You know the feeling.
You walk your horse down the chute to the in-gate. You listen to that last-minute pep-talk from your coach. Your horse’s ears are perked and alert: he’s watching the pair ahead of you finish their round. The gate slowly swings open, and you prepare to enter the ring. Now stop.
What’s going through your mind? Are you feeling confident and focused on the job ahead? Or have you already started to unravel? Are those butterflies in your stomach a result of nerves and excitement—or is it doubt?
Your answer to these questions can say a lot about where you are in your confidence-level, and by extension, your competitive performance. Whether you want to admit it or not, you probably know the truth about which camp you fall into right now in your gut—and, if John Haime happens to be watching you, he probably does too.
“It’s not difficult for me to see, spending the past 20 years watching performers at all levels. It’s clear to me who’s confident and who’s not,” says the former tournament professional golfer, performance coach, and creator of the New Edge Performance (NEP) model. “Performance starts in the mind and [that] drives everything. The more you move up in the sport, the more important that mental, emotional piece becomes.”
That ‘piece’ is also the subject of Haime’s new book, Ride Big: The Ultimate Guide to Building Equestrian Confidence, published by Trafalgar Square and hitting bookstores everywhere this spring. Featuring invaluable insights from riders such as McLain Ward, Beezie Madden, Michael Jung, and Laura Tomlinson, the book is already receiving rave reviews from top industry professionals that can relate to Ride Big’s central idea: Equestrians are suffering from a crisis of confidence in our sport.
After decades spent traveling the world—first as a pro athlete, then as a businessman, designer of corporate learning programs and executive coach, and finally as a performance coach for top professional athletes (think: the NFL, NHL, NBA, PGA Tour and ATP Tennis, among others)—it’s a conclusion Haime didn’t arrive at lightly.
“It was glaringly obvious to me at every show I attended. I observed it in the way [people] ride, and in the way they are in the warm-up ring and the barn.”
Before committing to the sport, the performance coach took the time to fully immerse himself in the community, attending shows and events around the globe, talking to industry professionals ringside, attending clinics, listening intently and even taking riding lessons himself. Haime spent a long time just watching and learning, and soon established a client base of equestrian athletes at all levels—amateurs and some of the world’s leading, young riders.
“[Whenever] a rider, trainer, or a parent calls me about a young rider, in the first couple of minutes, the conversation turns to confidence,” he explains, “it’s something they want to talk about and always comes up.”
So what exactly is going on here? For many of us, the risk-factor plays a role. After all, when your “teammate” is a 1,200-lb athlete with a potential agenda of his/her own, the possibility for crashes, falls, and stop-outs can impact how we perceive negative outcomes. According to Haime, there is also a unique social media culture in the equestrian world that drives a climate of one-upmanship.
“I think it’s similar in a lot of sports, but it’s more magnified,” he says, noting that everything from the caliber of horses to boots and helmet brands are on the list. “There’s a comparison trap. [People] post their great stuff on social media, and other riders see it, and then there’s the potential to feel inferior because they perceive they’re not doing as well.”
Still, Haime says, even considering those aspects of equestrian sport that set it apart, the things that most significantly affect our confidence in the ring are universal across most athletic endeavors. He uses the example of a successful professional athlete player-client.
“He’s been amazing at every level, a top junior player, a top college player. He’s been the best player on every single team he’s been on,” Haime explains. “He’ll call me when he starts struggling, and he’ll say, ‘John, I’ve lost my confidence.’
“And I’ll say, ‘Just a sec.’ The truth is that everything is cyclical. You’ll go a week, two weeks, a month, [before you hit your stride again]. You just have to stay the course and follow the plan and keep working—keep going to practice, maybe work a little harder at some aspects. [But it] always cycles back,” Haime says.
The mistake so many of us make, the author continues, is to ‘give away’ our confidence in the words that we use and, consequently, the conscious or unconscious mental limits we put on our own performance.
“[People] often aren’t aware of their narrative. [They’ll say things like], ‘I’ve lost my confidence,’ or, ‘I’m not confident,’ and they don’t really know why,” Haime says. “The confidence is still there, it has solidly been built over time. But everything is cyclical—in life, in sports. You can’t be good all the time, it’s just not the reality of performance.”
When it comes to the top riders in the world, Haime says, the ability to contextualize temporary downturns in confidence and other mental aspects of the sport in a pro-active way is what separates the good from the great.
“People like McLain Ward will tell you that. He was a prodigy junior rider when he was young, and then in order to get to the world-class level, his next step was to master those mental and emotional [parts], because he admittedly struggled with it for a while.
“I think that’s the great thing about our program. The trainers have important skills to help the athletes with their technical, physical and strategic skills and we bring a very complementary piece—a proven, results-driven mental/emotional process to help the riders maximize the coach’s efforts and the rider’s abilities.”
Another component that comes up frequently in Haime’s work with equestrians is how different riders handle high-pressure moments. For a top international athlete, that might be a World Cup Final or the individual medal day at an Olympic Games.
Two riders that Haime spoke with for Ride Big with plenty of experience in these critical scenarios are U.S. showjumper, Beezie Madden, and German eventer (and sometime CSI 5* showjumper) Michael Jung. You wouldn’t be alone right now if you’re thinking that any strategies embraced by mere mortals couldn’t begin to scratch the oh-so-icy surface of the Madden/Jung mind game. But according to Haime, that’s a misconception in more ways than one.
“Their approaches [to pressure] are very different,” Haime explains. “Beezie might go into [a] gold-medal day at the Olympics and she’ll say, ‘Look, this is a massive opportunity for me, I have to take advantage of [it].’ It’s all positive for her. She considers pressure a privilege.
“Michael [on the other hand], is all about taking the pressure off his horses. He walks into the Olympic Final downplaying the magnitude of the event, ‘We’re calm, we know what we’re doing, and we trust our program. This is just another show class, and we’re going to go in and do our job.’
“We know that pressure is real; it exists,” Haime continues. “I have the privilege to work with world-class athletes, but they’re all very human. [One of the key things that sets them apart] is that they have a high level of self-awareness, and they really figure out what works for them [as individuals]. This sets the stage to build confidence.”
It’s this last sentiment that actually inspired Haime to finally put pen to paper to write Ride Big. You may not be able to view a World Championship like any other day on the farm like Michael Jung, or trot into a five-star with the positivity of Beezie Madden. But you might find, in Ride Big’s pages, a guide you can refer back to when you need it, or a rider whose methods or advice speaks to the kind of competitor you are.
“Confidence is everything,” writes trainer and USEF R-rated judge Julie Winkle in her recent review of Ride Big. “This book is a ‘must-read’ for every serious rider and coach—it is a treasure to reread and process before each competition.”
For Haime, that’s just the idea. “If people can take away three things they can use, then I’ll be very pleased,” he says. “They don’t have to take away 100 things, [but] if they can take three away that will help them, and make them a better rider, then I think I’ve done my job.”
John Haime’s new book Ride Big officially launches April 20. Pre-order your copy today!