The story that you tell yourself about yourself is crucial to your performance in the saddle, according to performance psychologist Charlie Unwin.

Charlie explored the matter at the 2021 World Horse Welfare Conference #WhoseOpinionMatters (11 November).

He said self-esteem and self-belief have a major role in the way we deal with uncertainty.

“It’s very easy to focus on people’s knowledge and skills as they’re more obvious and visible,” he said. “But there’s a whole raff underneath far more important [things] that allows us to enact our knowledge and skills, like confidence in self and the story that you tell yourself about yourself.

“This noise is something I spend a lot of time helping athletes manage. Ninety percent of feedback comes from inside our own heads.”

Confidence in mind

Charlie said a person’s attention is naturally drawn to negative comments and the things we cannot control.

For instance, at a competition the things we have no power over tend to play on our minds, such as other competitors, the weather, and our previous performance.

Our focus on the things we can control — such as riding accurate lines — can be eclipsed by these negative thoughts.

“Our brain hates things we can’t control, [these thoughts are] five times stronger than the rational behaviour we can control,” he said.

“We seem to forget we have choice where we place our attention. It’s not easy but we can train to be better. We can learn to accept what’s on the outside to take away sting.”

Social media

Charlie explained that a rider’s behaviour online can also impact their competition performance.

He advised managing our use of social media carefully, particularly in the build-up an important event.

“In 2012 the world saw huge spike in anxiety — the year social media platforms became integrated onto mobile phone technology,” he said. “We could carry social media around with us. Our mind is aware it’s in our pocket.

“This noise is something I spend a lot of time helping athletes manage. Turning off [social media] three days before competition has had a profound effect on a lot of the riders I’ve worked with.”

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