Sport Psychology and Athlete Tandems

Some inconsistencies have resulted from studies that evaluate the effectiveness of mental skills training and the achievement of desired outcomes in equestrian events. However, mental abilities, even if informal, are believed to form a necessary foundation to support successful competition strategies (Duff-Riddell& Louw, 2011). Wolframm and Micklewright (2010) demonstrated the value of using mental strategies to gain focus and improve performance in German horse-riding competitions. Similarly, strategies that reduce pre-race anxiety and help a motorcycle rider manage his arousal levels while speeding around a track can help him maintain a competitive edge that can lead to victory (Dosil, 2006). The following discussion describes how a rider can use well-established mental skills like breathing, mental imagery, and planning to manage horse psychology and use of technology alike in training and race competition.

Harness the power of your mind to elevate your performance.

Human and Technology Partnership in Motorcycling Events

To successfully consult with a motorcycle rider and his crew, it is necessary that a sport psychology consultant have a firm grasp of the psychological, physiological, and technological points of interaction in motorcycle racing. Riders take tremendous risks to physical well-being, and they become obsessed with the performance of their motorbikes knowing that if one fails, all is lost in the competition. Although a team that surrounds a rider and his bike, there are many he feels isolated and alone. As a result, in order to relate to the rider and his crew, it is also vital that the sport psychology consultant understand the team's jargon, the environment in which they interact, the dynamics of their interactions with each other and their families, and the economic drivers that they are all held accountable to by investors. Each track requires adjustments to the motorbike and rider given its unique characteristics including its road-holding, lap distance, layout, and incline (Dosil, 2006). These challenges make the most stressful and critical area for rider and team interaction the track box where adjustments are made to the bike, and the rider's setup is finalized. Also, the paddock offers an opportunity to work with the rider as this is where he and his crew reside immediately before a competition and leading up to a race.

Training and Preparation for Competition

Respecting the demands of the "mind-body-motorbike interaction," a sport psychology consultant should be intentional about integrating psychological techniques into the rider's physical and technical training. Moreover, targeted mental training should revolve around an overall training plan that is developed in consultation with the rider. Planning should begin with establishing a series of objectives for the season that ideally would include technical, physical and psychological goals. The season should be divided into equal parts, and sub-objectives should be created for each phase of the season leaving time slots available to add objectives at a later date. Ultimately resources should be assigned to the rider's objectives and sub-objectives, and he and his team should engage in a regular review process to allow them to make necessary mid-course corrections at each season section in response to unanticipated challenges or new requirements. It is critical that all objectives ultimately relate to victory, which is the primary objective for every competitive rider (Dosil, 2006). Examples of mental skills that should be included in training and preparation for competition follow.

The rider must master the ability to concentrate on training and competition. In the training phase, this involves creating a plan of action, as described above, and planning activities that help the rider increase energy levels or have fun to relax – whatever is necessary for the rider's mental preparation. Concentration in competition requires training for how to achieve the optimal arousal level that can be maintained throughout the race. This can be accomplished by helping the rider master breathing techniques and blank mind exercises to avoid unnecessary or unwanted mental clutter. The rider should be taught to focus on thoughts that assist concentration like victory, the bike's technical demands, and factors that affect driving. The goal is that no other unproductive thoughts have room to enter the mind in an actual competition. An ability to focus attention is also critical. The sport psychology consultant can help the rider identify stimuli he feels the most comfortable with as well as stimuli the rider may not have thought of but would be beneficial to support the rider's focus, including psychological stimuli he may not be predisposed to consider like concentration in turns, emotions when losing control, or motivation when passing another rider. To access emotional self-control in a race, a rider should be taught thought stoppage utilizing a keyword, image or movement. The goal is to allow him to evaluate the rational and emotional components in a race context and deaden any situation that might create emotional instability. To accomplish this emotional self-control, the rider should be taught visual imagery to allow him to reproduce images and prepare for the challenges and stresses in the race before they occur. Given the demands of racing and the high economic stakes of competition, it is also critical that the rider maintains a strong sense of self-confidence. He can do this by developing a mastery of driving his bike that allows a comfort-level with taking a risk without fear. Off the track, the rider can enhance his self-confidence by developing a strategy to achieve results. This involves analyzing prior performances to determine positive aspects and analyzing errors and solving them with rational processes. Finally, it is likely that the rider harbors irrational feelings of insecurity. He must be encouraged to regularly work on surfacing those feelings and resolving them to avoid any emotionally unproductive periods in the training and development process that might lead to a loss of self-confidence (Dosil, 2006). Armed with these mental tools the rider is prepared to turn to his attention preparation for race day.

