All sport is a delicate balance of demands that require effort to overcome, and resources, tools that can be used to overcome demands. Horse racing is no different. Jockeys have to stay focused, be fit and strong, make weight, see opportunities, make decisions under pressure and keep trainers and owners happy. This requires perfect physical preparation. Mental toughness is necessary maintain the physical preparation required to meet the demands of the sport. When demands seem to outweigh resources, the brain views the situation as a threat and goes into stress mode. In stress mode, the brain makes poor decisions and tries to overcompensate or play it safe, leading to underperformance. The key is to increase resources by increasing mental toughness.
Researchers describe mental toughness as “having the natural or developed psychological edge that enables you to, generally, cope better than your opponents with the many demands that sport places on a performer and, specifically, be more consistent and better than your opponents in remaining determined, focused, confident, and in control under pressure” (Jones, Hanton, & Connaughton, 2002). Mentally tough jockeys believe in themselves, are resilient in the face of whatever is thrown at them, remain focused under intense pressure and are able to push themselves further than they thought possible in order to achieve the result they want. Just like physical skills, mental toughness is best developed in challenging environments that stretch capabilities to develop skill, coping, and toughness.
Mental toughness is connected to physical toughness and assists with the discipline needed to train, complete trackwork and make weight. Mentally tough jockeys must maintain a present moment and process focus in a sport where they are continually reminded of the importance of winning. Right before the barriers open, jockeys need to have a simple and clear focus, staying in the moment, not thinking about the winning post before they hit the first turn and limiting the noise in their minds. Too much information or thinking about the result before the end of the race can lead to second-guessing, hesitation, missed opportunities or dangerous mistakes.
The mental demands of horse racing extend outside of the track. Athletes are people too and as such, jockeys need to make sure they are developing themselves off the track as well as on it by investing time in relationships, hobbies and other career opportunities. Having things outside of riding reduces the chance of burnout and increases freshness and focus when they are on the track.
There are many ingredients that make up a successful jockey mindset and mental toughness is key. Horse racing is one of the most mentally demanding sports in existence and therefore something special is required to pull off incredible feats like a Melbourne Cup win. The secret to success is to train your brain as well as your body!
NB This article featured in Ladies in RACING Summer 2015/2016 Issue