Futures, fulfilment and frustrations: what are young RDA coaches thinking about?

I was really pleased to be offered the opportunity to speak on a panel of young coaches as part of RDAUK's coaching conference: this year hosted as evening webinars spread out across an entire month. (There are another two yet to run on Tuesday 23rd and 30th November, so if you're reading this before those dates you can still sign up to watch live or receive recordings here.) Increasing the representation and visibility of young(er) coaches within RDA has long been a big personal interest of mine, so the platform, as well as the opportunity to scheme and vent with those sharing it with me (Megan from Pegasus RDA, Kyle from the Elisabeth Curtis Centre, and Lizzie, from many groups but most commonly known as The Para Vaulter), was much appreciated. I wanted to use this week's blog to commit a few thoughts to writing and give those who weren't able to attend an idea of what we talked about. 

Webinar panel in progress

Firstly, the chat box for this session isn't the first place I've been asked to define what a "young" RDA coach is. The RDA Young & New Coaches Facebook group (which I'm hoping will get a bit of a boost from the interest it received as a result of this session!) deliberately doesn't define this to make it as welcoming as possible to those who might benefit from it. "Young" is often arbitrarily cut off at about 25 - I always use railcards as my default example - while someone could be the youngest coach at their RDA group at ten years older than that; be a brand new coach and self-identify as "old" (I'm not labelling anyone here!); or be passionate about change and progress within the organisation at any age at all. 

I wanted to have more of a network for younger coaches because I've felt lonely and in need of a closer peer group as the once youngest coach at my group, and because I can see myself spending the next fifty years growing into my skills as an RDA coach and helping the organisation develop and evolve. If you can identify with either or both of these things, you've got the sort of mindset this panel was speaking with and about. The fact that the panel existed doesn't mean that other forms of experience and mindsets don't or shouldn't exist within RDA: 10% of our volunteers (source: RDAUK 'Horses, Health & Happiness': data is not currently available on the specific proportion of young coaches) are under 30, versus 75% over 50. RDA's new strategy features ambitious plans for growth, which will need to be supported by those planning on sticking around for the next 50 years as readily as those who have given so much to making it flourish for the first 50. It seems fair enough that we might need a few more young coaches about the place - and even fairer that the landscape in which we are all coaching is different to the one which earlier cohorts of young coaches knew.

A big question that took up probably the bulk of our planning meetings was about obstacles for the next generation of coaches in terms of accessing training and progression. These were included but not limited to the frequency, location, and format of sessions available to enable new coaches to qualify on the new (is it even that new any more?) coaching pathway: I feel like I have had a lot of conversations which centre on this being a frustration for coaches in training and those supporting them, so this was arguably one of the most important things we ended up discussing. It was noted that pretty much all of us have accessed more and more varied training than we ever have before thanks to the Covid-powered surge of virtual training and enrichment opportunities. The nature of how coaching modules can be organised and spread out can make the process of completing them a considerably more onerous process than committing to a set period of time with your own group each week, and it strikes me as very likely that the number of coaches training alongside full time education or employment will increase as time goes on and RDA grows. 

We don't need to make training easier: we need to make it easier for people to do in the first place. It was pointed out by an attendee that many people who deliver training sessions do so using their own annual leave - a worthwhile additional justification for making sessions more accessible. I organise a lot of events, virtual and in person, for my day job, and know too well the disappointment of organising something which doesn't get many attendees for reasons between my target audience's control. RDAUK have taken note of one idea (Lizzie's) to come out of our planning meeting about intensive courses over a few days, to be held at the National Training Centre and hopefully within regions, which I was really pleased to hear they would be pursuing further. It might be impossible to suit everyone when our volunteers are all so different, but it certainly seems that issues with accessing training and recruiting new coaches in general are far from isolated. I know my group needs more coaches, so I'm definitely on board with new things being tried.

Another big question which was easier to answer was whether or not any of us were planning on progressing to our "green" coaching certificates and moving further up the pathway. This was a straightforward answer for me: probably not. I love learning and take my own standards and progression incredibly seriously. In most circumstances, I'm all over opportunities to "level up". The idea of an RDA green coaching certificate is that the holder is qualified to coach at any group, and the training as a result involves practicing this. While I'm often surprised at the places extra time and energy comes from for helping my own group, I can't see myself at this stage having the capacity to do a good enough job of coaching for additional groups. (Crucially, I'm also not planning to shift from Abingdon!) If the opportunity ever arises, I'd be interested in taking some of the modules associated with the green coach certificate, but it would be to develop as a coach without the motivation of a qualification. I was definitely excited to hear about the launch of the Princess Royal Coaching Academy - I like a bit of RDA good news! - but ultimately people like me and my webinar panel peers will be waiting for more concrete evidence of how this initiative will filter down to those in our position. I really hope it is used as a catalyst for fuelling ambition and providing structured support across the coaching community, on top of its advertised aims.

