Abigail Lufkin: Coaching, a Sport Psychology Issue

Abigail Lufkin is a former CCI4* eventer who is now a sports psychology consultant and clinical social worker based in the Los Angeles area. You may remember seeing Abigail ride around Rolex on horses such as Lighter Than Air, Cameo or Jacob Two Two. She was a member of the 1999 Pan Am Team and was shortlisted for the 1992, 2000, and 2004 Olympics. We’re pleased to bring you a series of articles from Abigail about adapting your mental game to promote success in eventing. Have a question or topic for Abigail? Please submit it to [email protected] with subject “Ask Abigail” and be sure to check out her site at www.abigaillufkin.com. [Read previous articles]


Abigail Lufkin and Jacob Two Two at Rolex 1999. Photo by Matt Simpson.


From Abigail:

As I have said previously, research shows that athletes consistently have their best performances when they are in an optimal state of physiological arousal.  In other words, they are energized and confident without being over the top edgy and anxious or flat and lethargic.  Athletes work hard to control their thoughts and emotions going into competition.  Part of achieving this is to set up the environment to promote this optimal state..  This includes: getting enough sleep, eating well, having positive, competent help in the barn and yes, having a coach that fosters this positive feeling in you.


“Finding the best coach” means finding the best coach for you.  This person is not necessarily the best coach for your competitors, nor theirs for you.   And yet it is easy to get swept up in feeling that we need to ride with the “it” person of the day.


So often athletes who are experiencing problems with their coaches say to me, “She is really tough and mean, but if I want to be any good, I should be able to take it,” or “He doesn’t really seem to have any time for me, but everyone knows that he is the best trainer, so I have to stick with it.” And I always ask them, “ But how is it working for you?”


By that I mean that we all have different learning styles and different things that motivate and inspire us.  Some people do alright in a critical environment while others perform worse, which brings on more criticism leading to a vicious negative cycle.  The measuring stick I use for a good fit between coach and athlete is, “On the whole  (that is more often than not) when I leave a lesson with this person, do I feel more positive about my riding and my ability to work through my weaknesses, or do I feel less capable?”  If the answer is less, then you need to consider making a change.


Many of the things that hold athletes back from consistently producing their best performances under pressure, also hold coaches back.  In a previous post I described the importance of knowing what is on your mind and being able to manage your emotions to promote a positive outcome.  Sometimes a coach’s yelling is more about that coach’s frustration with her own riding or horses than it is about the student’s performance.


The old school of teaching in this country was to use fear and intimidation to motivate, a tactic used in the military from which our sport originated.  But it turns out that our brains don’t learn well when they are in a state of fear.  In fact, the part of the brain where learning occurs shuts down when we are afraid.  Students learn the best in an environment of mutual respect, positive fun and interest.  People improve faster when they spend time developing what is working, as opposed to perseverating on what isn’t.  We tend to do best with a coach who conveys not just with words but with his whole being, “I believe that you are capable of getting this and I am going to work with you until you do.”


I was once watching a showjumping lesson with a prominent trainer in Wellington.  She was shouting criticism after criticism at her student who was consequently riding worse and worse, at which point the coach yelled loud enough to be heard two fields away, “for God’s sake, R-E-L-A-X!”  You can imagine how well that lesson turned out.

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