Preparation for Peak Performance On Race Day

Training for race day begins with the execution of the team's plans to travel to the track. Logistics of moving people and equipment to the race site can be extremely complicated and very stressful. It is essential that a solid plan is developed that includes sufficient time for safe travel. It is helpful that the team arrive at the track well in advance to allow the rider to walk around throughout the venue and prepare himself for the training rounds and competition. This optimally includes visits to the box, paddock, and track to visualize the days' activities and prepare mentally for the upcoming stresses of the event. In the two days of free and official training that follow, the rider should begin using the mental tools that have been developed in pre-race preparation treating every session as if it were the race itself. During these final days and throughout race day, communication skills are critical for the rider including active listening, sharing simple, concise information with the crew, and solving communication blockages that arise with an empathetic attitude. As the rider wakes up and begins to prepare himself for warm-ups on race day, pre-competition anxiety is a universal emotion and one that the rider should be prepared to manage using deep breathing, positive self-talk, and pre-race visualization of each phase of the track. The rider and crew should anticipate the emotional intensity that is bound to rise to a fever pitch as the familiarization and warm-up laps approach. As the rider begins his familiarization lap and warm-up laps, he should recap his plan for each section of the track and rehearse his five phases of decision-making. It is also an excellent time to check in on his arousal level and make adjustments to either ramp up or calm down using breathing techniques. The grid and starting position are ideal times to visualize the start strategy that the rider has developed for his place, and he should remain aware of his arousal level leading up to the start blocking out any irrational thoughts that might surface (Dosil, 2006). With a focused mind and a well-rehearsed strategy, the rider is ready to execute his starting plan and achieve a winning advantage for the entire race.

The "mind-body-motorbike interaction" in racing action.

Partnership in Equestrian Events

Success in equestrian events is dependent upon the rider's control and awareness of both herself and the horse. As prey, horses are naturally afraid of other animals until they are proven safe while humans, as predators, react oppositely - they assume that another animal is safe until proven otherwise. This organically creates conflict between horse and rider responses that have to be worked out in training including the potential misconception that a horse is refusing to submit to its rider when instead it is merely afraid. Further, to accomplish her competition goals, the rider must develop a trusting relationship with the horse and strike an appropriate balance between her dominance and the horse's submission. This relationship is built over repeated training sessions which are planned to optimize the rider/horse team's performance together. The unnatural environment of competition can create relationship stress between horse and rider as, for example, horses can go without sleep for days or weeks when their sleeping patterns are interrupted causing health and behavior problems. Finally, horses have well-developed senses of hearing, smell, sight, and touch which can create unique challenges that must be overcome to have success in training and performance.

The horse forms its herd with the rider, and it naturally competes for a higher position in the small herd of two where hierarchies and highly structured systems describe the social environment. Horses are also susceptible to various types of communication including body language, tone, and touch. They will read these signs in a rider and decide whether to accept the rider's dominance or challenge it for a higher position in the herd regularly. This fact demands that the rider remain aware of and in control of her mental state and behavior, especially in training and competition. The rider must maintain a calm presence and convey an authoritative demeanor. However, she must also avoid using negative energy and punitive behavior, and she cannot be unfair because of temper or frustration, or she risks damaging the relationship of trust with her horse that she worked so hard to build. The mental relationship is thus critical to all efforts to guide and control a horse (Dosil, 2006). Rider mental skills are also crucial to ensuring harmony which is required in most forms of competition.

Importance of Harmony in Dressage

In dressage the horse and rider tandem are judged by a number of factors including the quality of the cadence and smoothness of the horse's paces, the degree to which horse and rider move as if flowing without effort, the instinctual or spirited forward activity of the horse, and the expertise and meticulousness of the rider. The performance is evaluated by judges who score the performance of each tandem and deduct points for errors. Even the best dressage performers only achieve scores in the 70+ percent range. To create the appearance of a horse and rider effortless dance, the rider must develop an ability to control her emotions which can range from fretfulness and unresolved resentment to irritation or dejected forbearance. Teaching a rider how to manage these emotions is the calling of the sport psychology consultant in dressage. The essence of the sport psychologist's work is to uncover sources of adverse mental conditions and either address and resolve them or put them aside before training or competition. This process is accomplished by attaining a knowledge of the psyche of the horse and learning mental skills to surface and resolve unfinished disagreements as is often also the case with human tandems or larger teams. These objectives are accomplished with cognitive behavioral therapy and methods that help the rider to become more problem-focused rather than emotion-focused. A successful dressage rider will learn to recognize the early onset of negative feelings in training and competition and will not wait until she loses her temper and creates a spiraling effect of negativity to resolve them (Dosil, 2006). This can be accomplished by understanding the origins of the horse's behavior and reacting reasonably to these sources, as well as riding without past fears, disappointments, anger, and resentments toward the horse.

