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The Mental Game: A new era

Thursday, 25 January 2018
The Mental Game

The Mental Game | By Poppy Blandford, Mental Performance Coach


Sports psychology and mental coaching are concepts that have begun to bubble to the surface of our sport in recent years with influential riders now beginning to talk openly about managing mental pressure in the arena. Who could have imagined ten years ago that our sport would have evolved in this manner? Where once we needed a brave horse and brave rider, we now look forward to Tokyo 2020 as a mental game of consistency, speed and technicality, where every second, every inch, every decision matters. The lifestyle of our riders and industry professionals has also evolved, social media has exposed our lifestyles, our facilities, our families, our mistakes and our successes. Live streaming has given us instant access worldwide and increased our audiences while WhatsApp has made communication, deals and gossip travel quicker than we can read. The most common remark I hear is simply, ‘my head is fried’. The mental inputs and outputs of this industry for those at every level have truly changed.

The media focus thus far on the mental elements of the sport has been greatly geared towards highlighting the skills for mastering our minds in the moment such as breathing, visualisation and increasing focus. While these tools offer up immediate tactics to implement into your riding, I have been a little frustrated by the slightly cautious approach to mental coaching in the media. I feel it does little to reflect the true core mental challenges we face within this industry, the real issues I talk about day in and day out with riders, the issues that cause them distraction, frustration and to feel stuck.

I’m delighted to be writing this series as we enter 2018, and hope that its content will give you some inspiration, some guidance and perhaps some solutions in moving forwards. My aim is to dig a little deeper into the psychological elements of the sport. I’d like to start a conversation about some of the things people find uncomfortable, like dealing with emotion, loneliness, self-criticism and comparison. I’d like to talk about how we can cope with the all-consuming nature of this sport, how what’s going on in our heads and in our lives, can massively influence our ability to perform. I’d like to look at how we build a system that supports us to learn from our mistakes and helps us to progress rather than restricts us. We must remember for many, this is not just a sport, but also a business and a lifestyle. We strive to create a solid system for our horses, solving their issues and stresses, but how often do we address our own mental system, question how it supports us to perform or progress?

I started to travel with my work internationally over the past year, working with riders from European pony teams, to amateurs to five-star athletes and everything in between. If there was ever a signal that we all need someone who will listen, to help us see more clearly, to sharpen our minds, this year has been it. The conversation has started. Our industry is starting to reap the benefits of talking it out loud. I think it’s important to be honest about the issues that riders face, young and old. There are teenage boys who look at me in despair, the pressure to make a junior or young rider team has an entire family dream hinged upon it, a bank loan and the gamble of leaving school a year previous. They are tense and confused and although they appear super cool, you see it in their riding, frustration gripped in the reins.  There are girls who have relocated far from home desperate to make it in the sport, desperate to prove their place. They are trying to be kind yet trying to be fierce, the pendulum of self-belief swings wildly in highs and lows. Many high performing professionals have worked out they are tripping themselves up with distractions and emotions and use mental coaching to ensure they are in the best mental space to compete, or to pick themselves up when they are down. The sport is tough, if you’re really going for it. Each rider is unique and so are their needs.

So here do we start with all this?

The most important thing you can do it be honest with yourself. It might be uncomfortable but it will set you up correctly to be able to see where you are and where you want to go. You need to establish a baseline and gain some visibility of where you are. Step off the treadmill and examine the direction you’re running in.

Have an honest conversation with yourself about what is currently happening. What is going on right now for you? Where is your performance at, are you progressing like you’d like to?

Have an honest conversation with yourself about how you are feeling. Do you feel frustrated, unmotivated, upset?

If you’re not happy, or you’re feeling frustrated, talk it out. To a friend, a parent, a mental coach, a mentor, whoever. When our thoughts are spinning our body is consumed by them and experiences them through emotions. When we put them out in the air we can see them, move them, shape them. Being honest with yourself will allow you to identify the areas you are not happy with, or need work. You can then seek the right resources to improve them.

This industry is magical, it constantly grows, evolves and provides us with opportunities. It is however, as mystical as it may sometimes seem, made up of real humans. In my experience, it’s the ones in life that ask for help or knowledge when they feel like they can do better, feel better or think better, that get the most successful outcomes in life. I cannot wait to get started on this series and share with you some of my work. 



Poppy Blandford works internationally as a Mental Performance Coach specialised in showjumping. Working closely with federations, development squads, teams, coaches and international riders, Poppy has built a strong reputation for her specialist ability to influence the performance of Equestrian athletes both in competition and business. Poppy is known for her in-depth knowledge of the showjumping industry, working to help individuals perform consistently and thrive under pressure. Get in touch with Poppy at [email protected] 


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