By George Williams
One third of youth drop out of sports between the ages of 6 and 12. Of those, 25 percent drop out due to poor coaching. I heard this surprising and depressing statistic while attending a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee/Athlete Development Model (USOPC/ADM) forum for youth coaches a little over a year ago and I must say, it made me quite sad.
This illustrates how important the role of the coach is and how crucial it is to have a good coach. I started thinking more and more about it and began jotting down notes as I prepared for my foray into what was, for me, the unknown world of webinars and Zoom meetings. Dressage judge Cesar Torrente started a series of webinars (Dressage Talk With Cesar Torrente) when COVID-19 hit and I was on a recent episode titled “Training the Youth.” In preparation for the webinar, I reviewed my notes from USOPC/ADM forum and was struck by how important the Athlete Development Model is and how it applies to equestrian sports. One of its main goals is to promote “sport for life.” How fitting is that? We all want horses in our lives forever!
Good coaching is crucial to our success as a sport, especially when it comes to coaching youth. For me, the primary principles for good coaching start with the coach as a mentor, sportsmanship and of course, for equestrians, horse welfare. The fact that sports should be rewarding and encourage personal growth are tied tightly to the role of the coach and the embracing of good sportsmanship.
If we look at our role as a mentor, the knowledge that we’re setting an example for the next generation helps us try to make decisions that, no matter how tough they might be, are fair and ethical. Good sportsmanship is not only about losing with grace — for dressage riders and their coaches this means not blaming the horse, nor the judges — sportsmanship is also about winning with gratitude and respect for those who helped make it possible.
In coaching the youth, we want our sport to be fun. Though it may be beneficial for students to participate in additional sports (I learned at the USOPC/ADM forum that 82 percent of Olympians played two sports up to college), we naturally want their first love to be dressage. That means we need to share the joys of horses, including the ups and downs. We have to treat each student as the individual he or she is, and try to understand what motivates them so we can create “a fun, engaging and challenging atmosphere.”
In my mind, one reason Robert Dover was great in his position as chef d’equipe and technical advisor for the U.S. Dressage Team was because he’s an incredible cheerleader. Most of us respond best to coaches who have a positive attitude and offer encouragement. However, it’s also important to be realistic in your expectations and careful not to instill unattainable expectations in an athlete’s mind: There’s nothing more discouraging than to be deflated by receiving a score below what you’re expecting after hearing how wonderful your test was from your coach. For some it can be embarrassing to the point they lose interest in competing.
Along similar lines, a coach has to be able to build confidence. To be the best we can be, we have to keep pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone. As a coach, we have to push our riders. We have to know how to push them to the edge but not over the edge where the whole effort could backfire and confidence is lost. Again, knowing your student, and being able to be accurate in reading the signs is a skill that needs to be honed.
If a coach is good, he or she will also be a great teacher. My father used to say if a student doesn’t learn, then it’s the fault of the teacher. Whether this is 100 percent true doesn’t really matter. Just as we want the rider to ask, “How can I be better?” We coaches must always think about how we can be better. We must mentally review the lessons and coaching sessions we do, for the good and the bad. We must ask ourselves, “How can I better explain a concept or idea? What would be a better way to address an issue?” We must learn from our mistakes, and also think about what worked, what was good and how we can do that well again.
One of the hardest things is to allow our students to make mistakes. This is a part of implicit learning and there’s a good chance it will ultimately be one of their biggest lightbulb moments.
In coaching the next generation, it’s important we teach the theory behind what we do. We must be certain our students have a thorough understanding of the basics and fundamental principles. To paraphrase the old song by Zager and Evans, “In the year 2525, will the knowledge of why we ride a 20-meter circle survive?”