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What in the world is a "mental performance coach" anyway?

Whenever I say I'm a mental performance coach for equestrians I often wonder what that means to people. What do others imagine I do as part of that job, reminding me of those "What my friends think I do" memes from a several years ago. Since there's no agreed definition or career description of "mental performance coach" it could mean anything. And truthfully, each mental performance coach I've ever met, would describe themselves differently from all the others, marketing to their unique skills and specific niche.

Some have degrees in sports psychology, some don't. Some have MBAs from well-known colleges and universities, some don't. Some have decades of experience in the corporate world and some don't. There is definitely no one career path to becoming a mental performance coach. So when I say that I'm a mental performance coach, what do I mean?

Well, let me start with a noun, "Coach" since this word probably conjures up a lot of different ideas. From sports coaches to professional development trainers to those participating in a mentoring program with Tony Robbins, all of these people have at some point been described or defined as "a coach". But what do I mean by the word "coach"?

I have always loved the use of a metaphor to explain vague or complicated ideas or concepts so I'll do the same here. I like to think of a coach as a really good dance partner. They are someone who can help you find the beat (aka define what the problem is), they can lead you in the dance (aka ask you probing questions and make observations), they can adjust the choreography (aka give you space for thinking, exploring and processing emotion) and can get you competition ready (aka action you to practice, evaluate and improve in order to reach your dreams). This is what coaches do, all coaches... metaphorically speaking anyway.

So what does that look like for me and my clients specifically? Firstly, I create an open and safe space to explore everything that is happening for my clients. And when I say everything, I mean what's happening in the moment (e.g. maybe you fell off and were injured and getting back in the saddle today is making you feel nervous or scared), as well as, what's going on in the bigger picture (e.g. you've struggled with show nerves your whole life). From there, we discuss and explore this topic to further understand and discover, not only what's happening on a conscious level, but what's happening subconsciously as well. What limiting or self-sabotaging voices are getting in the way, what internal resources are available to support the client, what does the client want so badly they'll not let anything stop them. These are all example of things that can be explored. And from there we'll create a strategy and action plan to move the client forward. That is what I mean when I say "coach".

The next part is "Performance". This one is easier in some aspects as there is an agreed definition... The action or process of performing a task or function. There is a job to be done, your ability to do that job determines your performance. Going back to our dance metaphor, the task, or music, is John Powell's "Assassin's Tango", performance determines how well you can tango.

Now, performance is a word that has become maybe a little "buzzy" in the last 10 years. Everything is is expected to perform... Businesses, people, animals, even the stock markets. Performance has become the universal criteria for discerning value. If something or someone performs, they are valuable, if not then that thing or person is expendable. The danger here is in the setting of the expectations of performance. We expect young sport crazy kids aged 5 or 6 to perform as levels high enough to be considered for scouting. We expect start-up businesses to be "in the black" by the end of their first fiscal year. We expect young racehorses to win 3 major races spread over 6 weeks when their bodies are still growing and developing. We expect new employees to "hit the ground running".

And not once do we take into account if the kid is stressed by this pressure. Not once do we take stock if the employees of that start-up business are sacrificing their physical health to meet the quarterly numbers. We don't observe the baby racehorse's aggressive behaviour as anything more than temperamental teenage rebellion instead of seeing it as a reaction to their bodies being out of sync with their job. We simply expect everything and everyone to perform to our expectations. Or they are of no value.

My clients all have individual expectations when it comes to their performance. Some, just want to have fun and enjoy learning to ride. Others are highly competitive and want to win every single class at every single show. And I encourage this. Where I deviate from the cultural norm of performance, is not associating their performance with their value. Clients who just want to ride and have fun are valuable, even on days when the riding and learning isn't so fun (you know those days... when your trainer takes your stirrups away, or when it's really windy and your horse has a phobia of leaves). Clients who what to compete and win are valuable, even on days when they don't bring home a single ribbon. They are not valuable because of their desires, goals or expectations, they are valuable simply because they exist. See, I don't agree with value being determined by performance. I think something or someone is valuable regardless of performance. And my clients learn the same, that they are valuable, no performance required. And somehow when they get this, magically (it's not magic, it's science), they find themselves performing better.

"Mental" is probably the easiest word to explain; all things that relate to the mind. Using our metaphor, let's say you know how to dance the tango, in fact you dance it quite well, as does your partner. However, when it's time to perform in front of an audience, you think too much about your steps and you are stiff in your choreography. As a result, you step on your partner's foot and this mistake causes you to panic and forget your rhythm and as a result your timing with the beat of the music is off, meaning your performance of the tango suffers. You know how to dance it but your brain keeps sabotaging you, preventing you from dancing your best when it matters most.

There are lots of things that happen to us mentally when we are performing that have a ripple effect from our brain to our body. The neuroscience is fascinating but too complicated to cover in this one post. Suffice it to say, our brains are not always helpful in those competitive moments (or even in moments when our parents, spouse or friend are watching our lesson). Especially when we haven't trained it to be. Yes, you read that right. You have to train your brain to help you when it's time to perform (even if performing is simply jumping your first 18" crossrail in 3 years while everyone is watching).

This is what my job as a mental performance coach... To help you train your brain to help instead of hinder you. To help stop your brain from getting in the way of what you know how to do. To help you manage pressure both before and during competition. To help you see setbacks, everything from lessons that didn't go so well to major injuries, as opportunities to grow and develop and, in the long run, become the gifts that make you a better rider. And ultimately, to help you be a happier and healthier person.


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