Expectations in the Ring: Inspiration, Motivation, or Baggage?

I’ve been hearing a lot about expectations recently. To be honest, I hear mostly about unmet expectations, along with disappointment, and frustration. “I didn’t meet my expectations.” “I wanted to win.” “I failed.” 

How do your expectations make you feel? Are you inspired and motivated by your goals? Or are you frequently upset and discouraged? Do you regularly start the show with sky-high expectations and leave on Sunday down in the dumps? 

“Reframe success as doing your best in the moment you have.”— Lauren Billys, Two Time Olympic Eventer (2016 and 2021)

Expectations are a funny thing. They can motivate us to work toward big goals. Like the Olympics, for instance. Or, they can be extremely burdensome, making us feel like failures when we don’t come through. I find that many people set outcome—or results—expectations and use these as the measure of their success or even competence as a rider. In my experience, this kind of expectation is like an oversize piece of luggage that an athlete drags into the ring. It’s way too heavy, too loaded, and one-dimensional. It’s also unfair and unproductive. Remember, most Olympians are not medal winners, but they still are the best in the world. 

So, how do we use our lofty goals to inspire and drive us, without being weighed down? 

First of all, let’s have a mindset and vocabulary shift. I suggest transforming expectations into aspirations. Aspire to win a medal final, a certain classic, or a particular event. Let that aspiration inspire you to prepare, and then motivate you to ride your best on show day. 

Second, break down your aspiration into intentions. Make a plan for how you’re going to prepare to ride your best. Think about specific actions that maximize the chance you will have the very best round you can have on that day. They may include setting up your schedule to prepare more thoroughly, doing something specific on course, or having a certain mindset for the weekend. 

Here is an example: I aspire to win the 1.10m classic at the year-end show. To maximize my chances, I intend to: 

  • work consistently with my trainer up to the show day 
  • adopt a positive mindset throughout 
  • arrive at the show 30 minutes earlier than usual to do my pre-ride preparation and walk my course thoroughly 
  • ride with deliberate impulsion out of my turns 
  • be quick with my eyes 

(You get the idea. The list can go on.) 

Remember: you can’t control anyone else’s ride or all the chance factors out there. The key is to stay focused on things you can control and manage those. Let’s face it, there are a lot of things we can’t control, including the results. You can show up fully and ride your horse the very best you can for the day. That’s it. The chips will fall where they fall. Or the rails. 

That’s what makes competition great: we all do our best to pull it out when it matters. Sometimes we win, and most of the time we don’t. But if we gave it our all, we walk away with our pride, confidence, and motivation to keep improving. 

Here’s a high-level example: an Olympian went to Toyko with aspirations to be on the podium. Her intention was to be fully present and ride every single stride as effectively as she could given all the variables of the day—and there were many. Did she come through for herself and her horse? Absolutely. Did she end up on the podium? No. Nonetheless, she walked away with confidence and pride in a job well executed, and eager to start working toward 2024. 

Now, what about other people’s expectations? I find parents’ expectations can add considerable weight and strain to already pressured junior riders’ shoulders. To be fair, parents, especially non rider-parents, may not understand what it takes to master our sport and don’t appreciate the nuances of equestrian performance. I frequently find parents are frustrated with the time, effort, and money they have devoted to the sport and are upset that their child isn’t winning or winning enough. 

My advice to parents: try to divest yourself from a focus on your child’s results. Instead, praise your child for effort, being a devoted student and horseman, and a good sport. These are the life skills that set us up for being resilient, productive, and fulfilled—and the best athletes we can be. 

Trainers also are heavily invested in their athletes’ success, and sometimes slip into a focus on results over effort. A good coach wants his or her athlete to win, but first and foremost focuses on process, growth, and effort. Coaches know that great athletes are motivated individuals who need to be resilient, dedicated, and inspired. They also have a broad view of what it means to succeed. 

If you’re in a cycle of disappointment, take a look at your expectations. Are you measuring yourself by results? Edit your expectations to become aspirations, and then hold yourself accountable for fulfilling the intentions that will make you a more effective rider, and move you closer to your goals. 

“Reframe success as doing your best in the moment you have.”—Lauren Billys, Two Time Olympic Eventer (2016 and 2021)

Learn more about Darby Bonomi and how she might help you and your riding at: www.darbybonomi.com

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