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International Eventing Forum 2016 – The Helpful Coach

This was probably the most interesting discussion of the day with David Kearney who is a member of the Professional Golfers Association and is in charge of performance for the Irish Golf Association.

The Helpful Coach drew on the similarities between golf and eventing and in particular looking at performance.

‘It’s a pleasure to be here and hopefully by the end of this session I will have helped you in some way. There are similarities between our sports. Last week I had a conversation with someone about course design, similarities about trying to get a good performance – it could be the owner, the rider. I am hoping this will be helpful for everyone looking to improve performance.

It was interesting to talk about the two sports last night at dinner. I have a bit of a connection with horses, my cousin is Cameron Handley the showjumper. My daughter who is six also rides. I am trying to feel my way into the sport being a good dad and a good coach. Eric Smiley came up with the title. I have been doing this for 26 years now and my current job is coaching coaches, players, and the interesting one is I am doing a lot of parental coaching. A lot of coaching going on.

I want you to think about 5 things that would make a helpful coach. A coach can be someone coaching their kids, an owner trying to work closely with their rider, it could be a vet trying to work with an owner, it could be many things.

The audience shouted out some words – honest, realistic, good communicator etc.

There are a lot of spaces that you want the coach to look at and it’s good that you want to align yourself with them.

  1. Vision & Values

Your coach should have a vision of what they want to do, whether they are an owner, a rider, a young person starting. You need to have a vision of what good looks like. What does that vision look like? and what values do I attach to that? What is non negotiable for me as a coach, as a rider or as an owner?

I will give you an example – recently I found myself in a difficult spot with a current international player. We had a conversation about a particular “fence she had to jump” and what it came back to was her values. Did she value this particular situation one way or another? You are in a situation where you have to align your values with your vision. I want to do this but I am going to do it like this and I am not going to compromise on these 1/2/3/4/5 things.

The helpful coach has really good vision and values which are aligned to that vision.

2. Interest

Interest is vital. One of the most dangerous things we can do is assume interest in something or assume they are not interested in something because of their body language and behaviours. But interest is really important.

I have just finished Steve Jobs’ autobiography by Walter Issacson and it was incredible how much they talked about interest. Many of you know that Steve Jobs’ main interest was in design and not in computers. How things looked, how they felt and how they were packaged. His interests drove him to become the icon he was. We first of all must define what the interest level is because it’s not going to go very far without interest. Steve Jobs was so interested in design that he had no furniture in his house. He did not like the look or the design of the furniture.

I was talking to some of the students earlier here at Hartpury and I asked them about their course. They have eight different modules and I asked them which of the modules grabbed their interest most and it was quite interesting to listen to them give their answer. Interest has to be right at the forefront, without interest there is no motivation. About 80% of your motivation is going to come from interest. There will of course be some intrinsic motivation where you have to be motivated, about 20%, but the majority will come from interest. The mistakes I have made, I have assumed people are interested when they are not and mistake number two I have assumed people are not interested when they really are.

Try to figure out where is the interest and where is the line.

To give you an example: a younger guy was predicted to get amazing A level results and he is going through a turbulent time so I was trying to coach him, to be helpful. I said, what is happening? Engineering or Medicine he said. So I asked him if you are home in the evening time, you have some free time are you going to look up information on medicine or engineering and like a flash he said engineering. I said there is your answer. It’s really important that we don’t push away from interest. Push your interest to the front.

3. Autonomy – the ability to allow people to make mistakes. The ability to allow people to buy in and be involved is so important.

We bypass this everyday because apparently we know better, but guess what, we don’t. The person you are dealing with in a coaching situation, their buy in is incredibly important. Autonomy is incredibly important. The ability to let that person fend for themselves. The ability for that person to be involved in the decision making process. The hierarchy of saying “I will make the decision for the athlete because I have more experience” does not work. Kids, adults, nobody needs to be told what to do – there needs to be autonomy.

How many people here are under 25 years? The two leading nations on mental health are probably Australia and New Zealand and with the World Health Organisation they have defined adolescents. They officially characterise adolescents as between 12 and 25. Not between 12 and 18 as previously thought. So the autonomy to give people room is important.

