The Psychological Athlete: Coaching Through Tendencies and Stress

December 7, 2019

Introduction; Identifying Latent Ability

There are as many ideas and theories surrounding the concept of training and developing talent as there are trainers, coaches, general managers and owners, regardless of the industry or discipline. But long before any of these concepts and theories can be put in to practice, raw talent and ability must first be scouted and assessed. If your goal is to add prospects with elite potential to your program, then an assessment of physical talent must be accompanied by an assessment of psychological ability. 

When scouting athletic talent it’s important to recruit those who have self reliant tendencies and are lacking environmental dependency; outsourcing under competitive stress only streamlines the under-achiever. Being able to coach and develop an athlete through emotional demands means knowing their expression of stress is athletic in nature.

Worth and value are two things generally associated with financial cost and potential gain, yet what something costs does not always reflect its actual value when the caprice of psychology and behavior play a vital role in dictating potential and ability. The development and future success of any athlete starts long before they ever begin their physical journey and if you’re scouting physically capable athletes that are not naturally complemented by an athletic psychology you’re working with a divided partnership that is the very essence of inconsistency, mediocrity; wasted talent. 

Identifying talent and identifying accessible ability can be two different things. Pure talent is of a physical nature, accessing and developing that ability relies heavily on mental aptitude. Identifying latent psychological strengths can be more difficult to do but no less important than projecting how a young horse will grow. Just as there are physical indicators or “type” that we commonly look for in the body, there are also “type” parameters that can be discovered in the developing psychology. 

I have long been of the opinion that no potential recruit should be given a pass on their mental aptitude; tendencies and traits guide the horse through their growth patterns and become stronger or weaker in various aspects with maturity not unlike a horse suddenly growing “toe in”. It is essential to have a base line understanding of the psychology and its likely growth patterns, for if you hope to see your horse develop into a top athlete, you would do well to understand how to develop them physically and mentally to fit these respective areas as they mature. If you don’t, worth and value can become, and often does, grossly disconnected.

To give yourself a fighting chance at realizing value and by so doing increasing worth, you have to evaluate more than the physicality of an athlete, you have to account for and evaluate their emotional intelligence; tendency and stress are always along for the ride. You must ultimately nurture the horse, while you’re developing the athlete. Understanding and identifying latent ability helps guide you toward realistic and achievable goals; little is more frustrating for the human and more damaging to the horse than trying to fit the “square peg into a round hole” scenario. What and athlete is “bred for” or ‘build for” may or may not correspond with what an athlete can actually be expected to achieve. 

Merging Abilities; Coaching Athletic Tendencies

Physical talent is trained, mental ability is coached. It is essential that you develop through and not against natural tendency, making an understanding of them paramount to success; stress happens, you must be sure it’s going to be expressed athletically. When you are coaching through inherent natural tendency you are building on existing strengths and minimizing the attrition of residual stress.

In order to ensure proper development the mind must stay ahead of the body, cycling and processing faster than the body is moving. As a coach you need to be able to foresee and anticipate any psychological demands your athlete may encounter while performing and utilize their natural tendencies to give them a pathway for success by incorporating this into the training program. 

Emotional stress is a factor to be reckoned with regardless of physical ability and preparation; there’s a difference between “practice” and actual competition. Physical preparation allows you to perform; psychological ability allows you to compete. A training program should never be built solely upon the physical requirements an athlete has to have, but rather built into and merged with the psychological parameters required as well as any of the collateral demands. Physically a horse can be developed and sculpted in a more systematic manner, but psychologically things are far more random and continuous. The mental athlete lives inside its body 24/7 and processes the world on a continuous basis, therefore a great many non-controllable influences in the environment is bombarding the horse in ways often unknown to the human experience. Where humans have reason, horses have reaction and layered experiences, it is essential to be mindful of this when developing training and coaching programs. Collateral influences will either enhance or chip away at an athlete’s ability to perform under stress. The psychological athlete must be fortified in his or her everyday life in order for a horse to be fully capable of maximizing ability on a consistent basis; performance should be a natural extension of who they are. 

