Coaching, living, learning: five questions with Clive Milkins

In an idle moment during the past couple of weeks I was flattered to receive a suggestion from Clive Milkins that we should collaborate on a blog-based exploration of coaching and his view of the para equestrian world. Clive is a gold medal winning para dressage coach (currently coach of the Canadian Paralympic team) and RDA Fellow, but is also incredibly generous with his time and expertise when it comes to grass roots RDA groups and their riders. I spent a couple of days last year watching Clive coach some of our Abingdon riders and asking him questions; here is the first half of ten new ones that I glad to be able to share. I hope you find the answers as interesting as I did.

What are your top qualities to look for in a “good” coach?

An interesting question. I am always asking this question, of myself and of others. I always look for hard fact: a practical demonstration of beliefs, ethics and morals. I’m certainly not saying I’m perfect, or even "good". I have made some dreadful mistakes, yet am learning and evolving. This is what I look for:

  1. Perception: a good coach must be able to listen and observe, read the situation in front of them, and recognise the rider’s own long term plan. They should identify the one thing that will make the most difference in that one session and start improving in the short term in order to start to satisfy long term ambition. They break things down into logical small improvements and then build towards the end game. A good coach is self and socially aware, has the ability to reflect on their own performance, recognise their mistakes and be determined to improve themselves as well as others.
  2. Integrity: the coach should be coaching for the correct reasons. For the benefit of the athlete, rather than as an ego trip or grandstanding to an audience. Money is not the overriding reason to coach, especially in RDA. 
  3. Respect: for an an athlete's previous knowledge and experience, for the horse/equipment and athlete in front of them. Respect for the mental health and physical welfare of horse and rider. No shooting people down, or being critical for the sake of it. 
  4. Empowerment: the ability to help a rider to be the best that they can be with their own talents, and to allow a rider to grow for themselves without manipulation or control. A good coach is also passionate about improvement following a logical system and empowering an athlete to make improvements using that system, because they can. 
  5. Good emotion: clinical enough to deliver an education, not distracted by their own emotions and is always honest, truthful, and realistic. This emotion should be tempered with kindness, so they do not squash others' dreams; rather merely guides them to an appropriate place.
  6. Confidence: enough to deliver appropriate knowledge quietly, and yet humble enough to listen and learn as much if not more from clients. A good coach should demonstrate a need to learn and improve. 
If we believe that high performance is a lifestyle, then it isn’t a fleeting demonstration of ability. It is sustained, and has longevity over many horses and competitions. Good athletes bring the best out of each horse, and a good coach brings out the best in each individual client.

What do you think is the most common challenge for RDA coaches?

I believe totally in the RDA system. It has over the years given me a career for which I am incredibly grateful. I am so proud of my RDA qualifications and the fact I trained at South Bucks with the support of RDA stalwart Di Redfern. RDA can be the most supportive organisation that I have come across: there is so much knowledge within RDA and its supporters, a;though often the challenge is knowing which knowledge to access and how to find it. The challenge as I see it, is that master coaches don’t always know what developing coaches want and need in the way of education. Coaches are often wary of asking for help in case it shows weakness or incites criticism, so master coaches decide what education is needed and deliver the information that they deem necessary. I so wish and plead that coaches are able to recognise what they wish to learn: that one piece of the puzzle that eludes them. If coaches could be helped to recognise their own ability and strengths it might be easier to address the less experienced areas.

What’s the best advice you have ever received about coaching?

Wow, what a question - summing up 27 years of full time RDA type coaching into a few soundbites!

Firstly, Di Redfern’s undying belief that the riders come first. That's why we are here in the first place. I'm not perfect and have sometimes driven riders too hard, always from a place of believing that I could help them improve. Di also says that the horses come equal first, they must be protected soundness in body and mind: their backs and mouths. Poor riding has no place in RDA, and it's better to ask for less from the rider to save the horses. Noone has a right to trot or canter: it has to be a reward for good walk work. Make the best use of what you have, and find achievement everywhere.

Jane Goldsmith’s belief that it doesn't matter how often you coach someone, but the aim is to finishing a coaching period with someone leaving your system better than when they arrived.

Always coach rhythm (following the movement), symmetry/straightness and balance. The rest will follow.

Actions demonstrate priorities. Always find the one thing to work on in a session that will make the most difference: work on improving the seat first (all riders have something to sit on), then the trunk (everyone has a body for core stability). Always work on the brain and the mindset. Always ask yourself what "good" looks like to you and create non-negotiable ideals from which to work.

Coaching and learning are linked and yet separate. Coaches should look after their own mental well-being, enjoy their own successes and accept that they empower others. At the same time each one of us should be responsible for our own learning and development.

Horses are expensive, and yet only when the horse is costing the rider points do we consider changing the horse. Training horse and rider to be the best that they can be is the real key.

I have been lucky to have such good mentors over the years: Michel Assouline, Pat Manning, Sarah Roger and Sarah Moreland, and every rider I have ever taught. All have caused education and reflection, and helped to develop the characteristics and philosophies that you will encounter in my coaching.

I wrote a blog earlier this year about trust. What does trust mean to you?

Trust is a core word for me in my own learning. If I don’t trust the information I am given, it creates doubt. With doubt comes fear and with fear comes a loss in confidence. Trust is a firm belief; a reliability in something or someone, and an acceptance that the truth is just that: a truth. It rarely has tangible evidence until after the fact, and it comes with proof. For me, trust is my faith, a belief that I am following my journey, guided by my mentors. There is nothing wrong with questioning information as long if I believe it comes from a place of integrity. Parents and participants trust us as coaches, we are responsible for their safety and welfare, and they believe we can help them improve. A coach should instil confidence and trust in their clients. A rider will do so much more for a coach that they trust, and a rider who believes will work harder and achieve more. Trust dares and enables someone to go further than they could on their own.

At what point in your career have you felt most content with yourself as a coach?

Contentment comes from knowing that I have completed a task well, fulfilling my obligations to both myself and to the client. The risk is, though, that I could become complacent and rest on my achievements. I guess that the perfect moment was London 2012. I worked with such an amazing rider (Sophie Christiansen), we had found the most perfect horse in Janeiro 6 and London was the culmination of 11 years work. We had a plan, right down to ensuring friends making sure that my parents were there to watch without me being distracted. I even drew up a daily timetable so that supporters knew when I was going to see them. We managed to ignore the hype and focused that A was in its usual place in the arena. We focused on the dressage performance, and through tiny, attainable, tickable, targets completed our respective tasks.

Contentment is about enjoying the moment for a moment, and then reflecting on the performance in order to be even better next time. I can achieve contentment not only on the world stage, but in any session where the plan comes together, where the rider has achieved their aims and I am peace with my methods. A time when the horse goes back to his paddock or stable, relaxed, fitter and better trained than when he came out - that’s when I am at peace.

Part 2 of this interview will be published on 19th April


Have you enjoyed reading this blog?

All RDA groups are currently closed as part of the response to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. My group, Abingdon, is likely to suffer financially as a result of this closed period: our busy fundraising calendar has been wiped clean for the foreseeable future, meaning that we will lose thousands of pounds which are desperately needed for the upkeep of our yard and the care of our 14 horses.

Can you help?

We have set up a Covid-19 appeal for Abingdon RDA, and are asking in particular for people to consider donating a small sum of money which they will not be spending as usual during this difficult time: the cost of a trip to a coffee shop, or petrol you are not using for commuting or coming to the stables. We have been so touched by the generosity of our supporters to date. If you are not able to donate (and we appreciate that not everyone can), sharing this blog post is a great way of spreading the word and showing your support. It is all appreciated so much.