I carry books around with me, this year’s and last year’s journals. Start to write stuff down today. Write stuff down everyday. Its really powerful and will help you.

I have a note about Eric Ericksson and when he spoke on autonomy he said ‘you need that when you give enough time to explore the world safely you will develop a deep understanding of who we are and a great confidence in taking on the world. If however parents/teachers/society are too insistent on the direction you take, you forego experimentation and discovery and this can affect our lives and relationships later in life.’

What is important is that you may feel as a coach that you are doing the right thing but what you are doing is preventing that person/rider from making that decision themselves. It’s really interesting to listen to Tina and Pippa this morning talking about allowing the horse to make decisions, that is something before I came here that I would never have seen the crossover on. Allowing somebody to say “what do you think? what do you want to do? how should we do it?” is really important.

This can start at a young age. The leader in the area of choice is BJ Fong from Stamford and he will talk to people about doing very simple things. If my daughter goes to an equestrian centre they will ask her which pony she wants to ride. Even at six years old to give her a choice is fantastic. Give the people around you some autonomy and the ability to have choice. Teaching isn’t telling and listening isn’t learning.

So, telling people what to do is not going to get you too far.

I took notes from Jimmy Wofford’s talk earlier which I have written in my journal. ‘Sport becomes entertainment when the first ticket is sold’ and ‘wisdom is the anticipation of consequences.’ I am going to use that next week and pretend I made it up. Always take notes in a learning environment.


4. Adolescents

Essentially what we do know is that the helpful coach gets adolescents. They get where kids are coming from. We get into a space where we forget one really important thing as adults, which is we were once there ourselves.

If you look at what is happening currently, we have to remember that an important part of the future are the young. What we are finding out from our research is that these guys will not have a clear definition of right from wrong until they are 25. Yet we were grown up when we were 18 and out of the door.

For example if you have some people who will not go to bed. They need to go to bed because they are competing tomorrow. So from the autonomous point of view what we try to do is when they ask what time they are practicing in the morning, I say to them “it’s up to you, it’s not my career”. When I take that approach with them they are all there with ample time. Yet when I tell them what time, they generally don’t want to do it.

One of the reasons kids go to bed late is that mother nature decides to release melatonin later in adolescents and this is what sends them to sleep. Next time you cannot get teenagers to bed just remember you are battling with science. The best of luck as you are not going to win that.

In the UK they are researching pilot schemes, that kids will start school at 10am and college at 11am. A lot of scared faces there as big consequences! They are going to give the teenagers the chance to fit with the rhythm of life.

I think it’s really important that we understand adolescents, that they are not winding us up, it might not be completely 100% their fault. When we give them autonomy we attach it back to the vision and the values. As a performance director if they don’t come to training I bring them back in to look at their vision and their values. If that is to become the No1 player in the world then we would have the values of timekeeping and excellence in practice – do you think you are displaying those by not coming to practice? They normally say no, and I tell them I will speak to them in a week. They normally make their own decisions. Empowerment to make decisions and allow them to make their own decisions.

It’s hard in the short term but really easy in the long term. The  caveat for this is that i’ts hard for parents. It’s really hard with your own kids. It’s not bad for me as a performance director but when I am with my daughter I am a little softer. I could get Alex dressed, I can help her, it might make me feel good but it’s not giving her the skills for later in life. Give someone influence in their own life.

Point number 5 is something I was not very good at up until 3 or 4 years ago. But I am pretty good at it now.

5. Perspective

Have you perspective? Are you criticising the performance or are you criticising the person? It’s really important that we are committed and enjoying it but we need to underpin that with perspective. Perspective needs to be the cornerstone of everything we do. When we look at the kids we work with it’s our aim, our intent, our programme that you understand the difference between excellence, and excellence and obsession.

We are not mad on obsession because generally speaking obsession ends in tears.

Are you involved in the whole person or are you coaching the performance?

I took this quote from a horse trainer and I use it as one of our values with agreement from our players ‘Where I am, I am looking to be, I am only here because of a whole line of circumstances. There are always two questions you have to ask yourself. What I want to do? and what I should do? Being human and because we can be tempted to do what you want to do is not that hard, I am lucky I was taught to do the right thing but i’ts hard. It might not always be the nicest thing for yourself, usually the right thing isn’t the easiest thing. If we do the right thing we will be better off, if you can do the right thing for the longest time and then something will fall into your life and you won’t understand why it happened, but it’s because you kept on doing the right thing, and I believe that.’

