by Tonya Johnston, MA
Appeared in Eventing USA September/October 2009

People’s knowledge about the field of sport psychology and specific performance enhancement techniques can vary quite a bit. This breadth of information can range from the basics (“What is positive self talk?”), to the more subtle benefits (“Can breathing techniques energize me?”). In the interest of promoting education about sport psychology, my column for this issue will be a small quiz. To play along: take a folded piece paper to help you read each question slowly, decide if you think it is a true or false statement, check yourself and then read the explanation. How do you think you will do? There is no need to keep score – this game (as with many things in life) is about the process, not the outcome.


  1. Positive self talk just means saying “I can” instead of “I can’t. False
    Using positive self talk to turn negatives into positives can feel weak and untrue to many people who don’t fully understand the technique. It is crucial to include the how in the response to the negative thought. For example, to counter the little voice in your head that says “I never feel confident before my stadium round” you want to shift gears and focus on what you can do or think (the how) that will help you feel confident. Instead of saying “I am confident before stadium” (which we know you don’t truly believe), you would say “I breathe and focus on my course plan before stadium”. The second statement is positive because it is realistic, in your control, and leads you to confidence – which is clearly what you felt you were lacking in the initial negative statement.
  2. Goal setting can negatively impact your motivation and performance.

    Goal setting can be dangerous if it isn’t properly balanced and crafted. To make sure goal setting enhances your motivation you must equalize outcome goals (winning, accolades, team selection, etc.) with performance goals (improvements in your own performance over time). This ensures that you are always able to track progress, even when results may be disappointing. You also need to phrase your goals positively (“Keep my eye up to every jump” vs. “Don’t look down”) to ensure that you are sending your body appropriate messages about what to do to be successful.
  3. You have to have to be a nervous rider to benefit from sport psychology. False
    Many, many riders who have never been nervous or anxious have benefited from adding mental techniques to their mental toolbox. Instead of focusing on any one ‘problem’ the field of sport psychology offers many strategies to help athletes achieve consistent high-level performances. Since riding at every level requires both mental and physical skills, you must be excellent at both to truly excel. Many people now cross-train physically to be sure they are physically strong and fit; sport psychology can be looked at as a way to cross-train your mental skills.
  4. Visualization is only effective once you are at a show and you know the course.

    Visualizing before you get to the venue can be a terrific way to build your focus, confidence, and improve your performance. In the weeks before an event you can imagine your rides (specific to the arenas and terrain of your next show) several times a week to train your mind and body how you want to ride once you get there. Obviously this is facilitated by past experience at the show-grounds, but research on the internet for pictures and video can assist you in building positive expectations and life-like visualizations.
  5. It is OK to make mistakes in your visualizations. True
    You can, and will, make mistakes in your visualizations and it is important to understand why that can be useful. There you are cantering to the last oxer in your stadium round and you feel yourself pull and pull again, adding two strides and dropping a rail in your pre-ride visualization. This is a moment that is based on habit and muscle-memory – but the fact that it happened in your visualization gives you an added opportunity to fix the habit. Re-wind the tape and focus on one or two things that are keys to maintaining your forward rhythm on the way to that jump. It’s OK to make the mistake, but you want to be sure to finish with a visualization of yourself riding the solution.
  6. Mental techniques are only for competition.

    Like any muscle you use to succeed physically in your riding, the more you practice, the better you get. You may occasionally use the techniques for different reasons in your schools at home, but you still need to practice in order to build strength of mind and focus. For example, in your lessons at home you may use your breathing techniques to bring your energy up; whereas at an event you may need to breathe effectively to relax and let go of extra energy before a ride.
  7. With practice, you can control every aspect of your rides.

    Somewhat of a trick question here, right? In riding there are many things that are out of your control. The weather, your horse’s mood, the course, etc. What you can learn to control 100% of the time – with practice and mental techniques – is your response and reactions. For example, your horse has more energy than you would have liked as you enter the dressage arena. Instead of being negative and frustrated, which can easily escalate the problem; you make a choice to respond proactively. By making a mental note to find additional places to exhale during the test, and concentrating on lowering your own arousal level, you take conscious control of your reaction and response to something that you have to cope with in the moment. By having awareness, presence of mind, and recognizing that every thought and behavior represents a choice, you can learn to react optimally in every situation.
  8. Understanding your motivation to ride can greatly improve your performance.

    When your goals are in line with your motivation, you ensure that your efforts will have a direct impact on your performance. Having a crystal-clear understanding of why you compete helps you make choices that bring you enjoyment, fulfillment and happiness. A happy rider is a resilient rider who will bring their talents to every situation.
  9. World class riders don’t use sport psychology consultants. False
    Here’s hoping you got this one correct! Of course many of the world’s best have used sport psychology to get to the top and once there continue to use sport psychology. Your riding skill or level of competition does not determine the potential usefulness of these mental techniques. From beginner novice riders struggling to remember their courses, to Olympians looking for an extra edge, great riders embrace that there is always more to learn, and ways they can improve.
  10. It is best not to bring your goals with you into the ring. False
    While bringing outcome goals (“I want to score xyz…” or “I am excited to go make my trainer proud”) can be detrimental to your focus because they are ultimately out of your control, performance goals can truly enhance your focus.  Take a personal, performance goal such as “Stretch and lengthen my body with each half-halt” and shorten it to a cue-word like “Stretch”. Then insert that cue into your ride plan, and you have brought one of your goals into the ring to strengthen your ability to focus in the moment. It is a simple way to unite your goal with your focus and physical awareness during a ride. It is proactive, positive and links a psychological pursuit – goal setting – with a physical accomplishment on your horse.

So, how did you do? It is a useful process to test your assumptions and challenge your knowledge about a given subject, just as we did with this quiz. In addition, Alice Rollins says, “The test of a good teacher is not how many questions can she ask her pupils that they will answer readily, but how many questions she inspires them to ask that she finds it hard to answer.” After reading this article you hopefully learned some new things about sport psychology and ways that it can help you ride your best, let me know if you have any questions.

Tonya Johnston, MA, is a Mental Skills Coach who specializes in working with equestrian athletes. Her coaching sessions teach mental strategies for optimal sport performance and help riders develop personalized preparation routines. Tonya’s clients have attained competitive success at every level, including national titles and awards. She has presented at both the USEA and USDF national conventions. Tonya has a master’s degree in Sport Psychology from John F. Kennedy University. She conducts “Mental Skills for Riders” clinics throughout the country as well as phone consultations with individual clients. Phone: 510.418.3664.