Astronauts called it The Right Stuff – the essential abilities and qualities needed for success.
Now, researchers have explored the key psychological elements behind the success of jumps riders, finding that one quality in particular sets them apart from lesser rivals.
While rider athleticism and physical skills play a role in showjumping, researchers recently focused on the psychological skills riders possess, such as attentional and emotional control, and the ability to manage negative thinking.
Understanding those psychological skills is what drives Dr Inga Wolframm, from the University of Applied Sciences Van Hall Larenstein in Wageningen, the Netherlands.
“Those incredible mental skills are the ones that fascinate me to this day,” she says. “What are they? Can we teach them?”
Research from other sports has shown that such skills play an important role in the success or failure of athletes, but to date, no such studies have been conducted on equestrians.
Wolframm and her research partner, Elin Ottersky, devised a study aimed at finding out exactly what those mental skills are for competitive show jumpers.
Wolfram presented the findings to delegates at the recent International Society for Equitation Science annual conference in Delware, in the US.
The Test of Performance Strategies (TOPS) is a self-report instrument designed to measure the sport psychological skills and strategies used by athletes in competition and during practice. It was adapted to equestrian sports for the study, becoming known as TOPS-E.
The researchers recruited 73 American showjumping and hunting riders, of international, national and regional levels of competition in Ocala, Florida.
Before competing, the riders completed the TOPS-E assessment, which explored self-talk, emotional control, automaticity, goal-setting, imagery, relaxation, negative thinking, and attentional control.
The most significant finding for researchers surrounded automaticity. Years of careful practice in showjumping leads to elite riders having automaticity – the ability to unconsciously perform physical acts such as delivering the aids when riding.
The results indicated significantly higher levels of automaticity for international riders, compared to national and regional riders.
“The higher up in the level of performance you are, the more you can allow your body simply to react, without having to think about it,” Wolframm says.
Essentially, “the better you are, the more automated the skills”, she says.
Having automaticity over the physical side of riding may allow a rider to free up their thinking processes to focus energy on the important mental skills required in competition.
When it came to differences between the sexes, researchers found that women were more likely to engage in negative thinking than their male riding counterparts. The researchers said this was similar to findings in non-equestrian sports.
Additionally, focusing on internal versus external events is of great importance to riders, says Wolframm.
“We also know that elite riders stress the importance of mental skills and relevant attitude more than amateur riders.
“Amateur riders tend to focus very much on external events, while the elite rider says, ‘No, no, you need to come back to yourself, to your own emotional strength’.”