What is a sports psychologist and what do they offer riders?

January 14, 2023

What is a sports psychologist and what do they offer riders?

dr. Paul Haefner presents at the 2022 USEA ECP Symposium Photo by USEA/Meagan DeLisle

It may seem obvious at first; sports psychologists help athletes optimize their performance in competition. Is it? Of course… that’s the spirit behind the entire field of sports psychology.

However, in over 25 years of helping riders with their mental game, I have been surprised to find that the vast majority of riders who seek my help want my help with key emotional issues such as fear, anxiety and trauma related to their riding.

Rather than simply improving performance, I more often work to help my clients get back in the saddle, heal from traumatic events, and regain their joy of riding. My experience led me to expand my understanding of the role of sports psychology in equestrian sports.

The work of a sports psychologist can be divided into three categories. The first is performance improvement. We help athletes perform at their best when it matters most, in competition. There are many tools available to assist athletes in this endeavor and include many skills and strategies that are familiar to the public, such as goal setting, positive self-talk, energy regulation, and visualization, among others.

Another category is helping athletes with personal reactions or experiences that interfere with peak performance. This may include dealing with limiting beliefs, self-critical thoughts, negative self-concept, lack of confidence, or performance anxiety. These qualities of thinking or feeling often have a significant negative effect on performance. Once these are addressed, the athlete can focus more directly on fine-tuning their mental game for peak performance.

Finally, sports psychologists help athletes with personal problems that may be related to a competitive lifestyle. These struggles may include relationship difficulties, depression, anxiety, or substance abuse. It is in this last role that it is important to understand that not all sports psychology professionals have the same training or experience.

When looking for an equestrian sports psychologist, you will notice that professionals will adopt different titles. You will find sports psychology consultants, mental skills consultants, equestrian psychology coaches and many more. The reason why they present themselves with such a wide range of titles is that the term “psychologist” is a protected term in most countries. The title a person uses does not reflect negatively on their competence and ability to help you with your mental game. Rather, their title indicates a difference in their training and licensure from a professional trained and licensed as a psychologist. When seeking help, it’s helpful to understand this difference and ask about their training and experience to make sure they’ll be able to help you with the specific challenges you’re facing.

Sports psychologists have a lot to offer today’s riders.

Our knowledge of human psychology and performance has grown exponentially in recent years. From teaching mental skills for peak performance to helping riders heal from serious emotional challenges, sports psychologists have something to offer riders for a variety of challenges at all levels of the sport. The next time you want to overcome a challenge in your riding, improve your riding and take your riding to a new level… while looking for new teachers or coaches… while working on your own health and fitness… consider consulting a sports psychologist. They can help you maximize your investment while helping you maintain passion and joy in the process.

About Dr. Paul Haefner Ph.D

Psychologist, mentor, educator and speaker. With more than 35 years of professional experience, Paul T. Haefner, Ph.D. these days he focuses his energy on serving the equestrian community. In 1998, he founded Riding Far, LLC to provide a wide range of sports and psychological services for riders. He is passionate about learning and integrating knowledge and skills from a wide range of perspectives, academic disciplines and worlds of human experience. With more than 30 years of experience as a psychotherapist, Dr. Haefner is a clinical hypnotherapist with a master’s degree in neurolinguistic programming. He has worked extensively with riders of all ages and disciplines and finds great joy in helping people make significant changes in their lives and riding. dr. Paul Haefner is again a guest speaker at USEA’s 2023 ECP Symposium.

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