Mental Athletics

“All riders deal with similar mental obstacles and mental toughness is a skill that can developed and improved to overcome them” – an interview with Gilead (Gil) Friedman of Mental Athletics
How did you get involved in the equestrian world? Did you grow up around horses?
I was born in the U.S. but came to Israel with my family at the age of three months and lived with my grandparents in a small farming village.  We did not have horses, but we had a neighbour with a horse and, for some reason, I was fascinated by this animal.  My parents tell me that my first word was ‘horse’.  At the age of six, they understood it was time to send me for riding lessons.  That’s when my life-long connection with horses began.  At the age of 11, I started competing in a wide variety of events.  When I was at the beginning of high school, I realised that reining was my passion.  At the age of 18, I moved by myself to the United States to begin my career as a professional rider and trainer.
Where did your interest in psychology/mental training originate?
On the one hand, as a competitor, I was always aware of the power of my mindset in achieving, or failing to achieve, my competitive goals.  Over the years, I realised that it was not only me. I became aware of the fact that riders around me were also dealing with mental challenges simply because we all live a competitive life. On the other hand, I am fascinated by all kinds of sports. I heard many athletes talking about the importance of mental toughness. As I became aware of the fact that sports psychology was an accepted part of the sports world, it struck me that in equestrian sports there was almost no awareness or acceptance of the mental side of the game, which involves a truly unique and critically important set of psychological circumstances.
We often think of riding as an individual sport, but it’s actually a team sport.  Every rider has a four-legged teammate and there is no other sport with such a unique team.  I like to say that the horse is the athlete and the rider is the competitor. I believe that horses do not really know that they are in a competition, but the rider does.  And everything that riders think and feel affects their teammates’ performance in the show pen. That is what makes mental training in equestrian sports so fascinating and so unique. But I want to make one thing clear. I am a ‘mental coach’ not a sports psychologist.  I came to this profession as a competitive rider and not through an academic path as a psychologist. I closely observed the very specific ways of my own mindset, and that of other riders, affect performance. I also developed techniques for dealing with mental barriers to peak performance.  As a trainer, I built up a unique approach that put an emphasis on both technical and mental skills. Later on, I began to more formally study aspects of sport psychology, which helped me craft my practice knowledge into a set of specific principles and methods. But my perspective is that of a coach, who tries to help riders remove mental obstacles to achieve peak performance.
What can you tell us about your business Mental Athletics and the Peak Performance Mindset Workshops? 
Mental Athletics has two major goals. The first goal is raising awareness of the importance of the mindset in the world of equestrian riding so that riders perform at their best when it counts in the competitive environment.  The Peak Performance Workshop is where we introduce riders to the mental side of the sport, lay the foundations for developing mental toughness, and provide basic tools that enable participants to implement these principles in practice. The second goal is helping riders to achieve the highest level of performance possible while improving their well-being. It’s not just about winning; it’s about getting true satisfaction out of your competitive life. That is the real meaning of mental toughness. We work with competitive equestrians at all levels – from million-dollar riders to young people who are just starting out in their competitive career. We work with people in all equestrian sports.
What is your top tip for young, aspiring riders that may feel like they can use a little mental boost or want to step up their mental game?
An important tip I can offer riders is to follow what I call the ‘1% Rule,’ which says that “at any given time I commit myself to improving by 1%.” Strength in many times a given reality for us, however, our weaknesses take most of our attention in what we consider the ‘Inner game’ of the competitor.  The 1% percent rule aims at our courage to improve our weaknesses. On the one hand, it keeps us focused on the fact that improvement happens gradually in very tiny steps – and small improvements are key elements to reaching long-term success. On the other hand, it focuses our attention on improving our weaknesses, but this takes courage because we often prefer to ignore or cover them up, believing that our strengths alone will help us to reach our goals. Finding our inner fortitude to face personal challenges is an empowering feeling.
I would add one more thing.  As a rider, you should know that the thoughts and feelings you are dealing are not only in YOUR mind. All riders deal with similar mental obstacles and mental toughness is a skill that can developed and improved to overcome them.
Writen by Jeannette Martens
Inge van der Net
Producer Horse International and L’Année Hippique
Tel.: 0031 6 83440570

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