A study of the nature of the athlete guides you; working within natural tendency, (how the horse expresses stress emotionally and physically), is far more productive than putting a horse into physically stressful circumstances and battling attrition and anxiety. Attrition and anxiety only help to streamline the risk of injury, hitting a performance plateau and “burning out” before their time. Once you understand how a horse is dealing with stress and what their tendencies of reaction to sudden environmental changes are, you can begin to design a coaching program through these avenues. Tendency and expressions of stress can be used as a positive if you work with the inherent tools provided by Mother Nature. 

The smallest of details can make a huge difference in competition, for example how a horse physically reacts to a sudden and unexpected change in the environment is a clue to how they will react during like circumstances in the midst of the situational chaos of competing. Depending on the nature of what can appear to be a seemingly innocuous response, tendency and subsequently stress, may be used for or against the competitive aspect. Many things play a role in whether or not it is a pro or con regarding athleticism; from how long the stress lasts to what direction and how deep the emotional response. Just because it happens doesn’t make it a bad thing, it’s how it happens that matters. When natural expression is athletic and controlled it is a useable tendency you can build upon and coach through, if it isn’t, it will be an impediment lurking inside the behavioral genetic code. 

Not only is it important to identify tendency under stress in order to know what to expect going forward, but it should be the foundation upon which you build your training program. When you work with and within the nature of your athlete, you minimize stress while maximizing athletic capacity. Being able to recognize inherent reactions in your horse to the circumstances experienced in their training regime is essential and so is not attempting to erase them. Efforts to remove or “train-over” top of tendency will only give you a ticking time-bomb of sorts; where tendency is inherent you have to feel your way through it. Never make an abrupt correction when layers of subtle maneuvering will do, for the horse can develop anxiety and associate all similar experiences with negative responses.

Tendency in motion is the cornerstone from which a successful developmental program is founded because it’s not about what you want the horse to do well; it’s about what the horse does well by nature.

Mental Stimulation; Fortified Foundation

When push comes to shove and your athlete needs another gear, needs to dig deeper to put away a competitor just when physical fatigue is threatening, mental fortitude makes all the difference. 

Long before your horse ever competes, the building blocks of grit and mental fortitude are being shaped. Psychological growth is affected by the environment a great deal and contributes to the speed of interpretation which is groomed through mental stimulation; mental stimulation contributes to what amounts to life-skills within and with-out the herd influence. When an athlete is reared in a stimulating environment you not only begin to fortify their future competitive grit you also mitigate the development of bad habits. 

Development of the psychologically strong and independent athlete starts in their youth, and your greatest partner is the natural environment. 

Incorporating the natural environment the horse experiences on a daily basis into your “education program” allows the horse to hone their skills without them learning at a young age that they’re “working” and thus not loathing the process. Building the foundation that will become the emotionally stable future athlete in any discipline requires blending training and coaching together with common things horses do by nature when left to their own devices. 

Among the roles that daily mental stimulus plays in the growth patterns is their influence on the horses’ anticipatory response mechanism. Horses learn best through experience, and through the proper layering of experiences they will begin to associate similar things and thus will develop triggers which anticipate outcome with response. This can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your goals, be they long term or short term. But it must be remembered, horses learned “life skills” are for them long term associations, so never develop habitual routines that can in the long run undermine a horses ability to “learn a new skill”. Everything you do contributes to the horses education, your habits and patterns of behavior will often become reflected and carried forward long after the horse moves on to their next stage. When a horse has to learn new things that are closely related to but not the “same as” along their journey, they can showcase a mixed bag of results because of the idiosyncrasies inherent in their associative process. Multiple stimuli in changing environments helps balance the growth patterns in horses, growth patterns that at length translate to patterns in motion.

As they grow you’re nurturing processes layer the horse’s experiences and begins to build a depth to their emotional energy, allowing them to sustain physical effort more efficiently. This is an important step toward both sustainability and consistency as an athlete; the psychology with more staying power than is ever going to be asked for physically, is an athletic psychology that fully optimizes physical talent. In short, if you’re physically training the athlete to finish 10 furlongs, the psychological athlete should be coached and prepared to compete at many lengths of time further than that; duration of focus is your key to conditioning the athletic psychology for competition. When a horse has to finish in order to win, they need more depth of grit than their closest competitor and the sustainable fortitude to not mentally beat themselves. If you’re training for a task the athlete is not mentally equipped to handle, you may find yourself terribly disappointed in the outcome. Little brings more risk of becoming an average performer as well as an injury prone one, than does psychological weakness and fatigue.  

