McLain Ward on Sports Psychology and Maintaining Mental Toughness

McLain Ward jumps Grand Prix courses like he’s executing the world’s biggest equitation final—he’s smooth, precise, and deadly accurate.

But while he may make the show jumping appear effortlessly easy, maintaing the mental toughness it takes to perform week in and out takes work. Sometimes that means talking to professionals just to stay sane. Like the rest of us.

“First off, I have a great support team,” says Ward. “It’s not a one-man show. Whether it’s in the stable, whether it’s the professionals around me, whether it’s my family, my wife—I have people really supporting me not only mentally but in actual activities. That helps a lot.

“As far as my own personal focus and nerves, it’s something that I’ve struggled with at times in my own career. I’ve worked really hard with sports psychologists to be better at that and to raise my game. I’m a real believer in how that has affected my results.”

Those results include three Olympic medals (two team gold and one team silver), two World Equestrian Games medals (team silver and team bronze), and an individual gold at the 2015 Pan American Games. Suffice it to say, it’s a strategy that appears to be working for him.

The former world #1 continues to work with sports psychologists to stay on top of his game.

“It’s a lot of stuff you do already. But certainly, when things aren’t going as well it gives you a set of skills to fall back on and get you through those difficult times quicker,” says Ward.

Evidence of those mental skills were at work during the Hampton’s Classic last week. Riding HH Carlos Z, Ward lost his stirrup after fence four in the $75,000 Douglas Elliman Grand Prix Qualifier. He recovered to win the class.

“You do all your preparation and then in the moment something odd happens. The horse lost his footing a bit and jumped that fence kind of quirky. I’m not used to losing my stirrup,” chuckled Ward. “You just have to stay focused. I was lucky to be on a horse that could handle me jostling around for a few strides.”

Listen to Ward talk about his experience with Horse Network’s own John Wilkinson, who’s reporting live this week at the American Gold Cup. (John, despite appearances, is not as tall as he and the hill he’s standing on would lead you to believe…)


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