iding is a sport that is undeniably mental. All sports are, to a point, but there’s something about teaming up with a 1,200-pound animal and facing a demanding sport together that tests one’s mental strength. Throw in daunting fences and impossibly graceful movements, and it’s no wonder that one of the biggest challenges that riders often face is within our own minds. Throughout our Mind Games series, resident mental skills coach Annette Paterakis has explored the ins and outs of what makes the equestrian tick, and helped countless athletes master their mindset in the saddle.
Annette’s journey from competitive rider to coach has been a long and winding one, filled with important lessons and countless challenges. Her personal experiences have guided her practice, as well as years of work with some of the sport’s most respected riders. Her unique perspective is the product of real time in the tack and on the ground, in-depth conversations with the masters, and mentorship under sports psychologists who dared to break the mold.
I caught up with Annette to learn, in her own words, her story, her evolving philosophy, and what happens next for the groundbreaking mental skills coach in a sport that is in great need of such a figure.
I started riding when I was eight years old. I grew up in the Netherlands and started riding there and quite quickly started competing, doing some dressage shows and show jumping shows, showing both horses and ponies. I moved up pretty quickly as a junior to do some international shows competing for Greece since I’m half Greek. Eventually I began actually doing really well and getting great results, and that was obviously a bit addictive.
But when I started moving up a few levels, at a certain point things aren’t that easy anymore and winning every weekend is not that straightforward. So I started to get a little bit frustrated; I'd been doing so well and all of a sudden, I just wasn’t getting those results anymore. My results became very inconsistent, and the more I focused on the placings, the more I got the results I didn’t want. I got frustrated with that but luckily, found a great mental coach who really helped me understand how my brain worked under that type of pressure.
[When I found him], I had been struggling for quite a while and am naturally a perfectionist. I put a lot of pressure on myself and wasn’t enjoying the sport anymore and wasn’t really connecting with why I started riding in the first place. I was at a point, I still remember the moment, where I was ready to quit because I was so frustrated. I knew somewhere deep down that it didn’t really have to do with my abilities to ride, but it had more to do with my mindset and me standing in my own way. So I felt this was my last chance.
I just went online and googled ‘mental skills coaches’ and I found this guy and emailed him and it’s kind of a miracle that he replied, because he never replies to any emails. But I got in touch with him, somehow, and the rest is history.
He went to become my mentor for almost 10 years, as well as my coach. He had worked in sports [for a long time] and worked for many well-known soccer clubs, went to the Olympic Games in Athens with women’s hockey – he wasn’t working specifically with riders, his expertise was more general in terms of performance. He really initiated my interest into the mental aspects of athletic performance. From there, I went on to learn everything I could and dove deeper into how I could personally increase my confidence and let go of that pressure. I was 17-years-old when I first reached out to my coach, but I still had no inkling that I would follow in his footsteps.
At the time, I still thought I’d be riding for the rest of my life, because that was my goal. I really wanted to be a successful professional rider. I started my own stable after having worked for a few different dealing stables in Holland. For a few years, I had my own stable in Belgium at my parent’s place with a few horses I’d bred myself, and I was riding horses for other people and doing some horse sales. It was quite a lonely time, if I’m honest. It was tough, I really learned how strong I really am during that period. I did everything alone. It was a lot of hard work and very little reward.
"I really learned how strong I really am during that period. I did everything alone."
While I was working on my riding career, I also went on to study applied psychology at university. I was studying at home so I could still ride, and along the way, I figured out that maybe I could do something more with what I was learning, and maybe all the frustration I was feeling was good for something else there would be another path for me. It took a while for me to make the decision to change careers and it was a very tough one for me to make because it felt in a way like I was giving up. With the help of my mental coach – the same who had coached and mentored me for years – I realized that there is not just one way to success. Everybody has a different journey.
CONNECTING IN A NEW CAREER
The biggest reason behind why I changed my career is that I wanted to feel that I was making a difference. This sport can be quite self-centered and isolated and when I finally started to focus on helping other people, I just got so much energy. Being able to make a difference for riders, their relationships, how they feel about riding, and their connection with their horses is, for me, the biggest reward. When I get feedback from a rider saying ‘thank you so much, I really feel like I’m enjoying the sport again, I’m enjoying riding again,’ that to me is very rewarding and it doesn't matter what level they ride at, it’s about helping them enjoy the journey.
"Being able to make a difference for riders, their relationships, how they feel about riding, and their connection with their horses is, for me, the biggest reward."
I think because of all those things I went through trying to ‘make it’ as a professional rider, I understand my clients very well. And I don’t just understand the competition side, I really do get that for certain riders, it’s also about the business side and making money, about staying alive, the struggles and the very unique lifestyle that come with all that. I try to help them balance all of the elements in their lives, in the saddle and beyond, to help them become better athletes. Most of the time we’re working on improvement, working on the process, and if we can enjoy that part as well as the results, and stay connected to why we ride, that I think is the biggest driver for success, and is why I love doing this.
LEARNING FROM THE GREATS
I absolutely love coaching and it gives me a lot of energy, and I want to keep it that way. I can get caught up in being a high achiever, so I think managing myself to make sure I keep enjoying it and to really keep applying the things that I learn and keep learning and making time for improvement – for training, for writing books – to include all the things that I love to do and keep in check with why I do this. If I do that, then I’m super happy.
Writing my last book, and working on my next book, has been an exciting process. Just being able to interview these amazing riders that I have always looked up to is incredible. I’ve learned so much from it. With this next book, my mission is to find out what makes these top riders so successful. I have my own view on this, but as far as I know, there hasn’t been much research as to what the world’s best riders have in common. So I really want to figure that out – what are the patterns? What has stood out for me thus far is the way those riders deal with failure. Something that really struck me and what almost all of them have in common is of course, they can get upset – but they don't take it personally. They can analyze it and let it go, they learn from it what they can, but it doesn’t impact their confidence because they know that learning is part of the process. They really embody a growth mindset. When we don’t have that, we come out of the ring and we feel like we are not good enough. But these riders that we all look up to, they realize that the moments that we hit rock bottom, or the moments where we make a mistake in the ring, are actually the moments that we can learn the most from.
"...these riders that we all look up to, they realize that the moments that we hit rock bottom, or the moments where we make a mistake in the ring, are actually the moments that we can learn the most from."
I’m also finding that nearly all of them find their ‘why’ in a true love for horses. I talked to Lorenzo De Luca recently, and he said ‘I don’t need to be every weekend at a five star, I just love getting on a young prospect and feeling them learn.’
A BRIGHT FUTURE
I occasionally still hear people say ‘ she’s really gifted, or he’s really talented,’ and this keeps alive this mentality that we have in this sport sometimes of ‘you either have it or you don’t’. I think that research is showing more and more that talent can make a tiny difference, but it definitely isn’t the determining factor for success as a rider, or in any sport. Talking to incredible successes like McLain Ward and George Morris, they openly admit that they were not necessarily the most naturally talented riders. If we can all learn that with a growth mindset we can enjoy the sport more and make the most out of the talent and opportunities that we do have, well that is just so empowering so much fun. Then a whole new world opens up to us as riders.
I think it’s only the beginning. People in the equestrian space are definitely becoming more and more open to mental training and what it’s all about. As the sport is evolving, there are more and more great riders and better and better horses – the differences between riders and horses in the field are becoming smaller and smaller, competition is much closer. So I think if you have a very strong mindset and a very strong mind, that can make all the difference.
Photos courtesy of Annette Paterakis.