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Combining competitive riding with a busy career

Is it possible to ride at your best with a busy job on the side?

(Charlie Unwin: Over the years I have been lucky enough to have many people write about the work I do both in the equestrian world and beyond. Occasionally I meet people who actually improve on the material! This article is a great example of that hence I wanted to share it with you.

Written by Charlotte West from she brilliantly describes (and sketches!) the content of a fascinating dinner talk hosted by Twitter Eventing where I spoke about the challenges of performing in equestrian sport whilst holding down a demanding career. Importantly, the topics we discussed are relevant to any rider who has other goals or commitments aside from their riding (i.e. pretty much everyone!)

Topics include: – Being aware of the choices you make – How you define success – Optimising versus Maximising your performance – Coping with Pressure & Stress – Compartmentalising – Getting into your Flow – Inside Out Thinking – A mindset for constant improvement



Working City Living With Eventing Passions

Charlotte West

I was very lucky to have had the opportunity to spend a fantastic evening (also enjoying some excellent food) with Charlie Unwin ( – a Performance Psychologist.

Charlie has built a reputation for his specialist experience in helping equestrians accelerate their potential, perform consistently in competition and thrive under pressure – amongst many accolades he has worked closely with the Great Britain Young Rider and Junior teams.

Many thanks extended to Sarah Skillin from the brilliant Equestrian lifestyle company The Bit UK for organising the evening.

It was also lovely to meet with a fantastic group of riders at the evening – balancing very demanding jobs whilst also actively competing. I am always taken aback at just how lovely and supportive event riders are. Many are also members of the group #twittereventing – which I founded and manage along with Tamsin Drew and Sarah Skillin – where we hope to create an equally supportive environment.

As a Performance Psychologist, Charlie has a fascination with the “human condition” – the experience of being human and living human lives. Whilst there may be similarities, no two people are the same. Charlie focused his talk on three main areas :- – What we define as success – Optimising vs maximising performance – Coping with pressure and stress


A theme running throughout the evening was the choices we deliberately make and the power of actively making a choice. In business and in sport, our choices are often not as deliberate as they could be. Consistent and deliberate choice can create resilience and disarm pressure – and also create success. We heard an analogy of a failing company CEO who asked his team to prepare CVs and list their strengths – giving them the choice to move on. One left, but those that deliberately chose to stay were able to turn around the company and create success – making that choice empowered them and changed their attitude.

What we define as success

Charlie asked us to consider hard about how we define (actively choose) for ourselves what success is. We debated success vs. achieving. Success is about quality and progression, where as achievement is perhaps a more traditional work measure – productivity, getting stuff done.

High achievement can get in the way of performance – stops the simple effective things happening

He asked us – what are we like when we are “at our best” – both in the saddle and at work. This will of course be individual, but we had an interesting debate about whether these two bests are different in the two worlds, and whether there might be a benefit to acting more “horse” at work! We also learned that being able to act in extremes – expanding your range of behaviours – can improve performance.

Interestingly, no-one thought being more “work” would help horse. Charlies reminded us horses don’t understand deadlines, rushing, measures. He encouraged us to adopt a feeling vs. task orientated mindset – a still, slow paced, quality feel in our horse interactions. We revisited this when we discussed pressure.

We also discussed that humans are very easily influenced by outside communication and we should remember what we chose success to be. Especially in a world of social media!

Optimising vs. Maximising

Following on from success vs. achievement, we discussed optimising vs. maximising as the pursuit of quality vs. quantity (productivity).

Michael Jung doesn’t compete that frequently, but is insanely disciplined about quality.

Quality can be a massive influencing factor. We discussed shooting, which is a sport where you really can control a lot of the elements (vs. a horse with a very active mind of its own). Interestingly, we see the highest performance fluctuations in such sports where you can control a lot of the elements.

So how do we achieve this quality? Train for competition and create a blueprint. Charlie explained that he himself changed his shooting practice. Rather than shooting 70 shots – getting the job done, he trained by shooting 20 intensely quality shots under self-imposed competition conditions. He sat visualising the competition, getting nervous, recreating the conditions (covered more in dealing with pressure below).

