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Winning the Mind Game in Training – Sports Psychologist Charlie Unwin

Winning the Mind Game in Training

Charlie Unwin is a sports psychologist who has worked with several sports teams and riders in improving performance. We recently attended one of the talks he did about improving your training and as such your competition performance. This is a pretty long article but well worth a read as there are simple things that we can all do to improve our performance on a horse whatever level you are at. 

There is a Henry Ford (inventor of the first mass produced car) quote which I was reminded of and he always said that if he asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. I like to remind myself of that when I do these talks. When I ask questions about psychology and when it benefits us the most, the answer is normally in competitions. I think that is when psychology comes to a head. When you have to manage your nerves, yourself, concentration and the way that you think.

Aristotle said ‘we are what we repeatedly do’ it’s about creating habits and we create these in training.

You compete about 5% of the time that you are in the saddle which means that 90-95% of the time is training. Trying to get better. This is when habits are created.  When you are competing you are a product of what you have been repeating.


This takes me onto brain science. About 90% of what we have learnt about the brain has been in the last twelve years. This is largely thanks to a machine called the FMRI machine which scans brains in real time. When you are training your probably do not appreciate the changes which are going on inside your brain. Where it adds value I will share tonight. One of the things we might notice is our brain might not necessarily change when we are in the saddle. Our brain changes as a function of how we prepare, how we set goals, how we reflect on what we have done, how we think about what we have done and I will share some techniques which will help with this.


I start most of my talks with Truisms. Truisms are self-evident truths. Having worked with hundreds of riders of all different levels there are certain things which become really obvious.

The first thing which has become obvious is that training is a mind-set and not an activity. A lot of people think that training starts when you get in the saddle and finish when you get out of the saddle. But what brain science is telling us is that the way we mentally rehearse actually changes the quality of what we do. Good visualisation improves the quality.

Most of what will be discussed is about the cultivation of quality.

There is often a disconnect between success in training and success in competition. So many riders are asked how they get on and they pick up on all the things which went wrong. When you ask the same questions in training and they have a different response. It is like they have a different expectation in training and they are focused on different things. This led me to think there are two modes of training.

One type of training is about trying to get better so it is about learning. I could be better at this so I am going to try something new. In the process you will fail and you will not get it right first time. So you recognise you are in a state of learning and that you are going to keep learning until you get it right.

The second mode is that a lot of people train less for and that is about becoming a better competitor. This is less about learning and is instead practicing in the competition environment. In competition you have a warm up routine and then once you are in the arena, you have no second chance, so everything has to be just right. A lot of people have high standards of them because it has to be right first time, whereas in training you can do a circle and come back round again to get it right. There is something about training to get it right first time. If your heart rate goes up then great, that is what you are training for. It’s all about setting high standards. It is deliberately training to put yourself under the pressure you would have at a competition. There needs to be more a link between training and competition.

‘You will not always get better at riding by spending more time riding’

The only time that the more time you spend on a horse is a benefit is when you are a beginner because you learn to adapt. The more advanced you become the more important quality in the saddle becomes.

British swimming fell foul of this. They had a culture where if you work harder and do more training than your opponents then it will pay off. If we are training on Christmas day when our opponents are not then we will be one day better than them. But there is more research going into recovery than there is in performance. Any performance enhancing drug is designed to help recovery. It does not make you quicker or stronger but to help you recover quicker so you can get back to a quality session the next day mentally or physically.

What does quality in the saddle actually look like?

Potential vs performance

People get very excited about potential in both riders and horses. But it is like comparing an Acorn with an Oak tree. You have to nurture an Acorn. Patience is essential in training. If we rush we lose quality the most. We all have potential to perform really well. If everyone here performed to their best capability every single time and just did it really consistently all the time they competed then they would be pretty good. If you can just consistently perform at your best, then that is better than what a lot of people can do.

This is why psychology is an exciting subject. It is about helping you perform consistently to your best.

Billy Bad vs Jonny Good

These are characters to contrast the good and the bad and it will help you recognise the things you are doing well and the things that you are not doing so well. Billy and Jonny have had similar opportunities and backgrounds.

  • Billy’s physical and technical capabilities are great
  • Billy lacks self-awareness
  • No consistent approach to getting better.


