Dear new RDA coach...

Time to let that coaching career take flight!


You've done it. You've qualified as an RDA coach. It's a club that's a privilege to be part of, not least because your membership actively creates meaningful, life-enhancing experiences for others. You have a lot of fun, friendship, hard graft and rollercoaster learning curves ahead of you, and it might just end up being the best thing you've ever done. Here are a few things that I think every new coach should hear; I hope they help to set you up for the journey.

Work it like you earned it (because you did)

Your coaching qualification is an achievement to be celebrated, and looking back, I wish I had taken a bit longer to stop and give myself some acknowledgement for that achievement when I qualified. (I was more "thank the assessor and get on with teaching my next class".) Coaching is a leadership role, and floating along in disbelief saying "I can't believe they let me pass!" does not a good leader make. You did the work, did the time, and did yourself proud in every part of the assessment. You earned that badge, and now there's nothing holding you back from putting it to good use. Nobody's invincible, but you can definitely, deservedly feel unstoppable.

Stop thinking you'll "never be like (insert coach's name here)"

If you overheard one of your teenage riders saying "I feel bad about myself because I'll never ride like (Sophie Christiansen/Charlotte Dujardin/this other kid at the stables)", I'm sure you would sit them down for some uplifting home truths about self belief and the dangers of comparing oneself to others. Yet I hear so many coaches say that they will "never be able to teach like X"; on social media threads, in overheard snatches of conversation at shows, to my face at the stables. As in any kind of endeavour, there will always be someone out there who is more efficient, more passionate, and more talented than you are. We can't all produce Paralympians, win a shelf full of coaching awards, work miracles on challenging riders, and train foot-perfect RDA ponies. That doesn't mean, however, that what you are doing isn't meaningful, or that you aren't doing a good job as a coach.

Watching, listening, learning from more experienced coaches is something which benefits everyone, not just newbies. By all means, turn yourself into a magpie; pick up the habits, the shiny things about that other coach that capture your imagination, to take back to your own nest. Don't be tempted to be a parrot, trying to repeat the other coach's spiel without actually feeling the words coming out of your mouth. I followed my own riding instructor to RDA when I was 18, and as such had many teaching traits which were similar to hers when I started coaching. Despite having close to seven years of coaching experience (including my training), it's only really during the last year or so that I've felt my teaching style crystallise; most likely due to the number of different riders that I've taught regularly in that time, and my active decision to look more to other coaches to find ways of improving myself. Whether my style is recognisably my own, I don't know (ask my riders). What I do know is that we are all constantly evolving in the way that we coach. It's healthy to use others to keep your own evolution ticking over; it's unhealthy to fixate on being a carbon copy of someone who has come before you (or, indeed, to expect a coach that you are training to become a copy of you).

Don't be afraid to try new things

It's fine to acknowledge your comfort zone, but it's even better to put it to one side for the sake of trying new things. "New things" could be taken to mean disciplines, qualifications, working with new riders (perhaps with conditions you've never encountered before), processes, initiatives, or committee positions, but in this particular context I take it to mean the things that we do whilst we coach. Human beings love sticking to what they know, but there is so much gained by the coach who raises the bar a bit and tries something different; not just by them, but by the people they are coaching. One thing I regret about my first couple of years as a qualified RDA coach was not being particularly gutsy about pushing my riders, even though I knew what I needed to do to keep them safe, and felt that a few were ready for a bit more. Remind yourself that you are in control, and that there is progress to be had. "We don't teach many riders to canter"; "this group never enters that class at Regionals"; "that pony won't be a good fit for that class/rider". Safety (of course) has to be top priority, but use your judgement to work out if the status quo is there for a genuine reason, and don't be scared of the new stuff.

Watching and learning from my rider Laura in a lesson with Clive Milkins

Respect, appreciate, and love your helpers


If coaches were all it took to keep an RDA group going, we wouldn't see or hear so many groups putting out calls for new volunteers. New coaches will already know how important volunteers are to the sessions they teach, especially if they started, as most RDA coaches do, as a volunteer supporting another coach's riders. But it's always worth saying again: good volunteers are more often than not the glue that keeps it all together. They have the power to bring a new lesson plan to life or bring a hesitant rider out of their shell in a way that a coach can't when they are supervising a whole class. They are essential to what we do.

Coaches will most likely find themselves taking on a secondary volunteer management role as they step up to teach, conducting training and, to some extent, engineering good experiences for their volunteers with a view to retaining them long into the future. Whether or not you signed up to deal with helpers as well as participants or horses, it's part of the job, and there is definite enjoyment in producing self-starting, committed, confident volunteers who are able to get the most out of their experience. I know first (and second) hand how much difference a coach with good leadership skills can make to a volunteer, and how little I would be able to do without my volunteers. If a rider gets on particularly well with a volunteer, this will make your life easier. More importantly, the relationship with that rider will bring an extra level of gratification to the volunteer's involvement with RDA.

Making volunteers feel appreciated starts with how, and how much, you communicate to and with them. Don't let them leave the stables without a big "thank you" for their work, and if they are doing a good job, tell them. I spent about half an hour before and after Natalie's dressage test at Nationals telling all of her callers how wonderful they were (whilst either sobbing or almost sobbing). I think they were all a bit sick of hearing it, but I'd much rather that than them not feeling like their efforts were appreciated. They are part of the well-oiled machine, the team, the family, and are just as integral to it all as you are.

Be as prepared for the rough as you are excited for the smooth

I don't like how doom-and-gloom it sounds, but it's true: your coaching career is unlikely to be all sunshine and smiles. It may well be 95% sunshine and smiles, but even so, it's responsible to prepare yourself for the other 5%. There will be weeks when coaching is frustrating: your carefully planned games falling flat; not having quite enough volunteers; wayward ponies full of spring grass and uncalled-for senses of humour; communication difficulties preventing you from getting the right message across to a rider. There will be sessions, riders, decisions that you don't get quite right. If you're in the game long enough, you will end up having to deal with at least one fall, and it won't be something that makes your list of favourite RDA moments. There will be competitions where you feel that your efforts in training haven't paid off. The world of volunteering (not just RDA) also has its ways of throwing up interesting challenges on the "people" side of coaching, and it can be tricky for a coach at any stage of their career to work out how to navigate it with a clear head.

All of these things are very ordinary parts of the journey, and teach us more about who we are as coaches than the easy days do. I try to be stoic about my own bad days, but am a terrible perfectionist in and out of RDA and will probably always struggle with the frustration I feel at myself if a lesson goes a bit off-piste, or if my focus is compromised by something out of the saddle. Take comfort in the fact that we all have off days, whether we've been coaching for one year or fifty, and don't let go of your confidence in your own ability to make responsible choices and keep your riders, horses, and helpers safe. Coaches never stop learning, so see the rougher parts of the job as what they are: learning experiences. Most importantly of all, the good days make it all more than worth it. Honestly.

Listen up, speak up!

I don't think there's ever been a better or easier time to connect with the RDA coaching community, to ask for advice, and share experiences. The more we do this, the better we all will coach. It's especially important to keep lines of communication open with the other coaches at your group; not only in the interest of teamwork, but as a resource for growth and understanding on your own doorstep. If you're unsure about how to approach a lesson, rider or horse, ask. If you're proud of something you've achieved, talk about it. If you think something is worth changing, share your ideas for why and how. No coach is an island, and you've got a lot of allies to help you make a difference, both to others and to yourself.

Be safe, be confident, and enjoy being the coach that you are. You have a lot to look forward to, and I'm excited for you.



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