Understanding and support for whole team key to success *H&H Plus*

  • Resilience, pressure and wellbeing of riders and all team members were at the agenda at the 2021 Aintree Grand Women’s Summit. H&H finds out what the experts had to say

    UNDERSTANDING and providing the support each person needs to feel and be at their best is crucial for the success of a rider’s whole team.

    The message came as part of the 2021 Aintree Grand Women’s Summit (9 April), with this year’s theme “Sport and Mental Health: A Powerful Relationship”.

    Broadcaster Alice Fox-Pitt chaired the discussion, with tennis’s Judy Murray, top eventer Pippa Funnell, London 2012 Taekwondo gold medallist Jade Jones and physio Kate Davies, whose clients include top ballet dancers, riders and rugby players.

    Building resilience, how we support each other, and why those things are important for the health and success of the whole team, were among the major talking points.

    “We all learn more from our mistakes and our defeats and disappointments than we do from our successes,” said Judy.

    “So it’s really important, whether you are a player, coach or parent, that you learn how to handle frustration, disappointment, defeat and failure, because you are never going to win every single match you play and you are never going to win every race you run. We only learn by failing – you’ve either won or you’ve learnt.”

    She added that as a parent, or the person who manages an athlete, you “don’t have to be an expert on everything”, but you have to know enough to find experts at the right time – and knowing when to take a step back is equally important.

    “You need people who really want to make it happen and who go out of their way to do the absolute best they can do to learn about the competition [and] all the new things in sport science and medicine,” she said.

    “To be world class, you absolutely have to have that mentality of ‘I want to get to the top, I will absorb everything and I want to keep learning’. The minute you have anybody who is kind of switched off and just happy to be there, is the minute things can start to derail.”

    Kate added that she started working with and learning from top sports psychologists to better support the people she was treating as a physio.

    “You are often working with people, as physios, in the lowest points of their career,” she said. “They’ve potentially been injured and you are going hand in hand really on that journey to get them back to performance. So I thought, ‘I’ve got to better equip myself to do this.’”

    Kate also recalled a conversation with a “fantastic psychologist” ahead of the Rio Olympics who made her realise support teams, too, need support.

    “She said, ‘Well, who is on your team?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘You need a support team’ and that was a real lightbulb moment for me,” she said.

    She added that for riders or athletes dealing with uncertainties and moving targets, it is about “being positive and controlling the controllables”.

    “Where we can predict we might have some speed bumps, let’s put planning in place around that so we can lessen the blow,” she said. “In the short term, it’s just about having these mini goals to stay focused. Tiny steps, bite-size chunks, and it’s then surprising week by week how you build on that.”


    PIPPA spoke about how horses have helped her through some of the hardest times, both in and out of the sport.

    “Of course, over the years there have been many times where I think ‘why do I do it?’ but when I’ve had the thought of maybe having it taken away from me, then you realise, actually, this is what I live for,” she said.

    “I’ve had amazing good times, I’ve also had things thrown at me in life that a lot of other people would have, difficult situations and not just within the sport.”

    She explained that not being able to have children and a recent period of ill health, when she was told by doctors not to ride, were times she found horses helped her “enormously”.

    “I’m so extraordinarily lucky that my whole life has been involved with the one thing I am passionate about, and that’s the horses,” she said.

    The multiple CCI5* winner agreed with the other speakers about supporting the whole team, learning from mistakes and helping young people deal with the pressures of the sport.

    ‘So much about running a successful business or operation, whether it’s the Billy Stud or my smaller team at home, is about teamwork,” she said.

    “It’s about the physios, about the support network behind you and every person plays a crucial role in that.

    “What I find affects me more than anything is when one of your team members is down. That’s what helps you to be successful, to recognise if people are down, get to the bottom of why they are, help pick them up. I know when I’ve had times I’ve been low, the horses have been an enormous pick-up, but also you rely on your close network, team and close friends.”

    She said she does a lot of work with young riders through the Windrush Equestrian Foundation and added it is “good for them to hear they are not alone” in dealing with nerves, and that mistakes are “valuable lessons”.

    “I know when my mind plays tricks on me is when I’m at a three-day event and I only have one horse, because suddenly I’ve got all that time to think,” she said. “It’s that part of your brain that can override the other. I think for those youngsters it’s good for them to hear ‘actually, that’s normal!’ You do sometimes have to just nudge them, and I have to nudge myself, and put things into perspective.”

    You might also be interested in…