When people mention they are working with a personal trainer, everyone knows what that means. When you work with a trainer to improve your dressage and flat work, everyone gets it. However, when one mentions they are working with a mental coach, many people are still mystified as to what that actually is. 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, I’m sharing Anne-Liza’s story. Anne-Liza Makkinga is a Dutch rider, with her own yard based in the Netherlands. She competes internationally at 2* to 5* level.
Anne-Liza and I met for our first session in April 2015 during a horseshow 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 and Lummen. However, for some reason, her confidence taken a hit over the past year or so and, with that, her motivation plummeted too. She wanted to believe in herself again and be more consistent in her riding, as things were very up and down lately.
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. Success is very addictive. As soon as we experience it, we want more. So we get very focused on the results. Now, every time Anne-Liza was not reaching that benchmark, she was disappointed. She became very hard on herself, beating herself up when she didn’t get the desired outcome. As a result, her enjoyment went downhill fast. What became clear to me was that her enjoyment was now directly linked to her results. Good results equaled enjoying the sport. However bad results equaled disappointment, self-criticism and a deep lack of enjoyment.
“I have taken a big step forward as a rider”, Anna-Liza Makkinga
In situations like these (and most often), 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 start 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 we can integrate into our daily routine so that our practice becomes consistent and habitual.
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 strength 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 for at home and at the show. One of tools we incorporated into her daily morning routine to get her excited about riding again, is 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 working out, giving us the confidence we need to make it. Often my clients are surprised that simple habits such as the gratitude exercises, when applied consistently, every day, for a few weeks, and in combination with other exercises and routines which form part of my mental strengthening program, that they start to feel a noticeable different. Sometimes even, a complete transformation!
At the shows, Anne-Liza worked on staying focused on the process instead of the results. She trained herself to stay focused 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 on her feeling, instead of overthinking things, she picked one thing she would focus on in the ring. This helped her brain to stay focused on the process instead of getting distracted with thoughts about the future (i.e. the results).
In Anne-Liza’s 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.”