There are two kinds of fatigue, physical and psychological; a deep well emotionally will carry the athlete when everything seems “done-in” if it is well nurtured and accounted for in the everyday environment the horse is experiencing. Little is more confining and fatiguing than a feeling of being hemmed in psychologically with no manner available for expression, and not being provided an avenue of emotional release in everyday life can lead a horse down the path of inconsistent and erratic behavior. It is also a contributing factor to a horse that is lacking in basic herd dynamic “social” skills; an inability to anticipate the motion of other horses independently means one thing, herd dependency. We must bear in mind that in many ways horses teach other horses things we can never teach them, hence the primary function in nature of the bachelor herd.

Raw and deep emotional strength in a prospect is the clay from which mental fortitude is molded, the building blocks of grit. Left to their own devices your athlete’s psychological ability may develop useful aspects when in competition, but when focused on specifically during psychological growth, they take the form of patterns of behavior and fortify the existing competitive nature of the athlete.

It’s always best to be ever mindful that the mental capacity of the equine controls the physical output of the athlete. When scouting talent at any stage, the emotional horse must be accounted for because as emotional athlete’s horses are often a reflection of their environment.

Analytics & Outsourcing; Data V/S Instinct

In today’s world an answer to nearly every question is right at our fingertips, we’re bombarded with data and analytical information to the point it seems we sometimes forget we can actually think for ourselves. 

When a horse is prone to outsourcing and leans upon other horses or things in the environment to guide them because they’re not herd dynamically strong enough to be independent, these outsourcing dependencies weaken the athletic power and competitive aptitude of the horse. It also compromises the horse’s ability to learn; learning is replaced by being taught. At the core of learning is experience, being taught is getting information another has discovered; both have their advantages but learning sticks more profoundly. Often what is taught works in the moment while what is learned works for a lifetime.

The nature of outsourcing is that it lends itself to becoming habitual, one dependency two dependency three, until the horse is just another face in the herd dynamic crowd. Teaching them to rely and react to outsourced triggers is handy but inherently dependent upon the trigger. Allowing them to learn by creating an environment of experience engages their anticipatory response mechanism making them highly versatile and independent “thinkers” in competition and situational chaos. Teaching is good, learning is empowering.

 There is a manual or step by step how-to guide for just about everything; this is ok if you’re fixing your washing machine or building a model, but not when you’re molding an athlete. Analytics and data are I agree, a very useful tool, they have an important part to play as a reference point, but when they are paired with athletics that are driven by emotion, they should never supersede, unchallenged, natural feel and instinct either in the manner a person learns to coach and train or in how they are coaching and training athletes. As much as it may be desired, we cannot machine away emotion. 

Outsourced data mining isn’t devoid of merit and it has its strengths so long as its perceived importance doesn’t “outsource” the human for the robot. There is an obvious and very useful depth of information to be had and applied in things like pedigree, body typing, DNA, and a very good base line of information to refer to as standard protocol for physical fitness training and the list goes on and on. The value of information lies deeply in the manner with which it used. Over reliance on analytics however, puts us at risk; we can’t let what we’re told to see distort what we we’re actually seeing. It’s quite a bit harder to coach a horse through their natural tendencies when your own instinct and feel are jaded by an infusion of data and your common sense is being bombarded by outsourced studies. 

Regardless of the sport, when “coaches” and trainers rely heavily on outsourcing and data to guide them it only serves to compound the attrition between talent and athlete, for there is a distinction between them. Instinct cannot and should not be replaced by “what the numbers say”. “Feel” is essential when physical talent relies on psychological aptitude and attitude. Horses react and interpret their world instinctively, thus their development must be benchmarked upon the instincts of their humans.

Among the challenges to and weaknesses of analytics as primary guide is that it cannot answer all the questions; data doesn’t teach you how to interpret in the moment emotional changes and adjust to them. You can have a game plan but your best asset is in your ability to recognize the nuance of emotion (often described as momentum-swings in many sports) and in your willingness to toss the playbook on the bench and coach from the-seat-of-your-pants.

