Sports Psychology with Dr. Darby Bonomi: The Makings of a Great Competitor

What makes a great competitor great? Why do some riders rise to the top despite challenges and others who have all the advantages never fully shine?

Kristen Vanderveen on Bull Run’s Faustino de Tili. Photo by Alden Corrigan.

Is it talent? Hard work? Determination? Better training? Luck? This question deserves contemplation—especially right now as we reflect on our 2020 season and look to next year.

Just for fun, let’s start this exploration by calling to mind those supremely successful horses we have known. What are the qualities that that make them so much better than the others?

Talent is of course a good place to start—it’s just a leg up. Nonetheless, I’ve known quite a few horses with tremendous talent who never did much of anything. One of them was a super athletic, gorgeous jumper, with tons of scope and lovely movement. He was very attractive and compliant, and had a reasonable work ethic. He vetted completely clean. Despite his talent, he was never consistently good. Why? He didn’t really seem to care that much about the job. If he put his mind to it, or if he got lucky, he would win. But just as frequently, he’d would have a rail, or just look bored.

On the other side of the spectrum is another horse I had, a chestnut gelding who was adorable, but jumped only average. He had iffy X-rays, but he never trotted unsound. Nonetheless, this horse seemed to know only the color blue. It didn’t matter which of his riders was in the irons—this horse gave 200%. I bet you know a horse like this—hopefully you’ve had one in your life. What’s the secret ingredient? I’m not sure, but I can tell you that this horse loved his job. He just adored it. He had a terrific work ethic, but the difference really seemed to be the attitude—his joy in doing the work day after day.

Now think about those riders around you whom you consider the best of the best. The riders I admire are certainly hard working and dedicated students of the sport. They love what they do. There is a joyfulness and a passion to their efforts that inspires everyone around them. These athletes devote themselves to every ride; at shows, they are fierce competitors. Why? Again, talent is great, but it’s a small piece. Hard work is key too, but if it’s drudgery then the effort is lacking in shine. I think the key is passion—and dare I say it—joy—in the process.

Does that sound cliché? I beg to differ. Take a look at another world class athlete—The Warriors’ Steph Curry. I admire Curry as an athlete and a leader, on and off the court. He is a tremendous example of someone who uses his joy to fuel his ultra-premium performance, day in and day out. If you listen to his postgame interviews, he regularly mentions his joy as the reason for his success on the court. Ron Adams, a Warriors assistant coach for many years, remarks:

“Curry plays with great joy. The way he does it — and I’m not saying others haven’t or can’t — is really unique. He’s an outlier. That’s who he is and how he lives his life.” — NBC Sports, May 1, 2020

I realize it may feel like a challenge to talk about joy at the end of this strange and, in many ways, devastating year. Well, I’ll take a cue from Steph and issue a challenge:locate your joy in this sport—and in life—and expand on it. Shed your negative thoughts and grab onto that which you enjoy. Think about that horse who happily gives his all every day, despite the weariness and repetitiveness of training. Observe how the perspective lifts not only your performance, but also your entire experience of the work.

What do you have to lose?

About Dr. Bonomi

Darby Bonomi, PhDis a Sport and Performance Psychologist. She works with equestrians of all disciplines, and other athletes, to achieve optimal performance in and out of the saddle. For more information or to contact Dr. Bonomi, click here.