Daniel Stewart Gives Practical Sports Psychology Tips

When I found out Daniel Stewart was hosting an encore session of his Equestrian Sports Psychology Seminar and Rider Strength & Conditioning Workshop at the USEA Convention, I knew I had to go, as I happened to be attending the Safety Committee meeting on Friday, which was right next door to Daniel’s first session.

Needless to say, those in attendance were having so much fun that we could barely hear what the Safety Committee was saying, so the USEA relocated the seminar to a different room. Since then, I’ve heard numerous rave reviews about his first session, and I can now echo that this was probably the best seminar I attended all weekend at the Convention.

Daniel served as a coach for the United States Equestrian Team for 10 years and worked with Team USA all over the world. During his time as a coach, he realized the need for greater rider fitness, and he’s since developed a strength and conditioning program geared specifically toward riders. The USEA filmed a great video of Daniel demonstrating some of the exercises in his first session on Friday.

While it was a lot of fun to go through the different exercises with Daniel — and burn off some of the calories I’ve consumed this weekend while drinking my weight in Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale — the information he provided on equestrian sports psychology really resonated with me the most.

Positive Affirmation Sentence: Daniel argues that just as riders need to be physically fit to compete to the best of their ability, they also need to be mentally fit. One of the easiest ways to prepare mentally for a competition is to think positively, Daniel said, and the first step toward doing that is developing a Positive Affirmation Sentence you can repeat to yourself when you start to feel nervous — like “I feel good.”

Music Motivation: Another key is using music to either pump you up or calm you down, depending on which is a bigger challenge for you at a competition. Once you identify “who you are” when it comes to your music preferences, Daniel said to find a personal anthem that can become your song at a competition.

Daniel made it clear that “your song” shouldn’t be just a song you like. What you’re looking for is a Motivating Message within the song lyrics that you can fall back on when show nerves hit. He gave the example of “These are the moments I’m going to remember the most. Just be strong and keep pushing on,” which are lyrics from “The Climb” by Miley Cyrus.

I’ve always loved “The Middle” by Jimmy Eat World, and Daniel also used that song as a great example of Music Motivation, as it contains the lyrics: “Just do your best, do everything you can. You’re in the middle of the ride; everything will be just fine.” He said a lot of riders are starting to use “Roar” by Katy Perry, with lyrics like “I’m a champion” and “I went from zero to hero.”

Cue Words: Daniel also recommends developing a cue word, which is an acronym to help you remember what you need to do to ride your best. Studies have shown pressure and nerves actually affect long-term memory, which is why you can practice perfectly at home in a lesson but then somehow manage to forget everything your trainer told you when you enter the show ring, Daniel said.

One of his clients uses STAR as her cue word: Sit Tall And Release. Others use BIG: Breathing Is Good; BEST: Balance Every Single Transition; LAND: Look Ahead Never Down;  and BLAST: Breathe Laugh And Smile Today. You can pick your own cue word by thinking about the key things you need to remember to do at a competition and developing an acronym to match.

Cadence Training: Daniel said our trainers ask us to count strides when we’re thinking too much. When we count, we start to focus more on the rhythm — or cadence — instead of the distance. “Sprinters are taught to focus on the sound of their breathing. Skiiers are taught to focus on the sound of their skis. If they can get into the sounds, they can get into the zone,” Daniel said.

Find a rhythmical sound you can listen to, like your tack squeaking as you post, your horse snorting with each stride, or Daniel suggests developing your own cadence by picking a rhythmical phrase to repeat to yourself. One of his students uses “Be Strong Push On” — which is also from a Miley Cyrus song — said over and over again.

Stress Stopper: There’s a reason we fidget with our fingers when we’re nervous, like tapping a table or twirling a ring on your finger or squeezing a stress ball. Fidgeting actually stimulates the calmness center of your brain, Daniel said, which is why knitting and cleaning tack and braiding manes is calming.

So finding a pre-competition ritual that can act as a stress stopper is really helpful for a lot of riders, Daniel said. One of his clients has a laminated four-leaf clover she found on a course walk that she tucks into her medical armband as she enters the start box. Another client picks up the nearest hoof and rubs the horse’s shoe for good luck.

Build Your Brand: When combined together, all of Daniel’s sports psychology tips creates what he calls a brand. The rider who rubs the nearest horse shoe for good luck has her Lucky brand. Her cue word is LUCKY: Look Up Cluck Kick Yell, as she rides a stubborn pony named Lucky.  Her Music Motivation is “Lucky” by Jason Mraz. And she has horse shoes embroidered on her saddle pad.

If you’re interested in learning more about Daniel’s sports psychology tips, click here to visit his website. Riders at the highest level of the sport have used his tips, and the team members that went to the London Olympics last year each developed a brand to help them be mentally strong at the Games. What would your brand be?

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