Mental Skills Coach, MSc Sport Psychology Candidate
Horses are a tradition unto themselves. Moving forward with The Equestrians online, an unexpected story formed during our interviews. Horses help people lead happier lives. We realized the need to devote an entire interview to this fact. We were thrilled to have the opportunity to speak to Nick Dann, MSc Sport Psychology candidate. A Mental Skills Coach, he tells us how he works with athletes and his thoughts on equine therapy.
Nick explaining a tactical play to polo player, Clare Milford Haven.
As a Mental Skills Coach, can you tell us more about what you do?
Over the last ten years, the discussion about mental health has really evolved. Athletes are not robots – they are human beings. So therefore, much time needs to be given to that subject, well-being and mental health, as it does to performance. This is the part, of what I do, that I’m passionate about. Now, the role of a Mental Skills Coach is looking far more holistically at these two aspects together. We’re trying to help people perform to the best of their ability but also making sure that they are the happiest they can be, while doing it.
I’ve worked with athletes - particularly from the elite end who endure an enormous amount of stress – but compete at their highest level. My duty of care, as mentioned previously, is to make sure these athletes are as happy as they can be, and coach them to their highest potential. Overall, this is what we really want: alignment.
How did you become involved in polo?
I was very lucky. My father played polo for thirty years. Hence, I played myself, up until the last few years; I then started to focus on Sports Psychology.
Clare Milford Haven has been very generous with how she allows me to ride her horses. I also give Clare's polo professional, Bautista Sorzana, a hand every now and then; he has since become a great friend.
So polo, for me, has not just been a sport; it is a lifestyle. It is more than a sport; it is a way of life.
Horses have been used for therapeutic purposes since the time of the ancient Greeks. Hippocrates wrote about the therapeutic potential of horseback riding. What are your thoughts?
I believe when Hippocrates formulated that idea, horseback riding was seen as a primary form of exercise. There are positive links between exercise and mental health. I could point you to a number of studies, but there is a very famous one, conducted by Blumenthal et al. (2007), that looked at exercise versus anti-depressants and placebos.
In the Blumenthal Study, some of the participants with depression were placed under an exercise regime. Ten months later, the individuals that continued doing exercise were the ones who showed less depressive symptoms than any other group.
Horseback riding is a brilliant form of exercise. It involves your whole body, you are mainly outdoors and different endorphins are flowing. Ultimately, you have the bond.
How can equine therapy address mental health concerns?
All people experience stress and anxiety, whether they admit it or not; those are definitely two concerns that equine therapy can help.
There is something very special about the bond with a horse; it is an instant connection. They are really magnificent animals, having a deep compassion and understanding for human emotions.
It is said that riding and caring for horses helps people stay present and in the moment. So how does this connection benefit people with anxiety?
On the most simplistic level, anxiety means that we are worried about things that may happen. Depression can be triggered by worrying about what is happening, or has happened.
We must remember to focus on the things we can control. You accomplish this by being present in the moment. By not thinking about things that happened two minutes’ ago, or things that might happen in two minutes’ time. You need to focus on what messages you’re sending to the horse. It’s about taking every moment as it comes and trying our best to make decisions in that time.
Nick using a foot mallet (small polo stick) to demonstrate the swing to a beginner in polo.
Why are people so devoted to the equine sport?
Whenever I go back to the basics, with every equestrian I’ve worked with, the answer is always the same: it’s about the horses.
That’s an amazing thing to always remember. That is the power of the horse, when that is the driver for anyone in an equine sport. People want to be around their horses. They adore these animals, and that’s why there is a connection.
Images courtesy of Nick Dann.