Needing vs. Wanting to Win

Whether you are an elite athlete or weekend warrior, there is one mental trap you will want to be aware of: needing to win.

When you need to win, you place yourself in a very precarious position. Essentially you are saying to yourself, “You must win or it means you are not a good rider or good person.” You need to prove something to yourself or to someone else.

That’s a whole lot of pressure to put on your performance. It may feel as though you are literally competing for your life – not a good recipe for controlling your nerves and staying focused. You may find your ride turns tentative as you look to avoid failure rather than moving toward success.

Lori, a young junior competitor, knows this particular mind trap all too well. Not wanting to disappoint her trainer, whom she looked up to, she kept pushing herself to win. Her mind was filled with statements like “You have to win; what will he think if you don’t? Maybe he won’t want to train you anymore,” and “I must get more ribbons or people will think I’m a failure and I can’t ride.”

When you set outcomes that must happen or have to happen, you could be setting yourself up. Many variables go into the achievement of any end result. Some you cannot control. If you are holding yourself accountable to that one outcome and you don’t reach it, slam goes your confidence. This is exactly what happened to Lori, but then she began to turn her thinking around.

“I decided I was going to ride for a different reason,” Lori said. “I decided to change my definition of winning too. My new ‘win’ was going to be riding to improve some skill each time. If I could do that, I could get more confidence. I also stopped riding for my trainer. I rode for myself. I realized what he was looking for was effort and commitment, not loads of ribbons.”

So what is the main prescription for this thinking trap? Don’t compete for such high stakes. It’s OK to want to win. But if you don’t win, don’t make it mean something about who you are. Compete to have fun and showcase some of the many skills you have, to learn from whatever experience presents itself that day. This way, like Lori, every time you step up to compete you can look forward to another experience of growth.

This kind of mindset will take conscious developing. You can change your existing approach to winning by deliberately checking your thoughts and perspective right before you compete. Check your thoughts at the in-gate: think “want” not “need!”

April Clay is a Calgary-based psychologist and a former competitive rider. She specializes in sport psychology services for riders. April’s approach has proven popular with various kinds of riders, from hunters and jumpers to barrel racers and dressage. She offers individual consultation as well as group services, clinics and online courses. April has been a featured speaker at such events as Equine Affaire and EqWest and is a regular contributor to numerous publications both locally and abroad. You can reach her at

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