When people mention they are working with a personal trainer, everyone knows what that means — working hard in the gym. When you work with a riding instructor to improve your dressage and flat work, everyone understands what that entails, too. However, when someone mentions they are working with a mental coach, many people are still mystified as to what that actually means.
Though I have been sharing my thoughts and knowledge on mental skills and training for equestrian riders for some time now, I often still get asked, “So what do you do exactly?” With this in mind, in the coming months, I’ll be sharing with you some of the challenges that clients of mine have faced and how, together, we turned things around.
For my first case study, allow me to introduce Anne-Liza Makkinga. Anne-Liza is a Dutch show jumper based in Ommen, the Netherlands. Currently competing at the international four-star level, the 32-year-old has come a long way from our first session back in 2015.
Anne-Liza and I met for our first session in April 2015 during a horse show in Lanaken, Belgium. Anne-Liza told me how she had been doing well over the past few years, winning a grand prix in Geesteren and competing for the Dutch Nations Cup team in Lisbon. However, for some reason, her confidence took a hit over the preceding year and, with that, her motivation had plummeted, too. She wanted to believe in herself again and be more consistent in her riding, as things were very up and down at the time.
What became clear to me after probing a little deeper was that her previous successes had gotten her very focused on the results. Sometimes, the good results can get us off track since success is extremely addictive. As soon as we experience it, we want more, and in turn, we get very focused on the outcome rather than the process. Now, every time Anne-Liza was not reaching that benchmark, she was disappointed and self-critical. As a result, her enjoyment went downhill fast. I could see that her enjoyment was now directly linked to producing top placings. For Anne-Liza, good results equated to enjoying the sport. However, bad results equaled disappointment, self-criticism, and a deep lack of enjoyment.
In situations like these (and indeed with most of my clients), I like to start with the basics. So what does that mean? Well, I start by explaining how our brain works under pressure and why when we put all that pressure on ourselves, we begin to ride differently. I then work on creating new habits. I believe that if we want to set ourselves up for long-term success, we need to create habits that can integrate into our daily routine. Once we create a consistent mental training routine, our riding and results become more consistent, too.
"... her enjoyment was now directly linked to producing top placings."
For example, have you ever learned or applied a tool or exercise that really worked for you and helped you improve your mental game or your riding, only to realize after some time that you were no longer applying them? You are not alone, this happens all the time! In fact, when I started on my own mental strengthening journey, I stopped using the tools as soon as things started to get a little better. What I have learned is that creating habits is crucial for consistent success.
To get things started, I shared a few practical mental training tools with Anne-Liza and guided her through establishing new habits at home and at the show. One of the tools we incorporated into her daily morning routine to get her excited about riding again was a gratitude exercise. By reminding ourselves every day of all the great victories, opportunities, and amazing horses that are already present in our lives, our focus begins to shift from thinking things aren’t working out to realizing that they actually already are! This in turn gives us the confidence and motivation to keep working hard every day.
Annette's course teaching mental strength and becoming a confident rider will be released soon on Insider Masterclass. Learn more.
Often my clients wonder how such simple tools such as the gratitude exercises can make such a difference. But after only a few weeks, when applied daily in combination with other exercises and routines which form part of my mental strengthening program, my clients feel a noticeable difference. Sometimes even, a complete transformation!
As part of her new routine at shows, Anne-Liza worked on staying focused on the process instead of the results. She trained herself to stay intent on her preparation more than the eventual outcome, staying in the moment, and reminding herself of what she had to do in the ring. For example, in order for Anne-Liza to keep riding with feeling instead of overthinking things, she picked one thing she would hone in on in the ring, such as rhythm, body position, the connection with her horse. This helped her brain to stay focused on the process instead of getting distracted with thoughts about the future (i.e. the results).
Now Anne-Liza is producing results but also enjoying the journey no matter what the scoreboard says. In her own words: “Together with Annette, I worked on my focus, self-confidence, and setting achievable goals. It really helped me to get to know myself better and to learn what works best for me. Because of this, I have taken a big step forward as a rider. I have realized that training my mental power has a very positive impact on me and, ultimately, my results. It has been the missing link for me to enjoy the riding more, to enjoy the positive results and to learn from my mistakes and put them into perspective.”
Read this next: A Rider's Guide to Recovering When Disaster Strikes
All photos by Sportfot.