He also deconstructed the shot, and really focused on the individual elements and the quality of these elements and the feel of each. This was creating a blueprint for the perfect shot. We can do this with the perfect jump or half-pass – breaking down to the individual elements and considering the quality within. The blueprint is the perfect quality – we may never achieve it, but actually having the blueprint allows us to get as close to it as possible, rather than relying on achieving it randomly.

To help deconstruct, you can look at three areas – your thinking and focus, your feeling, and what you are doing. When you deconstruct the process, also focus on the 20% that makes the 80% difference. Also consider improvement by subtraction – what can you take away.

This training of the brain can actually help compensate for the fabled “hours in the saddle” and is a very effective use of time. The levels of processing our brain does during this mental exercise assist our success. This discipline can halve our time and double our quality. As we heard, there’s no point spending 10,000 hours in the saddle if you are practising badly!

This was also seen when Charlie coached the skeleton team. They physically can’t do that many runs – the g-force is destructive. So they spent a lot of time focusing on getting it right in their heads first, the feel, creating the blueprint. They did their training runs, and then looked at the video – focusing on the three areas, what they felt, what they achieved vs. the blueprint. This trained and perfected their feel.

This deconstruction into the individual parts and the perfection of the blueprint also helps us do what we need to do when we aren’t able to think. Our brain can often only think of one thing, especially under pressure. Hence the breakdown and pursuit of quality allows us to repeat effectively all the parts even when you can’t think of them – automatically.

We thought of how this applies to horses. We do 4 bad rein-backs, 1 good one, we pat and move on. But what has the horse learned? Only 1 out of 5 – he doesn’t know which one was right. Visualising the blueprint ahead of attempting can help us get it right quicker, and hence we can move towards doing 5 perfect attempts.

I’ve often heard about the power of visualisation – but Charlie has been the first one to really practically bring this to life. We also joked about pretending to be Charlotte Dujardin and Charlie made a really interesting (if deep!) comment. Why do we do it – Is that to create a happy feeling, or to give ourselves permission to be someone we are not. A momentary permission to steal the Dujardin identity can show us “now look what I can do”. It opens up our potential to achieve. Could also apply to business to help overcome that famous imposter syndrome.

Coping with pressure and stress

Interestingly, Charlie as a psychologist often applies pressure to riders. Pressure is not a dirty word, it is required for performance. However we talked about managing pressure before getting on a horse, as horses are amazing for therapy, and then we move our stress onto the horse. Feels great for us, not for Mr. Pony!

Peak performance

Optimal performance is where there is sufficient pressure to create “flow” (more later on this) or euphoric stress, but not so much that you move into distress.


Pressure is also cumulative, and it is very hard for us as humans to have an effective awareness in the moment of all the various pressure factors. We can’t bring to our mind all things, only one at a time. We can experience 100 feelings but only perceive one. Hence we need to attempt to work out what is causing our stress, compartmentalise it, and that will help us. In business, writing this down can be very effective and prevent negative behaviours caused by stress.

A cross country example – write down every fence, assess it individual and objectively. Have a plan for each fence individually. That way there will be no single fence you can’t manage, rather than be overwhelmed.

Clear thinking and mindfulness

The deconstruction to find quality, and the focus on feel – the biofeedback loop, also creates a coherent state of mind and clear thinking – similar to mindfulness. This coherent thinking can therefore be deliberately trained by practicing the elements and the feel, and allows focusing on the plan and staying in control.

We are also at risk of overthinking / chaotic thinking which puts us into survival mode – not great on horse or in boardroom! The breakdown / keeping things simple prevents us flooding our working memory in this way.


Flow is the state where PERCEIVED skill vs. challenge is optimised, pressure is perfect, and you get that natural feeling where adrenaline is running but you are massively achieving – e.g. firefighting at work. Perception is important – power of the mind can understate or overstate skill. We may feel this flow more at work than at writing, Charlie encourages us to have an objective view of our riding skill (we often understate).


