Stressed Out, Perfectionistic Junior Riders: Let’s Help Them Put It in Perspective

Photo by Aden Corrigan. 

I work with a lot of adolescents. I love teenagers—they tell it like it is and have great senses of humor. I find that they are very open to new ideas and concepts. They learn fast, and keep me on my toes. My sample, a group of competitive riders from different disciplines, are extremely high achievers. They have lofty goals and strategies to get there. They are willing to work hard and regularly push past their comfort zone. They are very successful—both in and out of the saddle. And, they are carrying too much on their shoulders.

Many of these riders have extraordinary expectations of themselves, and feel that others do as well. They have anxiety about all kinds of things—worries that affect their everyday performance in the saddle, and their psychological and physical health. Along with unrealistic expectations, the most prominent trends I see are: worries about being perfect, preoccupation with what others think about them, and feeling that they are on their own and have to “know it all already.”

Here are some recent examples from my work:

  • One teen is a dedicated, developing event rider. She has an upcoming opportunity to work with a prominent clinician, but is sick with worry that she will “fail” in the clinic. She burdens herself with the task of having “to know it all” rather than embracing the fact that she, like all of us, is a student of the sport. Instead of excitement to work with her idol, she feels panicked to the point of throwing up.
  • A young adult dressage rider feels she is “letting herself down” if she or her trainer doesn’t punish herself mentally for every error (perceived and otherwise). Her self-bullying interferes with her learning and disrupts her communication with her horse—and most importantly, leaves her suffering between rides.
  • A teenage hunter rider feels afraid to ask her trainer for clarification in her lesson. She cringes, believing that others will judge her. Instead of asking, she does what she thinks the trainer wants, but does it incorrectly. Afterward, she feels humiliated, and dreads her next ride.

Many teens do not have a realistic sense that we all are a work in progress. We’re all perpetual students — even the elite among us. Challenges, trial and error, mistakes, failures — they are all part of our ongoing development. In addition, many young athletes don’t see the adults in their lives as resources—including their trainers and parents. Teens often feel that they are on their own to figure things out. So many teens feel it’s a
blow to the ego if they have a question. “If I ask, my trainer will think I’m stupid,” is a sentiment I hear repeatedly. I remind them that in my experience, the best and brightest always ask questions—and they welcome questions as well. Courage means asking a question when you don’t understand and embracing yourself as a perpetual student. Cowardice is pretending that you know something that you don’t and hoping it turns out OK.

Where do teens and young adults get these ideas? Perfectionism is part of our culture right now, fueled by social media. Nonetheless, we as parents, trainers, and coaches can make an impact. We need to step in to provide a healthier, realistic perspective and educated support—and set an example ourselves. We need to help our teens see the big picture, and redefine what it means to be “successful.” When our child makes a mistake, falls off, or simply doesn’t win the class, it’s our job to ask: what did you learn, and know that this is part of development, not the end of the world.

A mistake is only a failure if you don’t learn from it.

The goal of sport is to continually challenge yourself to improve. We need to praise curiosity and learning, not perfection. We need to encourage questions, experimentation, and inquiry and never condemn failure when it emerges out of doing one’s best or trying something new. Let’s adopt this mindset not only so that we can help support our teens’ healthy development, but also so that we can unburden them from anxieties and pressures that in the end, do not serve them in the saddle or in life. Having perspective means we always keep the big picture in mind.

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.