Speaking of the coaching community, where did we want to see more "next generation thinking", or increased representation from a younger and/or more diverse group of RDA enthusiasts? We all agreed that we would like to see this on a regional level: whether on committees, representation at events, or something as simple as involvement in social media or other communications. I absolutely take the point of one attendee who commented that if you don't have the time to coach at another group you wouldn't have the time to be on a regional committee - you never know who might be out there other than the four people on our panel, and what sort of skills could be utilised by our regions, so I would still welcome seeing more new(er) and young(er) coaches engaged on this level. I know I would value feeling more connected to and within my own group's region, especially given the level of expertise which exists within it. 

Our wishes also boiled down to wanting to spread the word about our own experiences with RDA and to encourage more people to join us: there were some great conversations started about engaging university riding clubs and local Pony Clubs, making our groups as visible as possible to potential new volunteers, and how else young(er) volunteers might be found and nurtured into coaches. The reality is that most potential coaches in their twenties and thirties who need a 9-5 job to pay their bills are unlikely to be able to volunteer long term with groups which operate on Tuesday term time mornings, but nobody is holding it against those groups if they are facing their own limitations on space and access to horses (I know this is very common indeed). There were some very good points made by the webinar audience about shorter term volunteering experiences, like awards schemes and university partnerships, being a good way to encourage people to come back to RDA in the future, even if not to the same group. For me, I think I'd need to see a bit more evidence that these types of volunteers do come back to get me fired up about it. I've experienced a lot of drop off from young volunteers in similar situations (far less from those who pick it up "just because", although I don't have any data for that either!), and it can be a hard pill to swallow to that the volunteer who's just left your group at a time when it needs more helpers might pop up again at a totally different group. That said, I have also done everything I can to support former volunteers who have moved away for or after university to find a new RDA group. I really hope some of them go on to coach some day.

I suppose this is where the proactivity highlighted in Ed Bracher's discussion of the new RDA strategy could have particular weight: could a small group be supported to expand? Are we asking in the right places? Is it easy enough for a prospective volunteer to find their local group and how to sign up with them? It all feels a bit like a can of worms, but there was a real sense of momentum and optimism when we were discussing all of this: hopefully enough to make it happen!

Conversations anywhere, not just in RDA, should encourage us to consider experiences which aren't shared, even (especially) if we don't fully understand another person's experience, or if trying to understand makes us challenge our own assumptions and status quo. I've always been aware of RDA as a very female organisation (92% female, in fact), and my own group's volunteer population is probably more female than that. Kyle was very open about his experience as a (young) male coach, the lack of male role models for volunteers and participants, and the abundance of unhelpful, gendered assumptions. I know I've encountered the "men want to paint fences and fix things rather than have a role in a participant's development" assumption myself, despite having come across some fantastic male volunteers doing precisely the latter at my own group. Being heavily fuelled by RDA-standard-issue girl power myself, I just haven't had to think about it that much. I'm not saying I have the answer to recruiting more male volunteers of any age, but I have realised I should probably think a bit harder about it - not least because so many groups are struggling to find new coaches...

I also enjoyed hearing about Lizzie's hopes for the future of vaulting, and by extension, the less populous RDA disciplines. Anything I know about vaulting is through interactions I've had with her (although as a former cheerleading coach, maybe I've got some transferable skills in there somewhere...) but her passion is infectious: I know just as little about carriage driving, but get the same sense of enthusiasm from carriage driving coaches (and one former participant) I have encountered. If we want disciplines like these to grow with the rest of RDA, it strikes me that it'll take a regular diet of exposure, communication, and accessibility - although the specifics will be much better left to those more knowledgeable.

Although I enjoy venting my own frustrations, trying to work out solutions to problems of all sizes, and striving for better, it was also a genuine pleasure to hear from coaches at similar life stages to my own talking about what got them hooked on being an RDA coach, and why they want to keep making space for it in their lives. Ultimately, we all had similar reasons why: the inspiration drawn from other coaches (of all ages) and the participants we work with; the powerful sense of fulfilment and fun; the achievements and opportunities of all sizes; and the fact that we manage to find space in our lives for RDA despite lots of competing pressures, and without necessarily knowing how we're managing it. Having the space to discuss all of these things highlighted to me how complicated the future of RDA could be - but there's no better way to feel excited about it than in the company of those who are motivated to head there with you. 

A big thank you to Megan, Kyle and Lizzie, and also to Jo Hayward from the RDAUK Training & Education team for inviting me. I'd love to continue the conversation (about the future or present) with anyone who came along to the webinar. This blog post is already a long one, and I know I haven't managed to talk about absolutely everything!

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