Q&A: Sports Psychologist Darby Bonomi PhD

We’ve been so fortunate to publish articles from our resident Sport Psychologist, Darby Bonomi PhD. Over the last year, she has guided our minds and rides with information on just how much the mental aspect of our sport affects our success and enjoyment in the saddle. Here, we chat with her about what life is like behind the lens of a mental-health expert, and to see what we can learn about honing our thoughts, goals, and expectations as we round out the show year. Thank you, Darby, for everything you’ve done for the magazine and its readers!

FC: Darby, you’ve been a practicing psychologist and consultant for 30 years. Can you tell us a little about how you started working with equestrian athletes and what drew you to that kind of work? 

DB: It was really a natural evolution. After my 15 year clinical career, in which I worked with adults and children, I decided to take my career in a different direction, moving out of the clinical realm into education and consultation. I developed a parenting curriculum and worked with teachers and administrators to supplement their knowledge of child psychology and communication. Once I returned to the equestrian world myself, as a mother and then as a rider, parents started asking me to help them with their junior riders’ anxiety, stress, and life management challenges. Trainers also looked to me for advice on how to handle their nervous clients, and amateurs reached out too. I started by casually offering my expertise but then it became clear that I had a calling and needed to put a formal structure around the practice. I supplemented my training in clinical work, positive psychology, coaching, and intuitive medicine with additional courses in sport and performance psychology. I love the work I do, and am grateful to be able to do it. To combine all my years of practice, along with my teaching experience and my riding experience—well, that is simply a gift. 

FC: How has your work with equestrian clients highlighted the significance of mental well being in our sport? Can you share any examples? 

DB: What has really struck me over the years is the level of anxiety and stress, especially in our teens. It really saddens me. We know that in the general population of teens the prevalence of anxiety disorders and depression is at an all time high, along with the use of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medications. But to also see it so prevalent in our high functioning athletes should be a real wake-up call to us parents, educators, and coaches. In my practice, which is 30% adolescents, I hear a very high level of perfectionism and an intolerance for mistakes. There is a focus on results over learning, and host of unrealistic expectations that are fueled by the ideals presented in social media. 

As an example, just this week I received several very anxious calls from moms of teen riders who are at “Indoors” for various finals. The description is the same: “Jane” is riding in the finals, but she is so panicked before she goes in the ring she freezes up, and the ride ends up a “disaster.” She beats herself up for days, feels she can’t ride, and is feeling upset, ashamed, and stuck. The whole team is frustrated and upset. From what I can see, there is a lack of perspective and, as I mentioned earlier, a narrow focus on results over the learning process and the experience. But, unfortunately, this mindset is not unique to riding. Many of these teens have an unrealistic, outcome-focused perspective on life in general. They expect to get all As in school, to achieve perfect test scores, to be a star athlete, to get into Ivy League colleges—and look like a fashion model. That’s a lot of pressure to bear. 

FC: I know this is generalization, but what is your overall approach to issues of this kind? What do you say to athletes and parents to alleviate these kinds of concerns? What can readers who are also struggling with this take home? 

DB: Well, that is a complicated question! So, I always like to start with the big picture. If the parents and I are aligned on the big picture (that we’re in this sport to learn, to be the best rider we can be on any given day, and to enjoy our horses and our sport), then I have a chance of making some headway with their teen. If the parents are results-only focused, then it’s going to be tough if not impossible to pry the teen off a laser focus on blue ribbons. Luckily, I find that most parents DO see the big picture: they want their children to enjoy their sport, to work hard at it, to learn to succeed–and to fail! Most parents are connected to the life skills that participation in all sports brings. Huge lessons can be learned in the saddle and the show ring, if you are open to receiving them. And, I have to tell you, a lot of the biggest lessons are accompanied by pain of some sort. 

For the teens, I have to narrow the window and have them commit to owning their rides, which means showing up fully to ride THEIR best on any given day. I always try to get them to realize that although they’re at a show, they’re really riding for and against themselves. It’s between them and them. If they lay down the best trip they can for that day, then they can walk away proud. In order to do this, we need to have a system. I work with them to create a mental and emotional preparation routine and also ask them to focus on three tasks for their ride. “What three things, if you do them, will optimize your chance that you will have the best round you can have today?” The focus on three essential tasks occupies the mind, taking the focus off the competition and the other mental “noise” that distracts and interferes with performance. 

I advise everyone to embrace your own path and plan; if you execute your plan the best you can, given all the limitations and imperfections of the day, then give yourself a hearty pat on the back. You’ve owned your ride, and that’s all you can ask of yourself. 

FC: Do you see a different or core set of issues that tends to affect adult riders?

DB: Most of my adult amateur riders are able to see the big picture more easily than the teens. They are all driven and perfectionistic, similar to the teens, but generally are able to put things in perspective. Adult riders seem to contend with more physical fear than teens, for the most part. 

