How This Rider Let Go of Self-Criticism in the Saddle... and Flourished

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s there is still some mysticism around mental coaching and sport psychology, I’d like to raise the curtain and acknowledge the elephant in the room by sharing some of the challenges that clients of mine face and how, together, we turn things around.

For my second case study of this series, allow me to introduce Jennifer Goddard. Based in the Netherlands, Jenn is an American show jumper who focuses on acquiring young prospects, developing them up the rankings, and selling them on to top level riders. She’s had great success and recently sold one of her projects to Dutch show jumper, Eric van der Vleuten.

Although she’s seasoned in the saddle, Jenn, like many riders, struggled with her confidence in the show ring. This is her story:

The Beginning
In summer 2018, when Jenn reached out to me, she was not pleased about her mindset and progress in the sport. Apart from the results in the ring, Jenn had noticed that her own mind had become her biggest downfall, and, as a result, was holding her back from being the best rider she could be. She constantly set the bar too high for herself, and when she could not meet those often unrealistic expectations of perfection, she would beat herself up for it. Needless to say, this had a negative impact on her self-confidence and motivation.

The Challenge
Being a perfectionist is habit. In society and through experiences growing up, we learn at a young age that perfection is the goal. As a result, we might create certain beliefs such as, “Unless it’s perfect, it’s not good enough,” or “Unless I’m riding perfectly, I’m not good enough.” We are not always consciously aware of these beliefs, but under the surface, they direct our every move. For Jenn, this meant that she was often so busy criticizing herself that it restricted her growth and improvement. Trainers could give her constructive feedback, but she was so hard on herself and distracted by even the tiniest mistake that she couldn’t take in the comments.

The way constructive feedback is delivered can change the way it’s received.

The Process
In order to change a negative habit, we need to replace it with a better one. Instead of focusing too much on why Jenn set the bar high and why she was so hard on herself, together we reset and went back to basics. We implemented daily habits to help train the mind to work for her and not against her. This starts with a morning routine, which I teach all my clients. It consists of three short exercises including a breathing exercise, a gratitude exercise, and a visualization exercise. I consider these to be like yoga for the brain as they create a focused, positive, and confident mindset.

Next, we worked on training her mind to stay focused on the process and less on the results or what other people might be thinking of her. In order to do that, we implemented the second daily routine — staying connected with your horse. Even though Jenn already spent a lot of time bonding with her horses, she let her own negative self-talk interrupt that connection. Therefore, we created the habit to take at least a few minutes to really feel (not think about) the horse underneath her. She would do this every time she got on. It’s a great way to train your mind to stay in the moment and to be focused on feeling instead of thinking, which is crucial in the ring. For Jenn, it worked really well to imagine being in one big bubble with her horse while riding.

"I was very open to learning and willing to work hard. The problem was that when I was so busy criticizing myself, I couldn’t grow."

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, we worked on altering Jenn’s mindset. In a fixed mindset, you believe that you either have what it takes to succeed, or you don’t. Your core abilities are fixed and perhaps you can improve with training to some extent, but in essence, you are either naturally gifted, or you are not. As a result, you feel the need to prove yourself every time you go into the arena, so making mistakes is a big no-no.

On the other hand, in a growth mindset you are focused on improvement and becoming the best rider you can be. Sure, the results matter, but they don’t define you as a rider. The way you ride in the ring and your results are feedback of how well you have trained. They are a product of your effort and a compass to guide you and your horse towards improvement.

Learn about the different mindsets and how to make them work for you.

Jenn explains, “I always thought I had a growth mindset because I was very open to learning and willing to work hard. The problem was that when I was so busy criticizing myself, I couldn’t grow.” I told Jenn that it’s not about proving yourself, it’s about improving yourself. This was the moment it clicked for her.

The Outcome
Today, Jenn is focused on improvement most, if not all, of the time and has successfully incorporated daily habits that help her stay positive and able to easily recover from mistakes. She is excited about riding at shows but just as excited about riding and developing her horses while at home. She is now using more positive language and thoughts and can better absorb information she is given to improve herself and her horses. In other words, Jenn has definitely grown into a growth mindset.

“I have been very fortunate to train with some of the leading professionals in the industry, but until I changed my mindset, I wasn’t able to make the most of their lessons,” Jenn says. “Through deliberate practice, under Annette’s guidance, I have learned to love the process of improvement, both of myself and of my horses. For me, perfection is no longer on my radar. Now my focus is on putting forth the most authentic version of myself, mistakes and all, so that I can cultivate my own happiness and success in this sport.”

Annette's course teaching mental strength and becoming a confident rider will be released soon on Insider Masterclass. Learn more.

Read this next: How to Stop Letting the Scoreboard Be Your Main Measure of Success

All photos by Sportfot.

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Written by Annette Paterakis

Annette Paterakis - The Equestrian Mental Coach - specializes in mental coaching for riders of all levels. She is passionate about working with riders and trainers to help them better understand the mind and reach peak performance. Annette is the author of the book "Keep Calm and Enjoy The Ride", available through Amazon.com. For more information give her website a gander: annettepaterakis.com