionals and offers sport psychology seminars, keynote lectures and informal Q&A sessions. She competed in the Medal and Maclay Finals as a junior under the tutelage of Wayne Carroll. She’s shown all over the East Coast in the amateur-owner jumpers with top trainers, and she continues to ride and train with Diane Little in Marshallton, Pennsylvania. Find out more at Sportpsychforriders.com and JanetEdgette.com.


This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our August 2022 Issue. Subscribers may choose online access to a digital version or a print subscription or both, and they will also receive our lifestyle publication, Untacked. 

If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.

Loading...

Social Bar

Join Mailing List

Shopping Cart

Like Box

Chronicle Headlines

Charity Spotlight

Horse Spotlight

Like Box

Trainer Spotlight

Like Box