As a Psychology graduate (and a firm over-analyser), I am fascinated by how this can be applied to the horse world, in the form of Sports Psychology. I am constantly amazed by how a change in our thought patterns can have such a profound impact on our physical performance, and improve results significantly. I attended a talk on Sports Psychology talk with my riding club a few years ago which I found really insightful and still use some of the techniques I learned to this day (you can read the full report on this here), – so when I learned that Sports Psychology expert Charlie Unwin was coming to Ireland to deliver a seminar, I immediately booked my tickets.
Charlie’s seminar is entitled ‘Winning the Mind Game in Training’ – as he rightly pointed out, we invest so much into finding ways to improve competition performance, yet training takes up almost 90% of our time. The focus should be on getting the right mindset and establishing a system in training, and this will transfer to competition – and this is what the majority of his talk focused on.
Another interesting point that he made was that coaches, given their ability to influence the mindset of their students, have the ability to impact the structural and chemical makeup of the brain – how amazing is that?! No pressure, coaches…
Charlie set out by establishing some ‘truisms’ – statements or facts that form the foundation of his seminar, and that we needed to know before launching into the specifics. These were:
Truism #1: Training is a mindset, not an activity
The quality of preparation for a training session equals the quality of learning – take the time to plan your sessions. What you learn in the saddle is reinforced out of the saddle – straight after you ride is the best time to plan for the next session.
Truism #2: There is a disconnect between success in training and success in competition
It is easy to be mindless in training, and let quality slip – in competition you don’t get away with simple mistakes or lack of quality. We should always aim to train in one of two modes – Improving (where we learn something new) or Competition (where we aim for the highest quality of what we are already established at). Next time you school, ask yourself, which mode am I training in?
Truism #3: You will not always get better at riding by riding more
For more novice riders, more ‘bum time’ can certainly help to improve riding abilities, but this stops working at higher levels (more bum time for me so). For more experienced riders, it is all about quality of a session vs quantity.
Truism #4: Potential does not equal performance
In this trusim, Charlie highlighted our tendency to try to fast-track to the outcome, without looking at the process to get there. Being too outcome-focused can have negative long-term impacts – he used an example of young riders whose parents buy them a superstar horse who will be competitive for them, and thus the rider is not encouraged to be the best rider they can be. This results in an outcome-focused approach to competition, where the rider expects the horse to deliver rather than look at how they could improve.
‘Billy Bad’ & ‘Johnny Good’
Next, Charlie introduced two characters – Billy Bad, and Johnny Good. He used these throughout the remainder of the seminar to highlight the two polar ends of the scale when it comes to approach to training.
Billy Bad is outcome-focused, with no approach to his own development, and suffers a lack of consistency, while Johnny Good is energetic and motivated, better at dealing with pressure, and quicker to improve.
The Four Pillars
For the remainder of the session, Charlie discussed four key pillars which are critical to ‘Winning the Mind Game in Training’. They are:
- Mindset – training ourselves to think differently
- Mental Simulation – using priming to ensure we expect quality when we ride
- Ideal performance state – being able to manage our emotional state to deliver quality, and then ‘come down’ after
- Continuous improvement – developing a systematic approach to training
Pillar #1: Mindset
Optimists have the upper hand vs pessimists (or the self-awarded ‘realists’) when it comes to dealing with challenges and pressure. They find the best in every situation (even when things are going wrong) because that is all they are looking for – but even when the situation changes, they constantly seek new positives. When you expect the best, you find the best. Charlie talked about belief systems, and how they massively impact not just the outcome, but our perception of the outcome – he quoted Henry Ford “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.” He used an example of a dressage test:
Belief: This judge hates my horse.
Thought: Why bother warming up properly or putting my all into this test when he hates my horse?
Outcome: Low score on dressage test (caused by poor warmup & lack of effort in test)
Belief: I knew that judge hated my horse.
…And so it is a vicious circle! Charlie moved on to discuss two types of mindset, to encourage us to actively think about what mindset we are in at any given moment/session:
1. Inside-Out Mindset (The Sponge) aka Johnny Good
People with an inside-out mindset:
- Embrace challenges
- Persist in the face of setbacks
- See effort as a path to mastery
- Learn from feedback, and
- Find lessons & inspiration in the success of others
- Start with the process, and use the measure to land at the outcome
2. Outside-In Mindset (The Rock) aka Billy Bad
People with an outside-in mindset:
- Rely on luck
- Avoid challenges
- Give up early
- See effort as fruitless
- Ignore useful feedback
- Feel threatened by the success of others
- Care more about their reputation than the process
- Only care about the outcome
The Challenge Zone
The challenge zone is all about ‘knowing vs doing’ and comes back to the concept of letting things slip during our training, and then getting found out in competition. As equestrians we have to get comfortable with struggle – not everything is going to be smooth sailing, but so often we are afraid to leave our comfort zone and move into the challenge zone. Charlie discussed a few of the reasons we are afraid to leave our comfort zone, and what we can do to get out of it:
Self-Esteem – relying on external rather than internal validation
- Measure yourself against what you set out to do
- Write down what you want to achieve
- Surround yourself with people who encourage & understand you
- Invest in your own system – not what others do
- Beware of Social Media!!