  • Jonny is much quicker to improve
  • More consistent
  • Better at dealing with competition
  • Much more confident about himself
  • Much more motivated and energetic on a daily basis.

How will we measure Billy and Jonny?

Mindset – training ourselves to think differently. We are looking to train mindset to make it better. This is the in the moment stuff with training.

Mental simulation – Priming the quality which is expected. Is about what we think about and what we focus on.

Ideal performance state – Quality delivered. This is about how we feel. How you think affects how you feel. A lot of people feel victims to how they feel. If you get out of bed on the right side then you will have a good day.

You can change your mood and make sure you get to the right state of mind. You need to practice this. You have had a bad day at work and then come to ride your horse you need to be able to get into the saddle in the right state of mind.

Continuous Improvement – Quality repeated. How do you make the most of the stuff you learn?


When you google mindset it does not exist until the end of the last century. It’s really in the last ten years it has been really used.

‘Mindset is an established attitude which predetermines your response to a situation.’

We make around 70,000 decisions a day. We cannot make all those decisions consciously. If we had to think too hard about every decision we make then we would not get through the day. So our brain alternates all the decisions and it will make lots of decisions for us. How can we change the computer which is making the decisions for us? We can make bad decisions in training because it’s the way you have always done things and not because it is the right thing to do. That is what we call habit.

We need to sometimes rewire the computer. Belief becomes important in the process.

‘Those that believe they can and those that believe that cant are both right’ This is another Henry Ford quote. Why is that? Such a simple quote. This is self-fulfilling prophecy.

Who would call themselves an optimist? Who would call themselves a pessimist? Fewer pessimists, but a lot sitting on the fence who would probably call themselves realists. Research shows optimists have better results. Optimists fair better. Optimists also fair better than realists. Optimists look at a situation and say what the best thing that can happen is and if it’s a little worse then they take a new situation and see what the best which can happen is.

Your beliefs will start influencing your behaviour. If you do not believe you can do something then what is the point in even trying? You will only attempt something which part of you will believe is not possible. Maybe you go slower into a fence, get tense, have a lack of impulsion – your behaviours however small start to affect your horse and his performance. So now your horses performance has been affected. Maybe you knock a pole, maybe you have a stop or a cheeky run out which reinforces that you could not do it. Suddenly you are right to be pessimistic.

An optimist will see this is an opportunity to have a go at something. You know you can ride on bad ground if you have the right technique or impulsion, whatever that might be. Your beliefs influence your behaviour. You are going to behave different which will influence the horse and then you will have a successful training session which reinforces your beliefs that you can do it.

How are your beliefs helping or hindering you?

Belief is such an important part of mindset. We have to be able to challenge our beliefs. We are talking about training but it all comes to a head in competition. Yet it is only through training that we can start to challenge this. You can only change it out of the saddle.


A sponge will always try new things.

Looking back at Jonny Good he strives to be better and his focus is on incremental improvement. Measuring tiny little improvements every day and it’s a big motivator.

We all start off as a sponge with an inside out mindset. 

As a beginner we start off learning how to ride and as we go along we learn more. They are all tiny things which make us better.

People with this mindset are people who stay focused and do not worry about the winning but enjoy the journey. They tend to embrace challenges a lot more. You cannot put effort into going clear but you can put effort into accuracy, or keeping your shoulders back over a fence. You can only put effort when you are focused on the process.

Feedback is not the end of the world. As long as people criticise you well then it’s normally an opportunity to get better at something. If you did not know about something then how can you improve it?

The Rock is focused much more on the result than the process.

If you have been riding a long time and been competitive for a long time then you might relate to some of these things. You might have had a relative amount of success and now feel an expectation to perform. Whereas the sponge is about standards and plans, the rock is about the outcome and results so struggle to truly commit to the things which get results.  This is made worse as more is at risk from three years ago. Feels pressure and responsibility to staff, parents and owners. Results on the internet also make this worse. Maintaining a clear record becomes more important than advancing the capabilities of him and his horses.

This is ironic because he has had to take risks to get this far in the first place. The things which got him good was constant improvement in the process.

