Siobhan Heneghan, who won the BE90 Voltaire Design Grassroots Championship at the Badminton Horse Trials in May, has spoken about an athlete mentoring program run by charity The True Athlete Project that has helped her boost her achievements this year to take it to the next level.
The 20-year-old participates in a True Athlete Project (TAP) program, which brings together athletes from all sports, ages 15 to 24, for a year of mentoring and workshops with top athletes from another sport.
Siobhan applied to the program because she has always struggled with self-esteem.
“I went to a show and thought everyone else was so much better than me and wondered why I was there,” says Siobhan. “I’ve never had access to the kind of help that the TAP program offers and I thought having a program tailored to your needs and being able to speak to a professional in a different sport would really be of Advantage.”
Siobhan’s mentor is Sarah Evans, a British ice hockey player who retired after the Tokyo Olympics, and the two have spoken most weeks since the beginning of the year.
“A lot of our sessions are structured and use a mind book that TAP gives to the mentors, but sometimes it’s like talking to a friend,” says Siobhan, who adds that she’s had trouble connecting with herself and her horse in the past concentrate during a competition instead of being distracted by everyone else around her and this resulted in her not riding at her best.
“Sarah was amazing – she can break it all down for me and make it so easy once I have it all in my head. She has helped me focus on myself and what I am doing with my horse. One day after a dressage show my mother said there were some really nice horses there and I didn’t even notice.”
Siobhan says she’s always had a “block in my head” about the jumping phase of eventing and found it hard for the commentator to announce her dressage score as she walked in.
She explains: “I always listened to my dressage mark and got excited. At badminton, my father had asked the commentator not to mention my dressage grade before my round, so he ended up asking if I wanted to know my grade. I was so clueless I didn’t even realize he was speaking and I think the TAP program really helped me with that.”
The program also includes various workshops, including a six-week mindfulness course.
“At first I didn’t think it would help me,” says Siobhan. “But I had a massive mental block from flying changes with my dressage horse and when I watch videos I can see that if I did changes I would change the way I would ride him.
“The application of mindfulness has helped me so much to achieve my changes. If someone had said three months ago that I was going to make sequence changes, I would have said, ‘Don’t be silly, no, I won’t.’ The mindfulness has really helped because I don’t think about it too much, I just get to a really quiet place, so I’m in a good place asking about the changes now.”
Siobhan has now entered her dressage horse Humm for her first Premier League in Hartpury later in July.
“I have no expectations and only go for experience, but TAP has given me the confidence to say I will focus on experience rather than believing I will fail. I got Humm from a five year old and he has now done his first advanced. I used to never be able to see how far we had come and thought everyone else was better than me because they had done pony and junior teams.
“Sarah helped me realize that this is your journey and your goals and you don’t need to compare yourself to anyone. It helped me realize that when you hit your goal at a show, you win, and now I ride him at shows much better than I used to I didn’t ride as well as I could because I was so focused on everything else.”
Siobhan is also competing in her first international eventing competition, the One Star at Offchurch Bury, this weekend with her badminton winner, Mermured Promise.
“I’ve never felt that confidence before,” she says. “It’s about accepting when something goes wrong. I used to think I was a failure and was useless if something went wrong. Now it’s not like I feel confident for a day – it’s helped me feel good and confident consistently, which I’ve never had before, so I’m very grateful to TAP for accepting my application.”
The True Athlete Project: “A More Compassionate Culture”
TAP is a charity founded by Sam Parfitt, a British tennis player who moved to the United States to pursue a tennis career.
Laurence Halsted, Mentoring Director of The True Athlete Project, says: “We are a sports charity dedicated to creating a culture of compassion in sport. To do this, we run various programs at all levels, from elementary schools and grassroots sports clubs to the national, Olympic and Paralympic levels. They all have a common thread of mindfulness running through them, but they also extend to all sorts of other areas like values and communication. Our mentoring program has become our flagship.”
The program, which began in 2016 with a single pairing of pilots, this year features 34 pairs spread across 33 sports and 10 countries. Siobhan is the first rider to join the programme, although it has previously involved pentathletes and she found out about it through former British Olympic pentathlete Kate Allenby.
The program focuses on promoting the well-being of young athletes – most of whom are still in training or, like Siobhan, are amateur athletes – and not specifically on performance.
“Our only real criteria is that the mentees are committed to the program, committed to their sport at every level and have a passion for what they do,” says Laurence, a former Olympic fencer.
“Part of our approach is that at that age you never know who’s going to have a real impact on sports culture, so we don’t want to limit it to just having the best or just that type of athlete.
“It’s really open to anyone who wants to be a part of it and shows they understand a little bit about what it’s about and is committed to this type of program, which is very holistic. People shouldn’t come to us for pure performance enhancement or nutritional advice or to get a physio – some people think they’re getting a performance support team and it’s not.
“It’s a mentor who supports them as a person. We don’t shy away from the fact that it can have great performance benefits too, because when you address all of these things around the person – around your values, identity, some performance psychology – it can have an amazing impact. Siobhan is a wonderful example of this.
“All of these stories stem from abuse, bullying and horrible coaching techniques in sport that grew out of a brutal traditional approach to performance and thinking that toughness is the only way to evolve. We see it very differently. Sometimes there’s resistance when you think that if the focus is on the person or their well-being it’s a trade-off with their performance, but that’s absolutely not the case – supporting someone as a person builds them up to be in their sport to get even better.”
Laurence added that Siobhan has incredible resilience. She had a severe allergy to horses and underwent a five-year immunotherapy trial program that required her to hold progressively stronger drops under her tongue for two minutes a day and then swallow them. Her allergy is now more manageable and she no longer has to wear a mask while riding.
“How many others would do five years of pretty brutal allergy training to continue their sport?” says Laurence. “Yet she didn’t see herself as a resilient, tough athlete. She is a perfect example of a true athlete who can do all of these things but not push the traditional sport in any way.”
Applications are now open for the next cohort to participate in The True Athlete Project mentoring program. Mentees pay £950 for the year-long program but funding should not be an obstacle to applications.
“We fundraise and receive donations to offer scholarships,” says Laurence. “We ask potential mentees in their application if they need a grant and how much, up to 100% of the cost, and so far we have been able to raise enough money to award any grant they ask for. It has always been important that the program is not just for people who can afford it, but for those who really want it.”
You might also be interested in:
Credit: Pippa Roome
Horse & Hound Magazine, published every Thursday, is packed with the latest news and reports as well as interviews, specials, nostalgia, vet and training advice. Find out how to enjoy delivered the magazine to your home each week, plus options to upgrade your subscription to access ours online service this brings you breaking news and reports, as well as other benefits.