Growing Role of Sport Psychology in Dressage

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Jenny Susser getting to know Legolas with rider Steffen Peters. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

When riders steer their horses into the the dressage arena at the Olympics in London a month from now, they will try to focus like a laser on what may be the biggest event of their lives.

What goes through their minds? The crowd, national pride, not disappointing team mates, family and friends, all the things that can go wrong, the awe of THE moment, or any one of 50,000 thoughts, that’s the number experts estimate flit through a human mind each day, most of which pop up out of our control.

That’s where someone like Jenny Susser can help, a sport psychologist who has worked with athletes in many different sports but whose love of and involvement in dressage led her to devote herself to helping riders at all levels, including support for members of the U.S. Olympic team at the suggestion of American team coach Anne Gribbons.

A growing number of riders are turning to sport psychologists. Charlotte Dujardin who will ride on Great Britain’s Olympic team most famously credits a sport psychologist with helping her as a child overcome “show nerves,” while the 51-year-old Jan Ebeling regularly consulted with one for several months before making his first ever American team to be in London.

“Everyody’s different,” Jenny said, “but probably the biggest thing is focus and confidence. At a high level, focus is really the biggest game. What are you thinking about now?

“If you can control your focus you can control yourself. When we get in there can we execute?”

Jenny has lived high performance sports. She was a four-year All-American swimmer at UCLA–the University of California at Los Angeles–where she had gone on an athletic scholarship, the transcripts listed the study as political science but it really was swimming. She was on two national teams and went to the Olympic trials in 1988.

Not knowing “what I wanted to do when I grew up,” she took an assistant coaching job for three years that she did not love. That’s when she realized she wanted to work as a psychologist.

She got her doctorate in clinical psychology, specializing in sports, in 2001. “I’m what most people call a ‘shrink.’ but I like to call myself ‘stretch’,” she jokes.

In building her practice, she worked with a Greco Roman wrestler from eastern Europe and a high school wrestler, swimmers, fencers and for three years at Hofstra University, the largest private college on New York’s Long Island and not far from her “Power & Performance Sport Psychology Services” in Huntington.

Although Jenny owns a horse boarding stable and rides dressage, for a long time she would not mix her psychology practice with her passion.

“People kept asking me,” she said, “and I finally said, ‘OK.’

“I’m a horse woman and think I understand the nuances. After all, if I could learn about Roman Greco wrestling to help an athlete then I can apply what I know about horses and horse people.

“With horses it is very special and different, you are dealing with a rider on a consenting horse that weighs 10 times more than the rider. Having a horse background seems to make a difference, there is a great amount of relief that some things don’t have to be said.

“In a horse relationship, the horse plays an immeasurable role. Knowing horses gives me much more information and knowledge to call on with whom I’m working.”

Jenny, now aged 45, works with 25 to 40 riders at any one time, on an à la carte basis–no set sessions but when the riders need it. Many are adult amateurs that she mostly helps through two-day mounted clinics to build confidence.

“I’ve found this means a high turnover because it’s a way to be effective,” Jenny said between appointments at the recent U.S. championships at Gladstone, New Jersey. “I like to get things done effectively and efficiently as possible.

“”I like to think I can help people get 10 per cent better,” she said, giving as an example an adult amateur raising their scores from 56 per cent to 62.5 per cent by overcoming fears.

For high performance, she quotes fellow American swimmer Dara Torres, the winner of 12 medals from five Olympics that at the top level of sports everyone is pretty equal.

And that’s where all kinds of things go into the recipe for success or failure.

“It typically doesn’t take that long,” she said of the effect of sport psychology on an athlete. “If one is hungry enough, if open to it, motivated, it can happen pretty quickly. Its subtle.

“It’s unlikely I’m going to change their ability because they are the ones who have to do it. If I can increase their focus, their confidence 10 to 20 per cent that is fantastic.

“if you could ride 10 to 20 per cent better what would that mean to you?”