The real life example would be Sharon Hunt who is more than happy to share this. Having competed at the Beijing Olympics she always said she could not believe she had made it as it was just the process of getting better and better. But after the Olympics there is pressure and you are expected to do well. You allow this to detract from doing small things better. This also translated to the horse who began to feel pressure. He would not leave the starting box. Horses pick up on all this sort of thing.

What gets in the way of maintaining this inside out mindset?

The Challenge zone it’s the gap between knowing something and doing something

Knowing  → Doing

I remember doing my first dressage test and did not have my mother there to read out the test. What you do not want your brain to have the process of what am I meant to be doing? The first time you actually do it then it will feel scary. Having a go at something to make it better.

When we work at something hard we have to slow down and to process it. Real change in the brain comes about from struggling. If we are not struggling we are not learning. If we are not struggling, we are not learning. Then we are just repeating something we know we can already do, which might make you feel warm and cosy inside. But you are not challenging yourself and getting frustrated.

Struggle creates long term change in the brain. We have to be comfortable being uncomfortable. If we are not feeling uncomfortable then we are not feeling challenged.

‘If we do not measure progression we never know how much we have grown.’

Your brain is rubbish at knowing where you have come from. You will not remember where you were 12 months ago. I have professional riders who may be going through a dip in form and the first thing ask them is tell me a time when you were really riding high and get them to write down as much as possible – who were they working with? What were they focused on? What was challenging them? When they start writing it down they realise they have stopped doing half the things they did 12 months ago. It’s only when they commit to thinking about it reflect that they realise this.

The brain is rubbish at working out where you have come from. All the brain knows is where you are now. It is not very good when it comes to an inside out mindset. Writing things down is a massive help. If you are a professional rider I recommend that you have a notebook per horse. Then if you are doing well on one horse and struggling with another it does not get undermined in the progress. These help your brain have a helping hand to process and work things out.

‘Think about the people who make you feel good.’

If they are coaches, friends, they make you feel confident. They are important people to you. Be surrounded by the right people and you will be surprised by how far you go. Anyone who is particularly negative make sure you unfollow them on Facebook or minimise your contact with them.

‘Invest in your own system’

Thinking about the way you make decisions. Why do you do what you do?  What is worse is if you worry about the decisions you made because someone else made a different decision. When I think of two people with a clear system – one is Ingrid Klimke. Whenever I watch any of her interviews often talks about her system. Michael Jung is the other. They both know why they do what they do and everything is joined up.

I always ask people why they do things and how clear they are about their own system. If they say because my coach told me to do it or I have always done it, then it’s probably not a very good system. If they say it’s because it helps me get better at that by doing that in the warm up routine then that is a better system. People can develop this from a very young age.


It’s potentially very dangerous. Rio Olympics were considered the first social media Olympics. Some decided to forfeit social media and some didn’t. There was an American swimmer who was tipped for gold. She was flying and breaking records in semi-finals. She got to her final race and she lost. Nobody could believe it. She went to an interview afterwards and was gutted, she later reflected that she had been up the night before replying to people on social media telling her how well she was doing. So all positive messages. But her focus had been taken. Everyone was telling her how great she was. When she was on the starting block she was not thinking about the perfect race and the execution. She already believed she had won it in her own mind.

Social media is the easiest way of pulling people away from their bubble and focus. What do you do about it? I can think of 3 x 4* eventers that this made sense and were going to turn off social media three days before a competition when you are starting to tune up before an event. They all did this. They said their whole experience of competition was different. They felt they were focused on the right things and thus enjoying themselves more. We might not realise how this is pulling us away from finding it enjoyable. It’s about knowing how you use it. Team GB hockey team turned off social media and reported that they were much more focused and regulated as a team. If you are focusing outside of your team then you are missing things. Your horse will know if you are connected with them or if your thoughts are not connected as they are outside of the bubble.

I think the research will come that social media is not very helpful for people mentally.


What has got you to success might be a function of something you were working on 6 months ago. This is re-emphasising that the brain is rubbish at making the connection of what I did well 6 months ago. Very few say what has contributed towards this successful period of what I did well. This is why it helps to write things down. You can go back on your notes and see that you worked really hard at that or did something really well and it has made a huge difference. Your brain won’t do that. If you leave your brain to its own devices it will put it down to lucky red socks rather than the hard work that went in.

