Dealing with competition setbacks

Zoe is completing her chartership in sport and exercise psychology; She runs Harlequins RFC academy sport psychology programme. She is a keen event rider herself, having competed up to FEI 2*. If you would like to know more, please look at her website

Dealing with competition setbacks

Sport can be a bumpy ride; eventing can demand a great level of resilience from us as athletes because there are so many variables which need to be kept in check in order to get that performance we are aiming for. In eventing, some of the most familiar set backs include injury (that dreaded word!), a lesser performance than we know we can achieve (such as rolling a role) or a plateau in performance.

Evaluate the set back

Evaluating the set back is a key opportunity for learning. Could you have prevented this? Was the set back in your control? Is it totally out of your control? Take some time to evaluate what happened, why it happened, and can it be prevented in the future.

Use this opportunity to understand the set back in more detail. As we are frequently our own worst critic, get your coaches perspective, a knowledgeable observer, your groom’s perspective. These key stakeholders may help you see it in a different way and help to prevent it from happening in the future. After all, as rider’s we often spend 90% of the time training and 10% of the time performing.

How to handle setbacks
Positive approach
A setback can make it feel challenging to take a positive approach to but this can be beneficial to your coping. I think a key way to look at this is: when you wake up, the attitude, thoughts and behaviours you have, are in your control. Even if you find some negative thoughts popping up, remember it’s about the importance you put on them. Don’t let them define you.

Social support

A problem shared is a problem solved, right? Utilise your network. Sometimes this means taking time out from your riding network of friends and spending some time away from horses. Other times, this could involve attending events as a spectator. See your role flex and change as you capitalise on these opportunities. If you wonder why your test scores aren’t improving, maybe spend a morning volunteering and do some writing for a judge. This is a great social learning opportunity.


The key to tackling self-criticism is self-compassion. Self-compassion involves self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. Essentially, this means being understanding to oneself, acknowledging that you are unlikely to be the only individual experiencing this challenge and not overidentifying with your thoughts/feelings.

Staying in the present moment

As I previously said, evaluating the event is justifiable but constantly ruminating over the event will not be beneficial for you in the long term. The same principle stands for forecasting into the future; this will not be beneficial to the right here, right now, event of the setback.
Focus on the present. If you find yourself drifting into rumination, assign yourself this time a day to stop it interfering with your life. Give yourself a set time where it won’t interfere with anything else and then once that time block is over, leave it.

Mapping your way back

Now you understand the setback and have taken some time to manage your reaction, now map your route back. This can be a great time to set some goals to help with your motivation and to create a clear route back.

Can you focus on achieving a higher level of mastery in an area which will help you reach that goal? Has injury changed your action plan? Explore all of the options.

Lastly, challenge your language… is it a setback or is it an opportunity? Use it as an opportunity and you may be surprised that it becomes more of a challenge than a threat!

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