Being around the barn, I hear the word “perfect” a lot. And that is always cause for some concern.
Too often, riders try to be “perfect” when they perform. These equestrian athletes set high expectations (their own or the standards of others), then become upset and frustrated when they fail to match these standards.
I hear from parents and coaches who worry about young riders who become easily frustrated and take disappointment home with them…too often.
You’re likely familiar with riders who show perfectionist behaviors.
There are pros and cons to being a perfectionist rider
Perfectionist athletes tend to criticize themselves for making mistakes, often hold high and unrealistic expectations for themselves and tend to get frustrated easily after making a mistake. These athletes are often perfectionists in other aspects of their lives—in school, at work and even at home.
On a positive note, you will find some advantages to perfectionism in riders. Perfectionist athletes tend to work hard, are highly committed to their targets and are willing to learn and improve.
The problem is these positive traits often hide the problems that are associated with perfectionism in the sport of equestrian. The equestrian athletes are so motivated that you often don’t think of them as having mental/emotional struggles.
Perfectionists undermine their own riding
Athletes who try to be perfect can undermine their performance in many ways.
Here are a few:
- Focusing too much on results leading to a vicious cycle of working hard, setting higher expectations and then thinking they are failing to reach their expectations.
- Unknowingly embrace very high expectations. They do this unconsciously. When they don’t achieve their expectations, they feel frustrated, like they have failed—and this can result in destructive behavior.
- They don’t enjoy their riding like they should. There is so much pressure to be perfect that they forget the real purpose of riding—to have fun, enjoy the experience and achieve challenging goals.
Here’s a classic example from an equestrian Mom: “My daughter is a good rider who has always had success in her equestrian passion. However, she seems to focus on the negative, not the positive. If she takes a rail or makes a mistake, the only thing she dwells on is the rail or mistake. Unfortunately, things tend to go downhill from there.”
Excellence is always the goal
There is a big difference between perfection and excellence and I’d like to encourage you to think about making excellence your goal.
By creating realistic and challenging expectations and helping young riders focus on manageable targets, they are put in the best position to succeed and enjoy the sport they love.
Some characteristics of excellence riders:
- A rider who focuses on their personal best, not impossible goals
- A rider who has reasonable expectations and takes into consideration that mistakes are a normal, frequent part of sport
- A rider who focuses more on what they did well versus the mistakes they made
- A rider who learns from failure instead of being devastated by it—moving forward to better performances
- A rider who keeps going when things get difficult—not giving up
Remember that perfection is an unachievable pursuit. Nothing in life is perfect and nothing in riding is either—the rider, horse and all surroundings have flaws, so to continually anticipate and expect a flawless performance is not only harmful to performance, but illogical!
What parents and coaches can do
Begin by identifying the very high or perfectionist expectations that pressure your young rider. These are the expectations that motivate them to have a “perfect” ride and not make any mistakes.
Once you identify these expectations—“I can’t take a rail” or “I have to win”—your job is to replace them with simple, process-oriented targets.
Smaller, more manageable targets such as “the best I can do right now at each fence” or “I want to focus on creating balance and rhythm” helps equestrian athletes focus on the process. It also contributes to better results.
Manageable goals focus your equestrian athlete on the execution of one moment or one fence at a time.
The right goal
As an equestrian parent or coach, you want to be mindful about placing unreasonably high expectations on your young equestrians. You may do this without even realizing you’re doing it.
Some parents and coaches ask young athletes for results—and place expectations on them—in an attempt to boost their confidence. They might say, “let’s get a clear round today” or “let’s win this class today.” Unfortunately, such well-meaning input can cause equestrian athletes—especially perfectionists—to try to meet these expectations. They then feel frustrated and disappointed when they don’t.
By creating realistic and challenging expectations and helping young athletes focus on manageable targets, you put them in the best position to succeed and help them maximize the enjoyment in their riding.
Excellence should always be the goal with equestrian athletes.
About the Author
John Haime is President of New Edge Performance. A former professional athlete and current bestselling author of You are a Contender! Build Emotional Muscle to Perform Better and Achieve More…in business, sports and life, John understands how athletes think and feel…he’s been there—under the most intense pressures of amateur and professional sports. John coaches athletes in all sports and is trusted by some of the world’s leading athletes—professional and elite amateur. See www.johnhaime.com to learn more.