Considering competition: do RDA riders need to compete?

From Regionals 2018 (photo credit: Darren Woodlow)

I filmed most of my Virtual Regionals dressage tests last weekend. As I expected, it was a very different and at least slightly less frantic experience than the real thing, although I did surprise myself by waking up feeling a little bit of the "regionals tension" I recognise all too well from my in-person experiences. Overall, though, it was good, fairly easy, and most importantly not too stressful or tiring for either riders or horses. Show days always give me lots to think about, but this year the extra time and space has made me ponder some things I haven't explored much before. The biggest question I found myself batting around my head is this week's title: do our RDA riders really need to compete? Why do we actually do it?

I'm not going to be doing any u-turns on the enthusiasm with which I approach competitive opportunities in RDA. I love preparing riders for competitions, feeling the rush when they turn down the centre line with me on the sidelines, and sharing the celebrations (and the commiserations) afterwards. I just think that the time out from the heady rush of our usual regionals and nationals cycle has been a good time to reframe why and for what I shepherd them through the process. Back in my university cheerleading days (yes, a competitive sport: I've never learnt a chant in my life) I remember a teammate's parent telling her daughter, who cared deeply about doing well in her performances and therefore got very nervous about them: "nothing bad is going to happen if anything goes wrong. Cheer isn't that important." This really stuck with me because she was absolutely right for pretty much any grass-roots sport: it only gains worth of any kind when the athlete is actually enjoying themselves.

To answer the question in my own title, nobody needs to compete. Very competitive people who are eager to compete might feel like they do, but it's still a want rather than a need, even at maximum strength. Indeed, there are more RDA participants out there (I don't have a figure, but I'd love to know it if there is one out there!) who don't compete than do, including at my own group and in my own classes. It's an optional extra ventured by coaches for riders who they think are of a suitable technical standard, and who will enjoy the experience. Some riders will be achievement-driven in ways which others aren't, and even those whose enjoyment of RDA comes out of learning new things and overcoming challenges aren't necessarily going to be keen on donning a show jacket. 

Even (especially) for those who have developed from their experiences of RDA competition into advanced or elite competitors stretching as far as Paralympic podiums, there will have been a process of choosing to try out the earliest competitive experiences before gaining the skill, motivation, and momentum to progress further. There has to be an agreement between coach and rider, and often rider's family too: nobody needs to do this, but if you want to give it a go I want that for you, and we'll work on it together. You can take a horse to water but you can't make it enjoy or understand the purpose of learning a dressage test, you know the kind of thing. 

As a coach putting two riders aged six and eight in for their first non-qualifying intro dressage tests this year, I found myself acutely aware of my responsibilities to make sure they had a positive experience free of expectations and stress (as far as possible, anyway). They are both so bright and such open, clever conversationalists it's easy to forget how little they still are sometimes, but they both looked so small through the camera at C. I introduced the idea of dressage through chats at the end of their classes, using examples of other riders they knew at our group, before eventually asking if they would like to give it a go themselves. They both played it very cool ("sure, why not?") but both went home last Saturday quietly glowing with pride. They didn't need to do it, but they were definitely pleased they did. For me, too, their interest in learning and doing new things has opened up a whole realm of new things to teach, encourage, and incentivise: I can gently use the idea of competition, or even just of learning fresh new dressage moves, to inform their progress and help them get more out of their experiences with RDA. 

If I'd got it wrong, with these two riders or with anyone else, I could've really screwed up. (Trust me, I'm still watching myself to make sure I don't: I'm not getting them to sign their souls away to competitive dressage because they wanted to give it a go one time.) If the want to compete, or indeed not compete, comes from anyone other than the athlete, whether coach, parent, or anyone else, competing in any sport can turn toxic fast. I run open days for one of the world's most famous universities: I know exactly what a child who's being pushed to do something they don't want to looks like. I can structure, encourage, even push when the situation allows, but even if I'm doing a fair bit of steering my riders need to know that they've got their feet on the pedals, and can stamp on the brake any time they want. I have a big perfectionist streak and constantly keep it in check when it's competition season: it's one thing being thorough and working out how to coach a rider to achieve their goals, but at a competition of any kind I'm the last person my riders should have to take criticism from and the first person to cheer embarrassingly loudly and probably cry. After all, they are there out of choice rather than need.

I think it's a great testament to the culture at my group that most riders, once they've got a taste for competition, want to keep doing it: Natalie asked me "have any arrangements been made for regionals and nationals this year?" approximately 20 minutes into her first lesson back after lockdown 3, and even last year Thomas (the eight year old above) made lofty reference to "maybe doing some bigger riding competitions in the future". That said, even a rider who chooses to compete may have a tricky relationship with competition: some personalities can turn it over time into a stick to beat oneself with, and pressure can come just as easily from an athlete's own head as it can from an external source, like a coach or a parent. My riders might not need to compete, but if they choose to I take the need for mindful, positive coaching and sportsmanship very seriously. Undue stress associated with competing has a direct negative effect on all the good things I like to think our riders get out of the experience.

I'm biased, but I do think that RDA offers one of the best pathways out there to national level sport and sometimes beyond. I really hope that this year's rookie dressage divas appreciate the buzz of our in-person competitions if they choose to enter them another year. I suppose it's a natural reflection of how RDA runs on people doing the extra mile in things they don't have to do: our competitions have good vibes only at their heart, and how we train ourselves and our riders to approach them can keep them that way as far as possible.

If I'd wanted to write a manifesto for how every single RDA participant should have access to competitive opportunities outside of their own group, I probably could've done. There are genuinely endless pros, from the boosting of self esteem and focus to exposure to new environments and non-consequential (honest!) disappointment, and cons which can mainly be solved by managing mindsets and expectations (apart from the logistical difficulties of getting enough ponies for everyone to ride and enough judges to mark them - it wouldn't have been a very nuanced manifesto). The thing is, I think a big chunk of the positive power of RDA competitions is in the very choice to be there in the first place. Choice is empowering: it's why I ask my riders from time to time which game they would like to play, or which pony they would like to ride (on both counts I veto unsuitable selections because there is always at least one bold small child who comes out with "I want to canter/jump some gates/ride two horses at once" to keep me on my toes). 

RDA riders don't choose to become RDA riders, even those who fall totally in love with it, because nobody chooses the circumstances in which they become disabled. Typically, people come to us because they need our services, and continue to need, or at least find it difficult to be without, them. Anything on top of that, whether choosing to stay and pat their pony at the end of a lesson or pursuing qualifications for nationals and beyond, isn't needed. When it's wanted, though? That's unlocking a whole new level of magic.

Photo credit: Darren Woodlow