Stable & Field – Annika McGivern: Sports Psychology for Equestrians & Athletes

by Cassidy Nunn | photo by Nunn Other Photography

“Performance and well-being are inextricably linked. When we sacrifice our well-being for performance, we are unknowingly sabotaging our performance at the same time,” says Annika McGivern, a Sport and Exercise Psychology coach.

Annika is striving to change that, especially within the equestrian world, by focusing on helping her clients to use their mind as a resource within their sport. In many sports, the emphasis on training is focused on the physical pursuit of that sport and often the mental aspect is set aside or completely neglected. Equestrian sport is no different, and has the added difficulty of considering the relationship between the horse and rider, which comes with its own set of unique challenges. “The dynamic between the human brain and the horse brain is so interesting,” she says.

Equestrian athletes have many common challenges that exist within the sport, the most prevalent being fear, nerves and anxiety which Annika says is “really common because of the very real danger and risk in what we do.” Most riders will have dealt with a fall or losing control of the horse at some point in their riding journey and often there can be a lingering fear that resurfaces. This fear can block the ability to ride effectively or hinder the enjoyment of the sport for the rider. Annika works to help riders and athletes understand what is happening in their mind and body, and to work towards disassociating from the fear and how to prevent freezing during those scary moments. She strives to help her clients reduce their anxiety, have an increased self-awareness, a greater sense of control and the ability to build helpful habits.

Annika’s love of horses began in her early years; after clamouring for lessons her parents gave in and she began riding lessons at the age of five. By 11 she had entered the competitive side of the sport in three-day-eventing (similar to a triathalon, the horse and rider compete over three days in three different disciplines: dressage, cross country jumping and show jumping) and there was no looking back. She pursued her equestrian competitive goals by travelling after high school to Ireland, Australia and the United States as a “working student” under several high-level equestrian riders and coaches. She remembers the experience as being a steep learning curve and “really eye opening. I learned so much about the high-performance equestrian sport … and it opened my eyes to the mental world of sport and my ability to perform,” she says.

After a few years as a working student, Annika bought her own horse and began to compete at a high level, but after she had a few falls in training and competition, she felt mentally rattled. “My horse was ready, but I wasn’t. I felt like I completely lost all of my riding ability,” she says. Her downward mental spiral continued and it was then she sought out the help of a sports psychologist. Within three sessions, he helped her sort out her mental roadblocks. Annika describes this time as an “aha moment in my life,” and the seed of her future career path was thus planted.

A move to Vancouver Island to work under another equestrian coach followed her time south of the border and as her horse had reached his athletic limit within competition, Annika was faced with the difficult decision of whether to buy another horse and pursue competitive riding at a higher level or to go back to school. In the end, she sold her horse and attended the University of Victoria, graduating with an undergrad in Psychology. While attending university she also became a certified Equine Canada Competition Coach, which allowed her to keep her foot in the equestrian world and she says, “fed into my interest in sports psychology with being able to recognize the patterns that hold back.”

In 2018 Annika moved back to Ireland to pursue her Masters of Science in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Ulster University. With her Masters completed, she started her own business, AM Performance Coaching. “Nobody tells you that being a sports psychologist means being an entrepreneur so that was an adventure!” she says with a chuckle. Right away she tied into the equestrian community as well as branched out to offer her services in the corporate world with business psychology training. She’s currently based in Ireland, but is excited to be moving back to Victoria this winter. In the meantime, she’s continued to help her Vancouver Island equestrian clients by offering one-on-one zoom sessions, which worked out well during the pandemic as she shifted the rest of her business to a similar model. The majority of her equestrian clients “do three to six sessions initially to learn the range of skills that are helpful applicable,” she says. “Some clients will come back for brush ups. My goal is to make you self-sufficient, to coach yourself through these situations.”

To learn more about Annika and the works she does, you can visit her website at:

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