 Emotion is not a data point, in a circumstance where emotion plays no role in the outcome then data can reign king, but when paired with a sport whose athletes are affected and largely driven by their emotional fortitude, data is, albeit useful for sure, a side dish to the main. Information in aggregate plays its role, but information alone doesn’t itself necessarily translate to successful distribution, taught and applied. Like any sourced information, how it is delivered affects how it is received. If analytics were all that were needed in coaching, developing and recruiting athletes would come down to physical ability and mechanics alone. In the end you sometimes just need to forget about all the noise long enough to ask yourself “yeah but can he/she play”? 

When it comes to developing athletes, knowledge without experience is learning you can’t deliver effectively. 

The very best teachers and coaches I ever had in my life were highly knowledgeable in their fields but also knew instinctively how to create their curriculum based upon the individual needs in the room or on the field. My greatest lessons were those I discovered and experienced. Great coaches teach through the natural tendencies of their students and athletes, giving us individually the very best opportunity to succeed; a template little different when developing horses. We rarely recall in detail individual things unless there is an emotional aspect attached to them. Creating an emotional experience when you’re developing equine athletes is every bit as important to it’s being retained and successfully deployed when called upon, as it is for human athletes. When what you’re learning leaves an impression, it’s retained without effort.

Closing Thoughts; Communication is King

I often find myself shaking my head and asking, do we need a study for everything? We’re told how to live, how to think, what to wear, how to feel… this all translates to how we train, how we coach, how we identify talent. The number one complimentary asset to both coaching as well as learning is communication. Being able to communicate on an emotional level not only gives you an advantage in recognizing latent talent, it also provides you the avenue for which you’re coaching can become an emotional and lasting experience. Some of the most challenging terrain to ever be navigated is the landscape of changing emotions; missteps here often lead to an impasse that impedes a successful relationship. 

Any number of “communication” devices is at hand but that doesn’t mean quality communication is taking place, and when we rely heavily on an emoji as our form of expressing our feelings, the receiver has little chance of truly experiencing the emotion that is behind it or being accountable to it. When it becomes easier to outsource our expressions than it is to actually feel and embrace them, we’re chipping away at what makes us whole and minimizing our individual accountability on the environment we create.

Good communication is also essential in the development of training and coaching programs that maximize an athlete’s talent and ability because you’re able to better understand how they’re expressing emotional stresses not always seen as much as they’re felt. Being able to identify how the prospect or athlete in training is communicating as well as interpreting the world around them singularly, allows you to develop all of their abilities collectively. Tapping into that powerful resource in your athletes that is their emotional depth helps to ensure that they will not mentally tire before they become physically exhausted.

Whatever your goal is for the horse you’re investing in, be it the Kentucky Derby or Grand Prix Dressage, you’d better be darn sure there’s a depth of mental fortitude capable of getting you there. Horses are beautiful creatures, emotional and powerful, and not a plug and play investment hinged upon analytics. 

Too much outsourcing puts us at risk of diminishing self reliance and excusing responsibility, helping to weaken mental fortitude, toughness and grit along the way. What do we have to gain when we desire to outsource everything besides handing over accountability; coaching through tendency and stress only becomes more challenging when we try to harness and machine emotion. 

In my way of thinking, a few things you should never seek to outsource are your decisions, your self-worth, your dreams, your courage, your accountability, your happiness. Starting down the path of reliance instead of accountability leads to a slippery slope of dependency; it’s quite alright to fail, so long as you remember to lift yourself back up, and not become its victim. 

*Recommended Reading: “Sensory Soundness & The Psychology of Motion” & “Behavioral Genetics; The Nature of Breeding” available on Kerry’s Corner @ Past The Wire & the Blog section @ THT Bloodstock* For additional information on seminars, clinics and THT Bloodstock services, visit and on social media you can follow Kerry Thomas @thomasherding and Pete Denk @Petedenk  THT Bloodstock on FB.

Contributing Authors

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Kerry Thomas

THT Bloodstock Kerry Thomas is a pioneer of equine athletic psychological research and Herd Dynamics. He created emotional conformation profiling, which measure’s the mental and...

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Great read! Thanks @jonathanstettin Feels like you’re sitting across the table breaking down the day with the expert…

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