Power and Control in Showjumping

As the equine equivalent of extreme sports, showjumping highlights the rider's and horse's ability to navigate difficult obstacles successfully in as short a period as possible. While the showjumper has time to walk the course in advance and use visual imagery to plan out each step to overcome obstacles, her horse companion sees the path for the first time in competition. The horse's visual field creates a particularly challenging scenario as it has a blind spot and a minimum depth of field straight ahead. This requires total trust of the rider, or the horse will either refuse to execute a jump or if not aligned properly, will miss the jump potentially placing the horse and rider in physical peril. If the jump is not completed flawlessly and fluidly, the tandem will be deducted points, and if the rider falls off the horse, the team is eliminated from competition altogether. These demands place high importance on the showjumper's ability to get maximum power out of the horse while precisely exercising complete control. For this to occur, the horse has to submit to the rider and trust her completely ignoring the other powerful senses that tell it otherwise. The showjumper must have the focus, control over her nerves, and faith to direct this kind of control over her horse safely, and the sport psychology consultant should help her develop and utilize these mental skills in competition. Unlike dressage riders, a showjumper must overcome distress and worry over physical harm, and she must avoid getting caught in the horse's anxiety. An essential component of her mental skill repertoire should be the use of imagery. Using imagery, the showjumper can visually prepare for each jump and diagnose shortcomings in concentration throughout the run to put the horse in the best spot to execute unnatural actions. To accomplish this the showjumper should be taught to: be cognizant of the process of developing mental tools and riding skill to prepare for the horsepower that is required to compete at the highest levels, improve her awareness and attention when under pressure, especially in conditions where actual results do not align with planned strategy on the course, increase the self-confidence with which she rides the horse through potentially dangerous decisions, be in touch with her anxieties and reactions on her horse and going through the course, and to the efficacy of her match with the nature of the horse and how it will likely affect success in competition (Dosil, 2006). Next, the physically and mentally demanding role of the rider in polo is discussed.

A show jumper must overcome distress and worry over physical harm, and she must avoid getting caught in the horse's anxiety.

Multiple Demands of Polo

The coordinated dance of dressage is combined with a frenetic pace and the dangers of show jumping and the appearance of golf in the sport of polo. The rider must choose among a team of ponies the best match to compete with the opponent and sync with his reaction time and athletic ability. Horses are fast and powerful and must be able to keep their composure in tight positions with swinging sticks all around them. Riders work to improve their scores while navigating the roles of individual contributor, equine teammate, and teammate to other horse/rider tandems. A sport psychology consultant can best assist a rider in polo by first reviewing his performance with him as an individual scorer, teammate to his horse, and teammate to other tandems and setting goals that address each after problem-solving and using goal strategies to make necessary corrections. Then the sport psychologist should evaluate how the rider manages anxiety, anger, and frustration throughout the context and teach him to utilize positive self-talk to reframe challenges and conflicts while using keywords to change his focus from negative to positive thoughts (Dosil, 2006). As is the case with dressage and show riding, imagery is a useful tool for the polo rider to help him visualize a well-synchronized performance on the pitch, focusing on the rhythm of the rider and horse together in harmony appearing to move as one.


Tandem sports offer a unique opportunity to align the mental strategies of a human with another animal or piece of technology. In either instance, the rider must keep his focus while concerning himself with the state of his partner. This essay evaluated the demands and potential mental strategies for managing both equipment and a horse partner in motorcycle riding and equestrian events. Use of planning, goal setting, self-evaluation, mental imagery, and positive self-talk was discussed as strategies to enhance performance. Motorcycle sports and horse riding alike require a rider who can manage his level of arousal, keep his calm in times of significant stress, and communicate effectively with teammates in training and performance. In equestrian events and motorsports command of valuable mental strategies can spell the difference between painful failure and a highly profitable victory for a rider and his team.


Blakeslee, M. L., & Goff, D. M. (2007). The effects of a mental skills training package on equestrians. The Sport Psychologist, 21, 288-301.

Dosil, J. (2006). The Sport Psychologist’s Handbook: A Guide to Sport-specific Performance Enhancement. West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Duff-Riddell, C., & Louw, J. (2011). Achievement goal profiles, trait-anxiety and state-emotion of young female competitive horse riders. South African Journal for Research in Sport, Physical Education, and Recreation, 33(3), 37-49.

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