There is opportunity within sport for people to do the wrong thing a lot of the time with rules and it’s very important that we manage that situation. The culture of our sport (golf) is hundreds of years of people doing the right thing with how you count your score in many ways. It’s very important that we bring this culture not just from the golf score perspective but also in how people live their lives.

Being a helpful coach we talk about this on a daily basis. Our ability to influence the human being has gone through the roof. It’s very important to keep balance. I would like to conclude that I might have a slightly different persona at the range to how I am today but we are aggressive towards performance. We are aggressive about getting these guys to do the right thing and that allows the performance to follow.

An Irish 1500m runner finished 4th at two Olympics because he said he did not allow the performance, he pushed the performance.

There is a certain amount you need to let happen. You need to be a safe pair of hands, creating a good safe environment.

If you leave with one message it’s to look after young people because they are the future.


I read that Gloucester university had done some work on self determination theory and that young people were not happy with the level of criticism from parents/coaches and you said about being able to criticise, do you think its better to critique?

If you look at a play that is in the West End its often back by critical acclaim, they are restaurant critics. Criticism does not need to be bad. There is a space to criticise the rider, the horse but questioning is so important. Too many coaches point the finger and said you did that wrong. What I have found in my own practices is, when I ask them what happened at the 14th hole they know perfectly well what went wrong. I think we feel sometimes that to be great coaches we have to tell them what they did wrong, but it’s about the way you go round it, so they reflect on it and then ask them what they would do differently next time.

The No1 sport is the USA is X sports (skateboarding etc) everyone is choosing them because there is no parental involvement and because there is no formal instruction. When we think of all these kids gravitating towards this sport because they are allowed to express themselves and they are allowed to do what they want. One of the issues is that we have too many rules. That is fine and I am all for tradition but at the end of the day it is not getting young people into the sport. Golf was 7% down across the board last year and unless we look to do things differently we are in trouble.

I have to ring a girl tomorrow and give her negative feedback. She is deluding herself and wants to be a professional player but the way that I do this is to ask careful questions because I need her to come up with the answers.

We were talking about Andy Murray last night having so many coaches and I asked if this was similar in the equestrian world, which it is. My answer was autonomy, who is deciding that and if the athlete is not at the centre of that and is not pulling the strings then I would be worried about that.

A question from Jennie Loriston- Clark:  ‘A very interesting talk, but how is it that we expect our horses to be obedient – to tie up, to do this and that but when people come into a yard to work with horses, health and safety demands that they do this that and the other. If we are giving them so much freedom to make their minds up, which is fine, they expect the horse to do what they want but do not take any criticism or good ideas. I do not want to dictate and I agree they have to learn but there need to be some ground rules. It’s so different now and are we being overtaken by this freedom of everything?’

You would not know it by looking at me but I have a huge interest in food. I really love my food. A young chef will go and work with the best chefs in Europe. If it was my restaurant and my vision and values are clear and it could be anything you are asking them to do then it would be a sit down conversation with good luck to you, but you and I have different values. It’s not an us and them, it’s a question of “this is not working out”. If you value something so much, that is so important that you want this like that and they are not able to deliver then you are not going to work well. Here is what I want, here is what I value. We would have a discussion. The discussion is “this is how I see the business, I want you to respect how I see the business, it’s my restaurant and these are the terms and conditions and if you do not value it the we are not going to get on”.

This is why it’s so important to underpin everything you do with your vision and your values.

Question – are you assuming that this teenager knows the values?

We talk about the values everyday. Our values and our programme have been co-written by players. Everyone has had a hand in creating them. It’s not a question of what we want, it’s a question of what everyone wants and if someone lets the side down then we discuss it.

Failure is unbelievable part of success.

About the author


An amateur rider who produces all her own horses. I have competed at novice level and sadly never got further due to bad luck with horses but I am still ambitious to achieve a lot more. I have a riding qualification in UKCC2 and a diploma in NLP. Sports science and particularly the mental game fascinates me. For a day job I work for a large multinational brand.