Equine Support International (ESI) brings you a series of three articles that will guide you through some basic principles of coaching. Anne Loosveld, one of the ESI co-founders, focuses on sports psychology for riders and trainers. In this series she aims to help understand the mental role of a coach and to provide some basic tools to becoming a more effective trainer.
The word philosophy sounds abstract, but quite literally, philosophy means love of wisdom. Wisdom is not like knowledge; it can’t be told to you and it can’t be found on the internet. Wisdom can only be found through a personal quest. Philosophy helps us to answer fundamental questions about what, why and how. Our philosophy guides us through life and determines the way in which we view objects, experiences, other people and relationships. Your coaching philosophy helps you to understand what you think is important in your lessons.
There are three main objectives of coaching. The first one is to win. The second objective is to help people have fun. The third objective is to help people develop physically, psychologically and socially. As a coach it is important to know which of the objectives is your main priority. Having fun is important, but when you work mostly with ambitious riders instead of recreational riders, then developing physically, psychologically and socially should become your foremost priority. Winning should not be a main objective but if you coach for development, winning falls into place.
There are three coaching styles. The first one is the command style. In this style, the coach makes all the decisions and the rider listens, absorbs and complies.
The second coaching style is the submissive style. Coaching in the submissive style means that the coach makes as few decisions as possible. The coach gives little instruction and clears up problems only if absolutely necessary.
The third coaching style is the co-operative style. In this style, the coach shares the decision-making with the rider. The coach needs to find the right balance between directing athletes, and letting them direct themselves.
The most frequently used style among dressage coaches is still the command style. For example, the trainer observes the performance of a certain exercise and determines that the horse is not bending enough. The command-style trainer asks the rider for more inside leg to let the horse bend more around the inside leg. Another option, according to the co-operative style, would be to ask the rider what he felt in the exercise and how to do better or avoid a certain mistake the next time. By using the co-operative style, the trainer helps to develop more feel for riding, creates independent riders who don’t need the trainer to perform well, and he provides theory and knowledge about the sport.
I use this style a lot in my training because one of the key points in my coaching philosophy is to coach for awareness. I want to create riders who are very conscious of their bodies, of what they do, and what the horse does. If you first ask your rider what they feel in a certain exercise, you encourage them to learn to feel better. Instead of just riding an exercise on autopilot mode, they should keep their attention on the exercise and be aware of everything they do. A downside of this way of training is that this interaction between coach and rider requires time. Every training session I ask the rider questions such as, “How does the horse feel?” or “Let’s do it again but now with more outside rein; what did you feel different?”
This style combined with more quick – command-style – instructions like “lift up your chest” or “keep pressure on your inside seat bone” provide a good balance between encouraging the rider to think and feel independently and to use the time effectively in order to improve technique. Think for yourself, what is your coaching style? Do you think your coaching style is the most effective for the type of riders you are teaching?
Having an instruction plan is very important because ‘failing to plan is planning to fail.’ The first thing you need to plan as a coach is what you want to teach. At the beginning of the season, determine together with your riders at what level they will be competing. This level is always your starting point and makes it clear which exercises the rider needs to master. From there, you start making a technical, tactical and mental plan. For example, you could be training towards competing at a national championship, and in the six months before you can schedule four or five competitions and a few smaller competitions to practice. Always -use sub-goals toward good performances at the bigger shows and evaluate after every competition to see whether you are on track or if you need to adjust the training plan. By doing so, you help the rider to peak at the important competitions.