How sports psychology helped an eventer overcome her rotational fall demons

  • Performance and sport psychologist Camilla Henderson explains how she helped three-star eventer Harriet Dickin get back on track following a rotational fall

    The client

    Harriet Dickin has been riding her whole life, starting with Pony Club and working her way up through the eventing ranks. She decided to go full time with her eventing after her A levels.

    One of her biggest accomplishments so far has been completing Blenheim CCI3* in 2016. She is based in Great Alne in Warwickshire, where her father trains National Hunt horses.

    Currently she has six horses all at different levels, from four-year-olds up to three-star level horses, some of which are ex-racehorses that she has retrained herself.

    The problem

    Harriet got in contact at the beginning of the year after she saw my sport psychology consultancy advert on Facebook.

    We met up and discussed the challenges she was facing since a rotational fall a couple of months earlier. She had a few weeks on the sidelines after breaking her foot in that fall, then immediately carried on riding her horses.

    “I just dealt with it by telling myself to toughen up and get on with it, as clearly there was no other option,” says Harriet. “I suppose you just go into autopilot and continue, with not much time to think.”

    Harriet was dealing with an influx of negative and emotive thoughts and flashbacks from the fall. As a consequence these thoughts started to become detrimental to her warm-up routine, particularly in the cross-country phase.

    “I started to think quite drastically, questioning whether this was for me or not,” she says. “I knew then that it was decision time and I needed to do something about it — I knew then that it was a good idea to talk with a sport psychologist about it.”

    Tackling the issue

    A powerful and useful starting point is always to discuss the riders’ objectives, ask what they want from sessions and what they want to achieve.

    We put together a very basic structured goal-setting programme, encouraging Harriet to be autonomous, getting her to discuss the exact process, performance and outcome goals and getting her to map out her own journey.

    My role is to provide direction, support and teach my clients the tools (mental skills and strategies) they can use along that path.

    The outcome goal was to get Harriet back to riding her best consistently and confidently; enjoying competing again most importantly. In sessions we discussed the processes of her best performances, what she does well, her positive thought processes and what it looks and feels like.

    We worked on focusing on her ideal mindset, and regularly tapped into this through the use of core mental skills, such as visualisation, imagery and self-talk which she could use in training and competition environments.

    “I think these sessions made me realise that being nervous was normal, which was helpful!” says Harriet.

    “I understood that I just needed to be more aware of my response to these immediate feelings, to learn to be more accepting, instead of having that panic response like I was.

    Just by discussing these thoughts and learning what was triggering them really helped. Simple tasks like writing down all the processes of an ideal mindset on a sheet of paper and simplifying everything gave me confidence.”

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    The future

    “I know I get nervous at competitions, but I’ve learnt to accept this — it is natural, I just deal with it straight away,” Harriet says.  “I no longer take it home after an event like I used to, because I know how to manage it. I’m really happy with how my performances have gone this season since I’ve had these sessions.

    “I hope by discussing my experiences and what I’ve done to tackle them can help others who may experience similar situations, especially after falls and/or suffering injury.”

    Harriet’s pre-competition somatic anxiety levels (physical responses) and cognitive state anxiety (anxious thoughts) have significantly decreased since the beginning of the season.

    Harriet is looking forward to competing back at Blenheim next month with her horse Dargle Looks (pictured above) and hope to step up to four-star level next season.

    For more information visit camillahenderson.co.uk

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