Another challenge for adults is being able to put stress and work aside and BE at the barn. For most of us, the barn is our “me” time, as I like to say; it’s the time we fill our cups. But often what happens is that adults bring their work and their life stresses into the barn and, worse, into the saddle. I work with adults to create boundaries around their riding in order to really enjoy it and ride up to their potential. 

FC: I know you work with a lot of professionals. What is that experience like compared to working with amateurs?

DB: Pros are a different breed altogether. They often come to me because they don’t have the kind of business they want, they’ve lost touch with what they love about the sport, they’re not riding and competing themselves enough, and/or they are having trouble balancing their lives. Usually when a pro comes to me, they lay all this on the table and we start by sorting it out. As a young pro, you often take in any paying client, but then after a few years you’ve got no space for the clients you really want and you’re working your tail off! So we have to go back to the big picture, being really clear about the destination and then start making deliberate choices with that in mind. Young trainers tend to make all kinds of exceptions for certain clients and then end up regretting it, so we have to clean that up as well. Setting boundaries with clients and with themselves is essential-and is a lot harder than most would think. I love working with pros because they’re super motivated and they present very complex situations. Those are gratifying partnerships to be sure. 

FC: Do you see a change to the partnership between horse and rider when riders are focusing on a stronger mental approach to our sport?

DB: Oh, absolutely! As you know, horses are very intuitive; they respond to our energy, our stress, and whether we’re focused on them or not. For example, if we are filled with nerves, our horses start to wonder what they should be afraid of. When riders are relaxed, more centered, and connected emotionally and energetically, their horses are calmer, more focused and willing to do their job. As l like to say, horses are grounded and in present time; it’s our job to meet them there. 

While we’re on this topic, can I rant for a minute? I know we’re all super busy, but one thing that really drives me nuts is seeing people ride their horses while talking on the phone. I’m not talking about a trainer’s need to take a quick call about something, but riders hacking their horses while having a conversation with someone. If you see someone doing this, notice the horse’s expression—he probably looks bored and distracted; he knows his rider isn’t fully present. In my mind, this behavior is disrespectful to the horse and our sport, and it certainly doesn’t enhance performance. 

FC: I see this all the time but I haven’t ever thought to check in on how the horse is reacting to a rider being on the phone. That is so interesting!

Can you tell us what your favorite part of your job is and what is your least favorite? I’m also curious if you ever experience fatigue in trying to keep yourself balanced as a rider while offering help to so many clients.

DB: I have a lot of ‘favorite’ parts of my job! What I do is actually my dream job—I have the opportunity to combine all my skills, talents, experience, and training and be useful to people, that makes me very happy! More specifically, I love when I can see a “lightbulb” moment happen for someone and I know it’s real game changer. All of a sudden they think of something a different way and it frees them up to ride like they know how—and enjoy it…well, that’s the best. 

My least favorite part of my job? I guess the hardest part of my work is when I don’t have a capable team behind me, or when I can hear that the rider isn’t being supported sufficiently (in terms of training, safety, or parental emotional support). That makes it really hard to do my job. The team needs to be on the same page for me to be able to work my best and help the rider make progress. 

Keeping balance in my life as a rider? Kim, that is a really good question! To be totally honest, yes I do experience fatigue sometimes. I give 100% of myself in my work, and sometimes I have to be reminded to keep some in reserve. It can be challenging to balance my own riding and competing with all that I give to my clients. At times, my trainers have to remind me to take my own advice! I’m really lucky to have a great team behind me, along with a very supportive family. I do my best to set boundaries around when I am working and when I am off; I also dedicate myself to “owning” my own riding—meaning, be clear with myself about what I’m working on in each round or ride, and focus solely on my ride and not on anyone or anything else. For me, as with most of my clients, riding fills my cup—it’s what I love to do. When I let my own perfectionism, competitiveness, or stress take the fun out of it, then I need to give myself a big half halt and remind myself what matters and why I’m in it. 

FC: That’s wonderful, Darby. Thank you so much. I have so loved including your columns in the magazine, as they have been such an integral part of what we are trying to support within the community. Any final words? A last piece of advice for riders as we close out the year? And lastly: how can potential new clients best get in touch with you if they are looking for guidance? 

DB: It’s been such a pleasure to be part of the Flying Changes team and to get to know the northwest community! I look forward to continuing our partnership. I’d love to know if there are particular topics that your readers would like to hear more about; I really appreciate suggestions.

As far as advice as we close out the year…I’d say that the end of the year is a time for us all to take a collective breath, to rest and recover, and to offer gratitude both for the opportunities and the challenges that 2021 has offered. Happy holidays, everyone!

The best way to reach me is through my website, darbybonomi.com or email at darby@darbybonomi.

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