Charlie highlighted Social Media as something to be very careful with when it comes to mindset – it takes us away from the process and focuses us on the outcome instead, due to the fact that our ‘reputation’ is at stake. He told us a story about a professional swimmer who was the favourite to win a particular race, and despite this managed to lose. When asked what happened, she said that she had been up late reading her social media messages, telling her how she had the race in the bag, she was a sure thing, etc – and she became so confident that she didn’t swim at her best and lost the race. Charlie noted that some top riders that he has worked with noticed the effects social media has on them, and choose to switch it off/take a detox a few days prior to a big event. Those who did this found they enjoyed the event more and had a greater success.
Trying Something New – delayed reward & risk of perceived failure
- Be realistic about the time it takes to master new skills
- Highlight small improvements and celebrate the small victories – break goals down into mini-goals and commit to achieving them
Fatigue – staying in the Challenge Zone requires energy
- Good sleep is imperative – driving after 5-6 hours sleep per night over the course of a week is the equivalent of drunk driving (reference)
- If experiencing fatigue, train little & often in short bursts rather than in one long burst
- 20 minute bursts make the best use of our physical & mental capabilities
Pillar #2: Mental Simulation
For the brain, thinking about a task is the same as doing it – so it follows if you can simulate success in your head, your brain will transfer that to doing. If you can’t do it in your head – don’t attempt it on the horse! Break it down into smaller chunks if you have to.
The most successful athletes all have one thing in common – they are able to recreate their ‘best moment’ in their head, down to a tee. This includes the time it takes to complete – if a dressage test takes 4.5minutes, you should be aiming to recreate or plan that test in your head in as close to 4.5 minutes as possible.
Charlie acknowledged how overwhelming all the things that we need to remember when riding can be – heels down, elbows bent, focus on your line, don’t forget to breathe – and recommended using a technique called ‘chunking‘ as a means to remembering everything we need to in an easier way.
Pillar #3: Ideal Performance State
Charlie asked everyone to imagine the ideal performance state – the state you need to be in to perform at your absolute best. How does it feel? What do you have to focus on to achieve it?
Never underestimate the power of music when training – he shared a story of a rowing team who successfully used a music playlist to improve their performance both in terms of speed and working in sync as a team. Music can help with mood congruency – being able to recall a feeling through memory – music can regulate states, and using a particular song or playlist can help you achieve the ideal performance state if you practice it at home.
Pillar #4: Continuous Improvement
We need to constantly remind/ask ourselves if we are training to the point of success or failure – do not overtrain, finish on a good note, but more importantly, with quality. You can dictate quality, not results.
Charlie’s biggest tip is to always finish your session feeling like you want to do more. What does quality look like? Produce it, and get off your horse – even if you want to do more. You should finish every session dying to start another one – and be eager to get up for your next one to pick up where you left off.
The recency effect means that we internalise what has recently been done – whether that’s good or bad. Always plan your next session as soon as you finish your current one – it allows you to reflect, learn, and plan what you’ll do next time while it’s fresh in your mind. Michael Jung re-walks the XC course after completing it, on the same day – that’s dedication after a long day of competing when you’re tired!
Charlie summed up by saying that we all have a bit of Billy Bad and Johnny Good in us – we just need to try to eliminate as much of the Billy Bad as we can and focus on being more Johnny Good. Don’t try everything at once – pick the takeaways that stand out most to you and work on those, chipping away at them every day. Pick one day for your diary where it’s ‘Game Day’ – not every day, it’s not sustainable – by practicing your Game Days regularly, it will become habit.
My actions from the seminar
- Recording progress: I purchased a planner from Leroy & Bongo and use it to record notes from sessions, plan future ones, and reflect on events.
- Mental Simulation: I am trying to a) recreate my best moment in my head regularly, and b) simulate a successful test/round before an important show.
- Continuous Improvement: I am always trying to finish my sessions on not just a good note, but a quality note – wanting more! I have been desperate to get back in the saddle every time I get off. It’s made such a difference!
Overall I found it a really insightful, interesting and action-oriented talk. Charlie speaks with clarity, and as a salesperson I was impressed with his superb storytelling abilities. He communicated complex psychological theory simply and clearly to the audience, and was able to make it applicable to a wide range of levels that were in the room. Hopefully anyone reading this takes as much from reading the article as I took from the seminar. If you have the chance to go to a talk or workshop in-person with him I’d highly recommend it!