There are no rules on what you write down. It should be golden nuggets and what you have done well like your trainer altered your position or you changed the way you do something and suddenly it has clicked. Those golden nuggets have to be written down. The next golden nugget will come along and supersede that one. It is just helping your brain accelerate that evidence of learning quicker. Have a go, see what works for you and write it down.


This is a term which comes from rugby. You very rarely score tries but you can win a game without scoring a try. But if you celebrate the components which lead to scoring a try then you are more likely to be enforcing the things you do well, more often. Forcing a penalty of your opponents because of something you did really well. Everyone comes round and celebrates as if you have scored a try because they are the little turning points which create the outcome. So what are your small victories? The outcome happens far too little to celebrate so what are the small victories that you can celebrate? If you don’t feel pride about what you do, then your brain learns slower. If you feel positive emotion about what you are doing well then your brain learns a lot quicker. What are the little things you have done really well?


The amount of research going into sleep is a lot. Sleep and rest is vital. You don’t need a perfect night’s sleep. It’s more about being well rested in the week running up. Not early every night or every morning and then you have more choices. Work in bursts. Our nervous system loves that. Work in 5 minute bursts if you are really tired. Get off the horse have a stretch and then get back on. If you are doing an hour long session you will probably lose quality. Small habits, to get yourself into.


One of the things people take for granted is planning. If you set goals for yourself then you set yourself under pressure. The minute you start planning makes your heart rate go up. We have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable with planning from the time you put your entry in you will be experiencing some of the emotions of being there. You can think sod it I am not going to plan and just see what happens, or you can decide to plan, understand what success looks and feels like and think about what I have been doing in training in competition. If you have been put off planning then it might be because of the way it makes you feel.

In the GB Hockey finals at the Olympics all the pressure was on the goalkeeper -Maddie Hinch and she surpassed herself. She said afterwards that it was all about doing the thinking up front so you don’t have to think when you are under pressure. That for me is what psychology is about. Doing the thinking up front so that when you are on the horse you are naturally making the right decisions. You stay focused because you have practiced.

Maddie Hinch had this notebook and had notes on every competitor that she would compete against. She had notes about what they liked to do and what they did not like to do. When she is goalkeeping she naturally knows what they like to do and imagines herself reacting against them.  On her water bottle she had some simple notes because she had done all the thinking up front. Her last note was stay big so she would not shrink in the goal. Performing when not thinking too much is important in horses.


‘For the brain, thinking is the same as doing.

You are using the same neural pathways as if you were doing. As long as you are thinking correctly you can practice and it is the same as actually doing it. Mental rehearsal is something we are born with but we lose it as we stop practicing. Being too busy is the biggest culprit with us stopping and thinking about it. There was a study with swimmers. They took Olympic and National level swimmers. They wanted to know if they could work out who would go from National level to Olympic level swimming. They measured against loads of physical things like strength etc. but the best predictor was how well people visualised their race. They timed them thinking about their race and when they got to the end at the end they put their hand up. Olympic level swimmers got to within a few hundredths of a second of their personal best every single time. They were able to recreate their race perfectly in their head. National level swimmers got within seconds which is still good but it demonstrated the difference.

I always encourage people to slow down and think about things. I did this with an international dressage rider.  The first time he visualised his test he did it in half the time of his actual tests so I could tell he was rushing. You might not think this is a bad thing but every time you go through your Sjing round or dressage test you are training your brain to do it quickly so when you are actually there it feels really slow and your brain cannot work at that pace. You can give yourself time by training yourself to be slower. Over 2 weeks we practiced the visualisation of the test along with breathing as you need to remember to do that. It does not come straight away. Concentrating for ten minutes takes a great deal of focus.

Go away and practice a test in real time as if you are there and see how easy it is to get perfect concentration but it’s a great skill to have.

The British Skeleton Bobsleigh team has training for 2 minutes a day on the bobsleigh as that is all the body can take with G force. This means the majority of their training has to be in their head to get world class.


I was on the GB Pentathlon team and one of the skills was shooting. When I broke down taking the perfect shot it worked out that there were ten elements to the perfect shot. Thing is I cannot concentrate on ten things at once so how do I train my brain to do ten things world class when I need to I need to think about as little as possible. I take those ten things and chunk them into three.

