ave you ever wondered what mental training is really all about? You are not alone. When thinking about what a mental coaching session is like, many might imagine lying down on a sofa and opening up about their issues to a dull therapist with a crazy imagination. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In this series, I unravel that misconception by sharing some of the challenges that clients of mine have faced and how, together, we turned things around. For this case study, I’m sharing Zoé Conter’s story with you.
Zoé needs little introduction. At 20 years old, she has already established an impressive track record of success. From winning team gold and individual bronze medal for Belgium at the 2016 FEI European Championships for Juniors to top placings at five-star shows, Zoé has been there and done that. However, in May 2018, whilst competing at an international show in Rome, she had a nasty fall and ended up fracturing multiple vertebrae. Falling off is one thing but getting severely injured is another. How do we bounce back after a terrifying accident like that?
Zoé and I have been working together since 2014 and I have witnessed first-hand her ups and downs in the sport. When I found out about her terrible fall, I was shocked to say the least. About a month later we met up and she told me exactly what happened. She was riding a new horse she had competed only a few times before. They started the course off well until they entered a combination a little too big and the horse planted its legs right in the middle of the oxer. Zoé fell off and ended up fracturing the fifth cervical vertebra in her neck. She was immediately flown to hospital for surgery.
Thankfully the operation was a success and Zoé recovered fairly quickly, but her doctors made sure to emphasize how serious the effects of the injury could have been. Zoé was relieved and realized how lucky she was, but she worried she might not get back to the level she was previously competing. However, after five months of intense physiotherapy and dedication, she was back in the saddle.
During her recovery, Zoé spent many moments contemplating how it would feel to be ride again. When she finally got back in the saddle, it felt really good. That is, until her horse tripped and she heard a cracking sound ripple from the area in her neck that she injured before. Luckily, everything was fine, but in that moment fearful emotions flooded her entire body. Zoé suddenly felt vulnerable and became aware of how fragile both her body and mind still were. She immediately reached back out to me and explained the situation and how terrified she was of falling off and injuring herself again.
Photo by Lucio Landa.
Equestrians often brush fear under the rug. However, it’s one of the most basic emotions we encounter as humans. Fear is the brain’s way of trying to protect us and it has many different ways of doing that. One of the ways is to process information, file it, and give it meaning in order to predict the future so it can safeguard us. When we sleep, we go through different sleep stages, one of which is REM, also known as the dream stage. When we are dreaming, our brain processes all the information and experiences of that day. When we encounter a dangerous situation such as falling off a horse, our brain will save this information in a special file. Let’s call it the Danger File. So every time you get into a similar situation, your brain recognizes it as dangerous, and it will trigger your survival system in an attempt to keep you safe.
Unfortunately, this survival state triggers our fight, flight, or freeze response. When riding, this response could translate into you not seeing a distance but attacking the jump like your life depends on it, or you start to pull for that second, no wait, third distance, or you just sit there and do nothing. Needless to say, this primal response system is not very helpful in the saddle.
Zoé knew she should just relax and trust herself and her horse. She was practicing her breathing exercises, just like I taught her, but the fear was still taking over. So we had to find a way to reprocess the information of her fall and change the Danger File into a different file: the I Survived and I’m Safe File. In order to do this, we needed to work on the level of the subconscious mind as this is also where information is stored. Over the years I found different techniques that successfully do that — one of the techniques I use the most is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT).
When emotions are scary and unhelpful, we tend to push them away and pretend they are not there. Over time, we become so skilled at ignoring them that we fail to recognize what’s really going on inside us. EFT is a great tool to acknowledge the emotions we feel so we can genuinely let them go.
Photo by Sportfot.
I asked Zoé to pick the worst moment from the time of the accident until now. For her, this was actually not the fall itself, but riding towards a double combination during a training session a few days before — the same kind of combination at which she fell. So while using the EFT technique, we step-by-step went through the experience of jumping at home, going through that double combination, feeling the fear kick in, and seeing the image of what could happen. The first time around, her fear intensity was a 10 out of 10, but as we repeated this process a few times, she started to feel better and better.
When using techniques like EFT, we’re able to let go of the emotions around a specific memory or event, which enables us to give it a different meaning. Zoé created a new meaning around what had happened in Rome and during her training that week. As a result, the fear subsided and then disappeared completely.
In just one session, Zoé was able to acknowledge her fears, accept them, and create a new meaning around them. Today, Zoé is back in the saddle and competing at the same level as before her accident.
“Before my fall in Rome, I was pretty happy about how I was riding. I was riding very confident and was determined, which are two very important factors when competing,” Zoé says. “During my recovery, a few questions kept my mind busy all the time: ‘Will I ever compete at the same level again?’ ‘Will I be scared?’ All very terrifying when you can’t do anything about it. The moment I started riding and jumping again, I told myself, ‘I am not scared, nothing happened, I am not scared.’ I thought it would be easy to just pick things up again where I left off, but it wasn’t.
“I got really scared a few times and I thought it would only be a one-time thing, but the anxiety kept on coming back. That’s when I decided I needed Annette’s help to get that fear out of my head. After one session with her, she helped me acknowledge my fear first before we could get rid of it. For me, that has been one of the most important phases in my comeback. I stopped denying that I was scared and instead, I acknowledged my fear. It’s a hard thing to do, but in the end it was reality and I needed to face it before I could move on.”
Feature photo by Sportfot.