As Mario Gutierrez makes his final preparations for Saturday's Preakness Stakes, the spotlight is on him in a way it isn't for the other jockeys in the race. Although the pressure of having a Triple Crown contender isn't new to him, it remains daunting. That's why Gutierrez says he's glad he started working with a sports psychologist about a year ago.
“It's not about mantras or anything, it's about building confidence to help you to navigate what's to come,” said Gutierrez. “Everything's in the mind. Mentally, it's like going to the gym with a trainer — a trainer helps prepare your body, and [the sports psychologist] helps prepare my mind.”
Gutierrez credits his wife, Rebecca, with encouraging him to consult with a sports psychologist in the midst of the slump that followed his success with I'll Have Another on the 2012 Triple Crown trail. Gutierrez admitted he was skeptical at first, but after one session, he signed up for ten more. This week, he planned on one more session ahead of his graded stakes mounts on Friday and Saturday.
“The work that I've been doing with him is preparing me for this kind of race,” said Gutierrez at the Preakness post position draw.
Camilla Henderson, amateur jockey and sports performance consultant in the United Kingdom, said she encounters many misconceptions about what it means for a rider to consult with a sports psychologist.
“I think quite often jockeys are not aware of what sports psychology actually is,” she said. “It's perceived as a bit of a taboo. They might think, 'Oh, he's seeing a sports psychologist, he's got a problem.' It's not about … a mental disorder (though obviously if an athlete does have a mental disorder, that's what we're there for). It should be described more in terms of helping athletes obtain their optimal [performance] and become the best they can be.”
Henderson is still logging her last few hours of experience before becoming certified and is hoping to take clients via the British Horseracing Authority. So far, much of what she helps clients deal with is developing mental skills to perform at their best, rather than addressing a major issue like substance abuse or eating disorders. Physical stressors like dehydration and poor diet are a way of life for most riders, particularly those who left school at a young age and could have gaps in their understanding of proper nutrition. Combine this with the mental and emotional stress that comes along with hustling for rides, lots of travel, and dealing with disappointing race results, and Henderson said it's hard for athletes to perform at their best in the afternoon.
“I think if you're not coping very well with the lifestyle that comes with riding out [working horses in the morning], you're not going to perform very well in a race,” she said. “Also, there's the physiological consequence of sweating and keeping the weight down. If they're feeling very faint and lethargic, how is that going to affect their state of mind? It takes quite a mentally tough athlete to do that.”
Henderson takes a “four corners” approach to client treatment, considering all aspects of the athlete's life, including physical, social, technical, and tactical skills. She starts by asking an athlete to explain what they love about their sport and continues with a series of casual conversation before gradually learning what areas the athlete wants to work on. As she begins looking for solutions, she encourages clients to work on skills like goal setting, visualization, mental imagery, centering, self-talk, and other applications of positive psychology. Often, a rider's problem comes down to a focus on wanting to avoid a particular outcome, which can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Henderson also sees riders dealing with mental consequences from spills or injury. There can be a confidence issue when working back from an injury, of course, but Henderson said many riders may not realize what they're experiencing after a major spill is actually a type of post-traumatic stress disorder that can lie dormant for days or weeks after the event. There are also mental consequences for the time taken off for an injury – both stress over the lost income, and the tendency to come back too soon after lay-up.
One thing Henderson hopes to see change in the coming years is the number of riders using sports psychologists.
“I don't know what it's like in America, but here in the U.K. we find that racing is quite far behind in comparison to other sports when you're looking at the jockey as a professional athlete; they don't get the services that a professional athlete in another sport would get.”
Gutierrez credits the therapy, along with chiropractic and physiotherapy work, for his return to the spotlight after a few 'lost' years in which he says he struggled to get mounts.
“I have no idea if other jockeys use it. I know a lot of fighters use that and athletes in other sports,” said Gutierrez. “It's been a help for me. I'd recommend it, 100 percent.”
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