Dear Young High Performance Athletes,
I was once in your shoes. My sport was my absolute passion and my life for 11 years. Through very hard work and lots of self-discipline I was able to achieve many of my goals including competing against Olympians in international competition as often the youngest athlete while still in my junior years, becoming a national champion in 2017, being circuit champion at the Winter Equestrian Festival in 2018, jumping my first World Cup class as a junior, and successfully jumping FEI Grand Prix ranking classes and night classes. I hold so much gratitude for that time period of my life and the people I met who truly supported my journey. The experiences I underwent, both good and bad, have contributed to who I am today and for that I hold endless appreciation as I took those challenges and lessons in stride and chose to actively learn from them. Upon reflecting on my life as a young professional athlete, I have put together some advice and insight on the showjumping industry for other young athletes.
1. Find the Right Supportive Team
To begin, I could not stress the importance of finding the right support team enough, especially for developing young athletes. The people you choose to surround yourself with are your team. They influence the daily environment you are in for long hours which directly affects your health over time. Always choose a supportive environment and a coach that challenges you in a healthy way, shows flexibility with their teaching style in order to bring out the best in you, follows their words through with action, and when working with you, wants to hear from you as much as they want to instruct in order to work together as a team. Every athlete has different strengths and weaknesses that coaches should be in tune with to bring out the best in each individual. Further, there is a huge difference between positive and negative criticism. Learn to identify this and ensure you are in a healthy situation that knows how to give constructive criticism that influences you to improve and does not beat you down. As serious high level athletes, we often put ourselves under immense pressure to perform well. Your team is your support system and should not be doing anything that could harm your mindset and hinder your performance. The minute you find yourself in a toxic situation, leave. From personal experience, it is never ever worth it and can deeply hurt your passion for your sport. A supportive team is key to helping you develop as an athlete, sharing their wisdom, and mentoring you as an overall person.
2. Listen To Your Body
Please never forget that the most important aspect of your sport is that it is your passion. If at anytime it becomes less enjoyable, do not push yourself or this will lead to burn out. This is imperative for athletes at such a young age. Listen to your body and do not be afraid to take breaks when needed. Burn out derives from not respecting your own boundaries. Remember that breaks are productive. They are active states of learning as they allow for reflection. They are also opportunities to recharge and return stronger with renewed energy and a fresh mindset.
3. Be Hard on Yourself Productively
Many high performance athletes are their biggest critics. You need this hunger to perform well and be the best you can be to get to the top. You need the discipline and passion when days get hard. You need to look at your mistakes and actively work to improve. However, there is a balance to be found in nitpicking on mistakes and truly learning from them in a way that allows for positive growth. I am all for being hard on yourself, but it needs to be done in a constructive healthy way that functions as fuel and determination to improve. Beating yourself up internally for extended periods will cause your self-confidence to take a hit. It is not only hard on your body mentally but physically as well which will hinder your performance. There is no point in holding onto anger over a mistake for longer than necessary. Ask yourself what this is truly accomplishing other than causing self harm? Redirect any negative feelings into productive determination to improve and set goals. Remember, perfection is the absolute enemy of growth. Embrace a balance.
*I have Instagram posts dedicated to how the top young athletes handle being hard on themselves as it was something I struggled with during training. These very talented athletes, Team USA representatives, and a World Equestrian Games gold medalist were kind enough to give me insight into their process. Big thank you to all of them for their willingness to share. Many were riders I looked up to when competing both as athletes and individuals.
4. Focus On Your Own Race
I observed many young athletes fall into the habit of comparing their performance to the performance of others. This can be an easy trap to fall into at a young age in sports. Remember that you are your own competition. Associate yourself with your own progress, not the results. You have your own goals that you measure your performance against. By measuring your performance against others, you are distracting yourself from your path. When you stay true to yourself by focusing inwards on your goals, embracing the process, and building the right team around you.. the results will come. Focus on your own race.
5. Observe Actions Before Words
Remember that the industry is a business which can sway interests. Observe others over time, watch the actions of others to interpret their motives, do your own research, and air on the side of caution. Do not immediately take words at face value. This goes for all choices and moves you make, especially in the showjumping industry when spending money and conducting business.
6. Kindness Always Wins
No matter what, kindness always wins. Remember that your actions are a reflection of your character and anyone's actions towards you are a reflection of theirs. Do not take anything reflected on you personally. At the end of the day, you can walk away with your head held high knowing you treated others kindly and genuinely. Jealousy does not accomplish anything good. Anger is a secondary emotion that when directed in an unhealthy manner does not do any good in the long run. Set out to be the most authentic version of yourself each day that treats others how you would want to be treated- with kindness, professionalism, class, integrity, and respect. Immediately walk away from what does not serve you. Embrace and appreciate those who support you. Kindness always wins and you can walk away with honor knowing you had the best of intentions.
7. Be the Change You Wish to See in This Industry
This industry needs more people who genuinely care about the development of talent and those at the top that will truly invest in the industry's future by mentoring young athletes out of nothing but pure intentions and not in the best interest of oneself. It needs kindness, authenticity, integrity, and honest business. Set out to be the example for others, to be the person you need as a young athlete, to be the start of a new generation in this sport that creates a truly supportive atmosphere for all no matter their background or income. One where people uplift each other and want to genuinely help others out of care and humility. When you find people like this, always appreciate them and ensure they know that you hold gratitude for their support. And if you choose this as your career, when you get to the top ask not what you can to do for oneself but what you can do for others. Genuinely invest in the future of the sport through authentically supporting the next generation and spreading kindness throughout the industry.
8. Stay Connected to Why You Started
Remember that little girl/boy that loved horses? The one that begged her parents to drive her to the barn. When you ride, do it for her. Make sure you never stray far from her path, the one that is driven by a pure love for horses. We are so blessed to be around such kind and graceful animals. They give and give and give without expecting anything in return. They don't judge us and they forgive endlessly. Your horse is always there for you when you need it whether its a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen. The least we can do is treat them with empathy, patience, kindness, love, and respect. Your love for your horses should be the primary reason you choose to ride and the horse's best interest always comes first. You are a horseman before you are a rider.
To all the young high performance showjumping athletes out there.. speak with honesty and kindness, think with sincerity and caution, and act with integrity and humility. Embrace your passion for your sport, celebrate the highs, and learn from the lows. I am so proud of your journey and know how much hard work you have put into your athletic career. Remember to surround yourself with a supportive authentic team and remember that you will always be your biggest advocate. Never set limits on your dreams.