Equestrian sports psychology as a career

  • Pippa Funnell, winner of this year’s Badminton and Windsor horse trials, partly attributes her success since 1997 to sports psychologist Nicky Heath. Nicky is a performance consultant for the military and special forces. But she also works with elite riders as a sports psychologist.

    “The two roles are not so different really; the principles remain the same. It’s all about keeping it together under pressure,” says Nicky.

    Having qualified as a psychologist, Nicky became more specifically involved with sports psychology following a contract with Formula One. In 1997 she became part of the support team for the British eventing squad. She helped the team — including Pippa — to team silver at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

    “Sports psychology was very new within equestrianism when I started. There were many sceptics at that time,” she says. “The main thing for athletes is their quality of preparation. But once they’ve achieved the right training, they have to learn to manage themselves in competition by developing coping strategies.”

    Nicky finds that working with the athletes can be as emotional as competing.

    “It’s nerve-racking watching them compete, but terrific when you see them succeed. It’s satisfying being able to give talented people the competitive edge,” says Nicky, who came to psychology after a career in advertising.

    “I’d always been interested in psychology and I reached a point where I was very busy riding my own horses, so I decided to retrain. I completed an open university degree in psychology, and then a masters in ergonomics,” explains Nicky.

    Another attracted to studying psychology with the aim of a career in sports psychology was Nicole Mellors. But Nicole fears a career in equine sports psychology is not a secure profession.

    “To make money you need to make a name for yourself by being very good and increasing your client base through word of mouth,” says Nicole. “I began to question how I was going to pay for my horse this way. Working in a narrow and competitive field seemed too risky.”

    Nicole graduated with a first-class bachelor of science (BSc) degree in psychology last year. But despite enjoying her degree, Nicole changed her mind about a career in sports psychology and opted for a law conversion course.

    Because psychology is a varied degree from which you can enter many different fields, there are several options for successful graduates like Nicole. But if Nicky Heath’s career seems ideal, you need to be realistic. Few will achieve their ambition of helping elite riders like Pippa achieve their own goals.

    “Sports psychology is not yet a widely recognised profession,” warns Nicole.

    The division of sports psychology was only formed in the UK in March 2004. Only since then has it been possible for an individual to be recognised as a qualified chartered sports psychologist. The concept has not yet been embraced by equestrianism to the degree it has in mainstream sports such as football and golf.

    Useful information

    • A sports psychologist’s salary can range from around £17,000-45,000 depending on the extent of their client base. Many sports psychologists combine their work with lecturing or practising in other fields of psychology
    • Universities around the country offer BSc degrees in psychology, which normally take three years. Graduates of accredited university courses in psychology are automatically registered as members of the British Psychology Association (BPA)
    • Higher degrees are offered in more specialised areas of psychology. Many require a period of work experience or shadowing of a practitioner
    • For further information and a list of accredited courses look at the British Psychological Society website (www.bps.org.uk)

    Join Horse & Hound’s NAGS

    Membership of the National Association of Grooms and Students (NAGS) is free to all bona fide grooms and students. NAGS is sponsored by training provider KEITS, which offers Modern Apprenticeships, for those aged 16-25, as well as work-based training in equine, animal care and agricultural businesses.

    Benefits of being a NAGS member include: Horse & Hound subscription at £1 per copy, £3 discount voucher on a sack of Blue Chip Dynamic, 10% discount on Splash Equestrian equipment and clothing, no P&P charges from Equestrian Vision mail order and eligibility for NAGS-only competitions and offers.

    If you are interested in becoming a member, write to: NAGS, Room 2018, Kings Reach Tower, Stamford Street, London SE1 9LS (tel: 020 7261 6993), e-mail: nags@ipcmedia.com, or click here to download an application form in PDF format.

    And remember, the club is open to all students, not just those studying for an equine qualification.

  • This careers feature was first published in Horse & Hound (19 May, ’05)

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