Ten things nobody told me about becoming a coach

Three of my RDA riders riding Maple, Marshall (both black cobs with blazes, the latter a smaller version of the former) and Wizard (a dark bay Dartmoor) in my group's beautiful new indoor arena

1. It's going to take up more of you than you thought

This isn't here to put anyone off: you work out your voluntary commitments around what works for you, and if that means you actually can't or don't want to coach particular hours or days, that's fine. That said, even if you're spending no more than a couple of hours at your group a week, there's still a whole RDA headspace which takes up more space than I ever anticipated, even if it's full of good things like passion, care, and drive. There's a very specific criteria of stuff which takes precedence over RDA, and I think about it at least as much as I do my day job, often in half the available time. On a practical level, too, I put in a longer day's work than I do in the office every Saturday to make sure my sessions happen, which isn't always apparent when viewing a single session in isolation (this isn't representative of all coaching setups, of course). It's not a hands off gig, and that's OK - it probably shouldn't be.

2. You'll never really be done learning

I'm learning more about RDA coaching the more of it I do, while simultaneously feeling like I know less and less. I think we'd do well to have more coaches wearing their learning curves on their sleeves, because it's not a a bad thing (even if you'd rather feel like you know everything). Your training might feel like a lot to take in, and it's not going to be a constant overload when you earn your stripes and start teaching solo: it will be a constant drip feed of experiences, considerations, and understandings. I know (largely) what I'm doing, but I'm learning new stuff all the time, and embracing that process makes me better at the stuff I already knew.

3. Coaching is its own type of tiring

...but there's a little reserve of energy that's reserved especially for it. I don't know where it comes from and it can't be harnessed for anything else, but coaching gives every part of me a workout and uplifts me at the same time, even if I've trudged in after a long week feeling totally zapped. Coaching was the only time I felt properly like myself in the weeks after one of my parents suffered a major trauma, and the only thing that's kept me motivated when work and the rest of life has been going through an uninspiring sort of phase. There's definitely something that switches on when I'm in an RDA session. Even if I can then be found asleep and merrily snoring away from 9pm the same evening.

4. There are lots of good coaches out there to follow, but nothing is more fulfilling than working out who you are

Be a magpie, not a parrot: your personal learning curve as a coach can take little bits of other coaches' styles and methods and use them productively, but copying someone else, even if they're the best coach going, isn't going to make you as accomplished as you might hope. Lap up those creative lesson ideas, ask for advice, even tell yourself "be more (insert coach name here)" if you need to, but don't lose sight of you as an individual who has enough heart to put themselves up as an RDA coach. Writing has been a big part of me working out my personality and style as a coach, understanding my strengths and weaknesses and all the hows and whys that tie it all together. I'm not perfect, but I'm definitely myself!

5. You're going to become more invested in the people you coach than you could imagine

I came to RDA for the horses and stayed for the people (although the horses are still a big draw). Good coaches are all about people: working out and understanding motivations, challenges, relationships, hopes and fears. I'm on my riders' teams and I want nothing more than for them to win, whatever that means for them, and nobody ever told me quite how hard I'd feel the ups, downs, injustices and triumphs with them (even the riders I don't coach any more or don't coach myself!). Being someone's coach is a really important job, and I think it's important to appreciate that.

6. It will challenge and test you

I wasn't necessarily expecting coaching to be easy, but I know now that I would've appreciated a heads up that the road isn't always smooth and the bumps often come in surprising places. There are so many unknowns and changeable factors in equestrian sport, especially when working with volunteers and athletes with additional needs, that you can't ever get too bedded into a well-polished routine. Sometimes it isn't actually the coaching which presents the biggest challenges: charities and people can create challenging and sometimes political environments. The payoff has always been worth it for me, and I guess the challenges are still part of the learning experience, but I think it's only fair to give emerging coaches a bit of a nudge about this one.

7. The experience will take you to interesting places if you let it

RDA coaches are already creating opportunity for others on a near-constant basis, but you never know what additional opportunities might be out there - for you and for the people you coach - if you're willing to try something new, sign up for a new experience, or step outside your comfort zone. You can, of course, opt to stay firmly within the bounds and grounds of your own group and interact with no more members of the community than you need to. But you just don't know what might be out there if you don't let it take you there. I'm sure there will be more interesting places, conversations, and experiences out there for me, and I'm looking forward to encountering them some time.

8. It will probably make you cry from time to time

It's not always bad crying: although I've definitely cried over RDA out of tiredness and frustration (with the odd bout of pre-regionals hysteria), that's really, really rare. Less rare are the tears that bubble over when one of your riders achieves something really big and you are really proud and really happy. If you put emotion into what you do as a coach, you are likely to get emotion back out of it. While my riders seem pretty bemused by this ("why do grownups cry when they're happy?"), I think they feel the feelings involved. There's nothing wrong in being passionate about what you do.

9. It will make you a better person

Warning! RDA coaching may make a coach more selfless (sometimes to a fault), better at communicating, more inclusive and more understanding. Few of us decide to pursue coaching because we're hellbent on a journey of personal improvement, but I think that's precisely why it can have such a great effect. The first step is to acknowledge that you're getting into something which is bigger than "doing something nice" and about more than just you, then the rest starts to fall into place as you keep showing up and using your head and your heart at the same time. I know I wouldn't be as good a human being if I didn't coach, or hadn't ever coached.

10. It's worth it

...and before too long you won't be able to imagine your life without it. Here's to good decisions - and to great coaches!

Me high fiving one of my riders on board Bryn, a roan Welsh pony. Photo credit: Darren Woodlow