The first thing is breathing. Then breathe in raising my arm and then breathe out lowering my arm. You must do it deliberately. It’s like driving, it’s near impossible to touch the clutch with your foot without reaching to change the gear because your brain has chunked it together. I ended up with saying to myself calm, control and sight and that was my cues for the ten things I needed to do for the perfect shot.

If you take needing to be relaxed before a dressage test – you might first off practice breathing on your horse properly, then practicing your neck and shoulders because it is easy to pick up tension especially in competition, so every 5 minutes practice – are my neck and shoulders relaxed? Am I sitting deep? You can chunk these things together. To the outside viewer you might not be doing much but it takes concentration and maybe do it while you change the rein your mind will learn to do it automatically.

This is how we learn feel by chunking things together. It’s easier for the brain to learn.

If we try and over control everything then muscles tense inconsistently. How we think and place our focus has implications for riding. Horses will notice the difference.

‘We are often a victim of how we feel.’

How can we influence that? I worked with a rowing team –Vesta Rowing Club. They had just qualified for Henley Royal Regatta as a wildcard. They were not meant to be there. They thought they would get all the help they could. The first exercise was for them to write down what the perfect race looked like. They all wrote down something different You all think something different about perfect. So they had to come together and work out what good looked like. They split the race into 3 areas so they could recreate the feelings in those 3 areas so that it was exactly the same as they imagined it and as they did it. Whether they were in the water or on an Ergo. We got a DJ to mix a track which was 6 minutes long and represented the race. The first 2 minutes was music which helped get into the right state relaxed and which built over the race.

Now you know what good looks like and now you are going to do it listening to music. To feel good, to get into the right state and feel energetic when you are at the right part of the race. Most of the training was done sat down thinking. 2 weeks before the regatta they had to do their final test to make sure they are fit enough. The Ergo has a display but its nonsense as its outside in. You are not driving the performance it’s like relying on a stop watch xc. A stop watch should not tell you if you need to be going quicker or slower it should just confirm your pace.   You need to get the feeling right at pace and it should just be there to check.

Now the rowing team could not tell how fast they were going. Played the music and they did the test. 3 out of 4 smashed their personal best and they got times that they did not think they could get. They beat the No1 seeds who had come from Australia in the first round. They made it all the way to the final having been wildcards and lost to what was the GB U21 team so they could not believe what they were capable of. Music helped to get them into the right state and training in their heads.

You cannot rely on other people to get you feeling positive.

‘So many people are great at training to the point of failure.’

They will do a training session and say it has to be an hour. I hope now you will be thinking differently. If it takes 5 minutes then it takes 5 minutes. You are looking for quality. If after 5 minutes get off and think about it.

Alpine Skiers have a saying that the most important two turns are the last two turns of the race. They were looking at research which said the brain goes back over events and if your last two turns were sloppy then your brain will internalise that. So always finish a session on quality. It does not mean seeing how high you can jump. It is about doing something really well. It is about training your horses better as well as yours.

If you start to feel a loss of confidence then its important to be more focused as you will be more confident. Leave the session wanting to do more. The last thing running through your brain is I want to get back into the saddle and do more. This is a great way to finish a session. When you sleep at night then your brain will be going over this so by having a good experience you will be building confidence quicker.

I was talking to a young rider who went off and worked with Michael Jung. One of the things this rider noticed was that whenever they were packing up at the end, Michael would walk the course with his coach again. ‘I have not finished my learning yet. I have planned, I have executed but I have not finished the cycle of did I stick to my plan and was it the right decision and could I have done it any better?’  He had closed the loop on the process. Admittedly this is a sign of someone at the very top of their game. If we challenged ourselves to do 100% quality it comes down to discipline.

No matter how much energy it takes we need to do everything to the best of our ability. This is how habit is created.

Really commit to some of this stuff and you might be surprised how quickly you can get to where you want to go and how good you can be.

For more information about Charlie Unwin – http://www.performancelegacy.com/

About the author


An amateur rider who produces all her own horses. I have competed at novice level and sadly never got further due to bad luck with horses but I am still ambitious to achieve a lot more. I have a riding qualification in UKCC2 and a diploma in NLP. Sports science and particularly the mental game fascinates me. For a day job I work for a large multinational brand.