Coaches spend a lot of time improving perception of skill or reducing perception of challenge (vs coaches that improve skill.)

Compartmentalising can also improve perception of skill/reduce that of challenge.

For more on flow please see books by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Inside out vs. outside in mindset

I found this section transformational. It’s all about focusing on what you can control, and not the external outcomes. This massively boosts confidence and results. Far too often we judge ourselves on external judgement which sets limits on us.

Inside out thinking is when we focus on the process, the deconstruct, not on the outcomes. It’s anchoring your confidence around what you can control. It’s the rhythm, the feel, the pace, the plans. We need a ruthless focus on the inside – the plan.

Mastering inside out thinking can deliver constant progression and sustained high performance. Children naturally think inside out, and often younger siblings beat their older siblings in sports – they strive and learn how to do better by looking at the process.

This is also similar to the “bubble” when you are truly focused on yourself and not the external world.

Inside out thinking allows success to be a simple execution of the controllable processes, and if you fail you can simply fix the process that went wrong. This focus on execution – total faith in doing simple things well – creates results. You also get great self-derived satisfaction from doing the process well, so it matters less on the outcome. Conversely – outside in thinking – we worry about the outcome, we avoid opportunities to fail – we try to protect fragile confidence. We become a passenger, success is only relief and we stop taking risks.

Worrying about things outside your control

We often worry about things out of our control, work and sport. It’s quite hard for human brains to distinguish. Our “chimps” or subconscious minds and processes also really hate things they can’t control. Charlie recommends drawing a circle, and writing inside all the things we can control (in massive font if needed!) And outside, the things we can’t control. This identification can help us manage. Can also be a tool for managing distractions.

Notice distractions

In competition, the great riders take time to walk around and actively notice potential distractions. Rather than avoiding or keeping them at arms’ length, an open acknowledgement about distractions can allows us to manage them. E.g. if confronted with a small warm-up arena – actively adjust the plan rather than burying head in the sand.

Prepare for competition

We often walk into competitions having never practiced the pressure. Charlie explained that he coached a rider who was reluctant to do this. Charlie asked him to visualise his home arena as the Badminton centre line. The rider’s heart rate went up, the horse got fidgety, the rider got annoyed. But better that happens at home and they plan/know how to cope rather than finding this out on the hallowed turf! Do your thinking upfront. Learn how to manage it.

Children regularly practice pressure, think inside out, ask for help. This goes away as adults – we need to bring it back!

Soldiers and A&E doctors, amongst others, practice pressure frequently. Then they know they can perform under pressure.

Charlie asks his riders to practice pressure, recreate the body’s reaction to pressure – so much he knows that it’s illegal to make someone drink more than 8 cups of coffee! BUT there is zero point practicing pressure unless you have done the homework on the quality. The deconstruction, the blueprint, the practicing for quality must be done first. Otherwise you apply pressure, you fail, and lose all confidence. You can’t practice pressure unless the process is established.


We learned from Charlie’s army experience about confidence and commitment. A lesser plan executed with 100% confidence is better than a 100% plan executed badly. We should also not confuse nerves and relaxation. Our nerves are reflected in our heart rate – and even with the most racing of hearts we can still allow our muscles to relax. Picture

And finally

We closed by discussing riding trainers and coaches. We all potentially want more of a coach – to support, help plan. But in riding world we often get “trainers” who simply instruct us for an hour. Charlie challenged us to give our trainers permission to be a coach, explain that we would like them to spend time in that way. If we want that support, we need to build a well rounded relationship – a lot of the responsibility is on us. And last but not least – sleep and recovery. Many performance enhancing drugs focus on recovery, and it is key. And sleep – research continues to prove that sleep has a profound effect on performance and especially performance psychology. Be aware of, and invest in your sleep over a short term cycle – e.g. a week. A sleepless night due to meeting or eventing nerves is ok if the week has been good for sleep.

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