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Tips for Dealing with Show Day Disappointments – with Gene Spagnola

Leading trainer Gene Spagnola provided us with insightful tips on managing disappointment and making every ride a "win."

All the 2023 majors are in the rear view mirror and, while a select few traveled home flush with victory, many more left the show grounds without that elusive “win.We often hear people say, “keep your chin up,” or “keep on trying,” but when money, time, and emotions are involved, that well-intentioned advice can be hard to hear…much less apply.

So, what is one to do? How do you cope with show day disappointments and move forward without letting that feeling consume you? We researched the views of sports psychologists and spoke with World and Congress Champion trainer Gene Spagnola of Powder Brook Farm to get the scoop on how to grieve in a way that turns your sadness into future triumphs.

Allow Yourself Time to Grieve

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Being a “good sport” doesn’t mean you must be happy regardless of your performance – it means you are able to put a poor performance in perspective and move on from it without it becoming sour.

“Dealing with anxiety, frustration, sadness, anger, disappointment, and so on is part of being an athlete,” says Kevin Chapman, PhD, a clinical psychologist and founder of The Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders.

According to Jim Taylor, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of San Francisco, disappointment is a completely normal and even necessary emotion when you fail to achieve a goal. If you prevent yourself from experiencing disappointment, that will only interfere with your “ability to surmount future obstacles and it will make disappointment more painful the next time [you] experience failure.

Therefore, Dr. Taylor says it is good to “be in your feelings” and allow yourself a moment to be upset over a bad go. He simply cautions from allowing your disappointment to grow into devastation – a long-term, more intense form of disappointment that discourages future participation in your sport.

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Throw your pity party in a private place with loved ones…and then do your best to let those feelings go.

Make Your Disappointment Your Ally

Although disappointment hurts in the moment, it also provides us with the opportunity to learn.

“Ask the million-dollar question when you’re feeling disappointed,” says Dr. Chapman. “What did I learn today?” Using your disappointment to fuel your preparation for the next competition or class can be a very positive motivator.

Dr. Chapman recommends coming up with three takeawaysthat you can bring back to practice to work on in future classes. This can be a collaborative process with your trainer.

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According to Spagnola, “The mental game of showing is often the hardest to coach in clients. Horses don’t function on a constant and consistent upward trajectory. You have to be able to cope with disappointment if you love the sport.”

Spagnola recommends, Dwelling on what went wrong won’t help you on your journey. But, allowing yourself to discuss what went wrong and accept healthy criticism will put you in a position to target your practice to improve next time.

Spagnola chuckles, “Babe Ruth struck out more than he hit home runs. The best athletes in the world rise above their disappointments in order to do better next time. I like my riders to process what they did that exceeded their expectations so that they can see the positives in a go, while also recognizing what they did that failed to meet their expectations so that we can get to work and fix those areas.”

Have a Process-Based Mentality

If you find yourself remaining in a disappointed state long after your class, you run the risk of allowing your disappointment to become devastation. However, Dr. Chapman believes this can be avoided by having a process-based mentality.

Dr. Chapman describes process-focused goals as being oriented around things you can control. If you use your disappointment to set future goals you can control, then your efforts will be likely to you in accomplishing your goal – which will help prevent prolonged disappointment. Give yourself a chance to “win” with practice and effort.

Spagnola believes the process-based mentality is the only way to guarantee wins in our industry. “You need to create a winning mentality, but winning doesn’t necessarily mean first place.”

He advises, “Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Your capabilities and your horse’s capabilities are unique to your team. If you spend time comparing your process to others, you will always be disappointed.

Instead, compare yourself to your last ride. What are you doing to improve? What still needs improvement? If you can keep improving, you will rise to the top. If you set attainable goals along the way to your ultimate dream of winning that trophy, you can keep your head up to keep moving forward. And one day, with time and practice and effort, you will get your win.

Communicate with Your Trainer

One of the best ways to prevent repeated disappointments is to speak to your trainer, both before and after a show.

If you only speak to your trainer after things go wrong, it prevents them from setting you up for success in the first place. Therefore, Spagnolia recommends you speak to your trainer before a major show about what your goals are for the show so you can work together to achieve them.

Even the best trainers cannot guarantee their clients wins, but they can work out the kinks with you along the way if you are willing to openly discuss your hopes and frustrations with them.

Spagnola admits, “Our job is complicated because we need to function as both a horse trainer and a human life coach. The technical aspect is one thing, but the mental aspect is a whole different animal. If we don’t know your goals with your horse, we are riding blind to an extent because it doesn’t set us up to put you in a position to perform at your best and achieve your goals.”

“The only way for a trainer to be honest about you and your horse is for you to be honest with us about what your intentions are.”

Celebrate the Moment

Even industry leaders, whether they be professionals or non-pros, experience disappointment and failure. But, most of them got into the industry because they love horses and being around other horsemen – horses are supposed to be fun!

One way to ensure that disappointment doesn’t stick around is to plan fun events with friends away from the arena while at a big show. Often, shows are in locations where there are opportunities for activities off the grounds. The schedule in larger shows also allows for more down time to take advantage of fun stress-relieving activities. Go out to dinner, get drinks, go dancing, book a massage – make a vacation out of your show such that you can guarantee fun away from the pressures of the arena.

Spagnola believes everyone needs to find a way to clear their head for competition. “Everybody is different. Some people need to go for a run, or to leave the grounds, or just need some quiet meditation time. I absolutely support people taking time for distractions and to clear out negative thoughts. Horse shows can be real marathons and, if you can’t find an outlet to get out of your own head, it can be easy for the whole show to become a negative experience when it could have only been one bad class.”

***

So, when facing show day disappointment, remember Dr. Chapman’s advice that, “Successful [competitors] are the ones who normalize any emotional experience that comes from competition, and who learn to deal with those emotions in productive ways.”

Let it out. Be upset. And then use that disappointment to target your practice so that when you end up on top (and you will have your moment), it means so much more.


About the Author: Megan Rechberg is a World Champion pleasure horse enthusiast who works as a full-time mom, part-time litigation attorney, and owner/operator of Bred N Butter Equine Management – a company that focuses on social media management for stallions, consulting, and sales and breeding contracts. She currently shows her APHA yearling SmoreThanAPrettyFace under the guidance of Double A Performance Horses.
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