Everyone experiences pressure in life. Sometimes it comes from outside influences, and other times from within. Pressure can be a motivator as well as an obstacle in achieving our goals. Sometimes we handle it well, and other times it breaks us. 

Team Tahquitz with sport psychology coach Daniel Stewart

For competitive athletes, pressure comes with the territory, and those who learn to deal with the intricacies of their sport often rise to the top. According to equestrian sport psychology coach Daniel Stewart, rising above takes confidence, courage, resiliency and “being OK with not being OK.”

This past spring, Stewart held a clinic at Tahquitz Equestrian in Thermal to address performance anxiety. In riding, as with many sports, there are a hundred things to think about at showtime. After years of training, you enter the ring to jump a memorized course of eight to 10 fences with your trainer, teammates, loved ones and judges looking on. You’ve had your heart set on winning blue, but at that moment, you simply pray that your mind doesn’t go blank, and you forget everything you’ve learned — or worse, your course. It has happened to the best of us and can really shatter your confidence.

“If you wanted an easy sport, you picked wrong,” said Stewart, who has worked with many U.S. Olympians and top international riders. He is the founder of Pressure Proof Academy and has published many books including, Pressure Proof Your Riding, Fit and Focused in 52, and his latest Bolder, Braver, Brighter.

Coach Stewart in action

Stewart’s positive energy and enthusiasm preceded him and I was looking forward to the two-day event, however, it turned out to be one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. The focus was on our mental ability, and he tasked us with complicated instructions and seconds to implement. He pushed us all, ages 11 to 60, beyond our comfort levels setting us up to make mistakes. Our goal was simply to try our best and never give up. 

“In order to get something you have never had, be prepared to do something you have never done,” he encouraged. “In order to develop mental strength, you must push yourself outside of your mental comfort zone. The only problem is on the other side of that comfort zone are mistakes and failures, and those things can really hurt a lot.”

“The playground” consists of nine fences placed closely together with numerous course options.

He called the technique push to failure. “If you push beyond your limits, you grow. If you live in your comfort zone looking perfect and hoping others see how well you are doing, you don’t get stronger, and you don’t grow.” 

At that moment, I realized I have been living in that exact place quite happily for a long time. I am not used to failing, but my brain hurt from trying to comprehend a fraction of what was being thrown at me. I reached deep for my greatest inspiration, my younger self, and feared I may never find her again.

Riders and their equine partners await their challenging tasks.

Stewart knew what he was doing. “I overloaded you emotionally by shifting your attention to too many things. Mental shifting will cause you to make mistakes, however, attempting these impossible feats, focusing on the effort versus the outcome and not giving up, builds confidence.” 

“This is not a riding lesson; this is a life lesson,” he coached. “Life is overwhelming, and if you focus on outcomes, life will continue to be overwhelming. But if you focus on your efforts, it will relieve life’s pressure.”

He emphasized that the human brain can only think of one thing at a time and only four related items within that one thing, especially when under pressure. To alleviate mental shifting, he suggests picking three things to focus on when you train or compete. “When you start focusing on more than three things, you can’t do it; your brain is full. These three items are your mental tasks, or ‘masks.’” 

Mistakes, disappointments, perceived failures, and regrets shake our confidence and can shrink our comfort zone, he adds. “We believe that we are not capable of what we are truly capable of achieving. So, please be OK with not being OK, and when you do your best and come up short, there are always lessons to learn.”

Too many faults resulted in 50 equestrian sit-ups, which most had to do.

The clinic included a psychology seminar in which Stewart talked about the “Fishbowl Effect,” an acronym for eight of the greatest fears of competing, including failure, spectators watching, judges judging, the fear of losing and the expectation of winning. 

How do you overcome those fears? “By emptying everything that can hurt you from your life; emptying relieves pressure.” Stewart used the acronym EMPTY:

Effort over outcome. It’s hard when we give our best and our best isn’t good enough, but there are two sides to everything you do – outcome and effort. While others tend to focus on our effort, we, as competitors, tend to focus on the outcome. Be OK that a perfect effort may not always result in a perfect outcome.

Learning to manage pressure helps improve performance in and out of the show ring. Del Sarto and Tristan competing at Desert Horse Park. (Photo by @ESIPhotography)

Message over mess. Focus on the message, not the mess you may have created; the message is trying to teach you something. Then give yourself permission to make three mistakes, a “mistake quota.” If you expect yourself to make mistakes, you will make them and be OK with them. If you expect to be perfect, it will only lead to disappointment. Allowing yourself mistakes relieves pressure.

Patience over perfection. When you make a mistake, it can hurt, and no one is expected to feel good about it right away. Allow yourself time to mope about your mistakes but set a timeframe; give yourself three seconds or three minutes, then be OK with it and move on.

Tell over yell. Don’t continue the negative self-talk or yell at yourself for messing up. Create a phrase to move you past your mope so you can keep moving forward. It can be as simple as “OK, move on,” but make sure to use it when your three minutes are up. 

You over others. Stop worrying about other people. Focus only on your efforts in the present moment. Say out loud to whomever you care most about, “I plan to do my best.” Knowing and believing that your best is enough and saying it out loud releases the pressure valve.

The clinic was an eye-opener, and each of us walked away with a unique perspective.

Avery, a 14-year-old participant from Indio, said it helped her with her self-confidence. “I learned that making mistakes is OK and that I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. It helped me focus on keeping my eyes up, riding with confidence and trusting in my ability. It really helped me.”

“The hardest part was when Coach Stewart shouted out the course, and we had seconds to learn it,” said Abby, 11, of Palm Desert. “It was good for me because remembering my courses is something I need to work on. I liked the challenge.”

“I was a bit anxious prior to the clinic but came away with a greater comfort in my own uneasiness,” said Emily Rekuc, 42, of Indio. “Daniel set us up to fail but instead showed us how to succeed. Persevering despite making errors is what makes us successful. Learning to deal with our mistakes is crucial. I hope to apply his lessons in my real life, not just while on a horse.” 

Another in our barn described the experience as life-changing. “In dealing with a challenging situation, it opened my eyes and helped me find words void of judgment, shame and negativity to support a family member in need. We are now both focusing on effort over outcomes.”

While I loved the camaraderie, teamwork and compassion that arose from the challenges, I had a hard time embracing the positive messages at first. As one who has always strived for perfection (and ribbons), the challenge really shook my confidence. I questioned whether I will ever be as good as my younger self and that hurt. After the first day, I came home and cried my eyes out (for way more than three minutes). 

But after a while, I found my “OK, move on” and came to appreciate the message of effort over outcomes. I am very proud that, at this age, I am out there once again performing in the sport I love. And, in many ways, I am a better equestrian – and better partner to my horse – than my younger self.  

Whether big or small, try stepping out of your comfort zone and don’t let fear hold you back. Give it your all, appreciate your effort over the outcome, be OK with not being OK, and never give up along the way. 

A special thank you to Laurie Cunningham and Tahquitz Equestrian for hosting the clinic. For more information on Daniel Stewart, visit www.pressureproofacademy.com.

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