Riding Mindfully with Sports Psychologist Jonah Oliver

Jonah Oliver and Steffen Peters at a symposium on Australia in 2012. (Photo by Roger Fitzhardinge)
Jonah Oliver and Steffen Peters at a symposium on Australia in 2012. (Photo by Roger Fitzhardinge)

You know the signs: Your heart is pounding, and you can’t catch your breath or feel your feet, let alone remember what comes after the second trot extension. And then a styrofoam cup blows in front of your horse in the warm-up, and it’s off to the races. “Breathe deeply,” you think. “Relax.” Jonah Oliver will tell you you’re doing it all wrong. “You can never overcome fear,” he says. “You need to accept it, but not let it define you. Breathe to focus, not to relax!”

The Australian performance psychologist doesn’t teach athletes how to achieve a state of perfect calm. “I want to show you how to change your relationship with your brain,” he says.

In January, he spoke to some 25 riders and trainers in San Diego, California, including Shannon and Steffen Peters, Rebecca Rigdon and Elizabeth Ball. Lientje Schueler decided to organize the workshop after meeting Oliver at a dressage expo last year in Melbourne, Australia.

The assistant trainer at Shannon and Steffen’s Arroyo Del Mar facility in San Diego, Schueler was skeptical about everything she’d previously heard in sport psychology. “But Jonah’s approach of ‘do good to feel good’ rather than ‘feel good to do good’ made a lot of sense to me,” she says.

Whether you’re a high-performance rider or just starting out, Oliver’s strategy is the same: it’s about normalizing what he calls “the anxious experience,” getting athletes accustomed to and even comfortable with pressure, and helping them tolerate errors and mistakes.

“If I’m trying to calm down,” he explains. “I’m saying that anxiety is bad. But anxiety is not a problem in sport; it’s our attempt to control it that’s the problem.”

Oliver states at the outset that he’s not a rider. “I don’t need to be,” he says. But he’s studied human personality and performance over his nearly 20 years as a psychologist, and he’s worked with an international roster of elite golfers and tennis players, race-car drivers, water polo players and professional soccer teams as well as equestrians.

Growing up in a small town in Australia, Oliver was “addicted to sport.” But he noticed that while he embraced the “big occasions” in water polo, he froze up in tennis. “It used to frustrate me. I’d ask myself, ‘Why am I so different in these different moments?’”

After earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology, he discovered Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), one of the “third wave” of behavioral therapies that emphasize mindfulness over symptom reduction. Oliver immediately saw the potential for athletes, and he’s since become a pioneer of ACT in sport.

Oliver is partial to working with athletes. “I love that it’s so unnatural. For most people sitting at work, when they make a typographical error on their computer, there’s a little red line under the word. When my athletes make an error, 95,000 people yell or boo or sigh, and the newspaper runs an article about them. I like helping people to shine and thrive in that kind of environment.”

He cautions against believing that successful athletes aren’t afraid. “What they are is not freaked out about being freaked out.”

Surveying the assembled riders and trainers in San Diego, Oliver smiled. “Your sport seems to attract perfectionists,” he told them to laughter. “But there’s stereotypical perfectionism and then there’s the pursuit of improvement.”

He led the group in a series of exercises in which they rated themselves in four areas: combativeness, rule-following, risk-taking, and concern for others.

A healthy dose of combativeness and risk-taking, for example, can help a rider get into a “competitive mindset.” Too much combativeness, and a rider tends to “over-communicate” with his horse.

While a tendency to follow rules may result in an especially coachable rider, high rule-followers should explore what it means to ride with a bit more risk and combativeness. “You don’t have to become an adrenaline junkie, but don’t be content with mediocrity,” Oliver said. “Go for the 8!”

Oliver is warm and funny, but he doesn’t mince words about the things riders do to sabotage themselves. He’ll listen patiently as you explain that your horse is afraid of everything from other horses to the judge’s booth to the gray car parked beside the arena, but he won’t accept it as an excuse. “The reason I see a lot of horses acting differently is because of something you’ve done. Your horse picks up on everything, and you expect him not to be off?

“When I see a horse having a ‘bad day’ or an ‘off day,’ I’m really seeing a rider who’s anxious, angry or wound up. Something’s making that rider operate in a certain way, and that’s what’s influencing the horse.”

“Every sport has its idiosyncrasies,” he adds. “The Formula One driver is worrying about whether their engine’s going to blow up, and the tennis player is focused on the tension of their strings. Accept it and get on with what you can control, which is you.”

He recommends that riders establish and maintain pre-performance routines before competition. “It’s about operating normally,” he explains. “People who can’t eat before a show have already given up to their emotional state before they’ve even gotten to the arena.”

Unlike some sports psychologists, Oliver believes that ritualistic behaviors are counterproductive because they shift your focus onto the wrong thing: your emotional state. “If you start engaging in behaviors that feed your anxiety, you’re making it worse.”

Rather than waiting to feel calm and confident, riders need to remind themselves of what they do know.

“It’s not about confidence,” Oliver emphasizes, “it’s about coming back to your competence. But to do that, you have to accept the state of confidence you’re in and stay focused on your competence.”

Steffen Peters has been a fan of Oliver’s approach since 2012, when the two presented a master class together in Australia. At the San Diego workshop, Peters noted that it’s been a challenge to accept mistakes he’s made in the arena—an experience shared by many riders. But Oliver suggested that competitive athletes work to challenge old mindsets.

“You need to change your relationship to what happened. I don’t want to hear anyone’s laundry list of what they did wrong. If you’re not making errors, you’re not getting better. It’s not about lowering standards. It’s about becoming better riders.”

At the close of the workshop, Lientje Schueler said she was thrilled to give her friends, clients, fellow trainers and competitors the opportunity to learn strategies to improve performance.

“We’re led to believe that as a good competitor you are supposed to be calm and somewhat relaxed going into competition. Jonah, on the other hand, addresses the fact that even the best of competitors go through a broad spectrum of emotions. It’s not about making those emotions go away, it’s about making use of tools that let you create a different relationship to those emotions. In return, the competitor’s recovery time to regain focus on the task becomes shorter and shorter.”

Jonah Oliver will be returning to Southern California for a second workshop in April. To save your spot, contact Lientje Schueler at Lientjeschueler@gmail.com.




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