I'm a perfectionist coach: good or bad thing?

The order and tidiness of this photo, featuring a horse and rider halted at C from half way down our large, immaculately presented indoor school, seemed like a fitting image for this topic!

I’m a perfectionist, get me out of here!

It’s no bad thing to have high standards, and I don’t think I’m unusual, in RDA, in coaching, or in other groups or types I’ve been part of during my life, in having them. Perfectionism, or at least, wanting to get things right or do things better, has been a theme which has come out more than once in the RDA rants I’ve listened to (and participated in), and in the blogosphere, the interviews I’ve conducted: for Sophie Christiansen, it’s her biggest weakness – her words.

In terms of coaching and volunteer management, I’ve been as busy, if not busier, as I’ve been since before Covid over the last few months. My group has come a long way since its initial restart in early summer 2020 (and the subsequent bumps in the road), and our collective resilience has been really important to the way we’ve been able to thrive in continued difficult circumstances. That said, it also means we’re a long way from the early days of looking no further than individual riders, tiptoeing precisely and with purpose between different restrictions: something which I threw myself wholeheartedly into executing to the letter each week. I’m also busier at work, as my projects and events start to look much closer to the “before times” than they did before. A side effect of my busier diary is the fact that I’ve been feeling more critical with myself about what, how much, why, and to what end I am doing things. Target numero uno? My coaching.

I know this isn’t especially constructive, especially when I have lots of new volunteers to train and (hopefully!) retain, and lots of fun and enjoyment to preserve for riders old and new. The trouble is, it’s hard work keeping a perfectionist streak in check, and I know I’ve had mine for far longer than I’ve been involved with RDA. This has all made me think a lot about perfectionism in an RDA context. Is it such a bad, or indeed such a good, thing for a coach of any sport? And has RDA coaching made mine any more or less useful?

To cite Sophie Christiansen for the second time, horses are really frustrating for people who are goal-orientated. (You should definitely read her interview here and here if you haven’t already.) I’m sure everyone who works with horses in any capacity has had weeks when they seriously question why they are trying to persuade a half-tonne animal that it shares our human (and therefore flawed) objectives and standards, using none of the shared language that we would employ to negotiate with a difficult person. The fact that horses are living creatures with their own minds and feelings is a huge part of the draw of equestrianism, and all forms of equine-based therapy. It means we are constantly learning and constantly forced to empathise with the animals we want to cooperate with us. I explain our horses’ behaviour and needs to my riders pretty much every week: “you need to do this in this way, or it will be uncomfortable for the horse”; “we can’t ride this pony this week because he isn’t feeling very well, just like when sometimes you are too poorly to go to school”; “you need to do this differently when you ride this pony, because she is different to her friend in XYZ way”.

Horses’ welfare and our safety around them means there are always non-negotiables when it comes to RDA sessions. This can also be immensely frustrating when a carefully structured plan comes tumbling down because a horse is lame, or feeling a bit sharper or less settled than usual. It is so important that we try to be as kind as we can in the way we respond to the horses we have each day; that we interpret horses’ behaviour as indications of how they are feeling, rather than as inconveniences; and that we communicate this openly to RDA participants and the people who care for them. But good grief, sometimes it’s just such hard going. Anyone would find working with horses easier if they were all in permanent perfect health, unbothered by all things, and otherwise superlatively compliant at all times. Even the most hardened perfectionists who enjoy anything about the equestrian world must realise that this is impossible without the development of robot horses, and that (without disregarding the value of mechanical horses in an RDA setting) isn’t the same as actual horses. Because I like the real things, and have no experience in robotics, I’ve definitely had to loosen my vicelike grip on RDA plans plenty of times: just this weekend, my carefully crafted plans were literally blown away by a storm. I think it’s been good for me, but I am by not quite perfect at it yet.

It's also important to emphasise that I really don't let my perfectionistic streak transfer onto my expectations for my riders. Actually, I'm very proud of how I separate it from the standards I uphold for their riding and the high regard in which I hold their individual ways and means of growing and progressing. (Again, I'm not saying this is perfect.) I am about a hundred times more likely to beat myself up about not getting a lesson right for them than about them not gelling with a lesson and things not going as I'd hoped: I'm making most, if not all for the younger ones, of the decisions. I feel like I learnt a long time ago that overloading and micromanaging a lesson plan never gets the results you hope it will, but I still go through phases where no matter how I'm doing it, I'm not happy with it. I get the same at work sometimes, or even in silly things like the way I'm organising my shelves at home. I definitely went through it big style at school and uni too. 

I think the answer for RDA - where I know I want to have a long and positive relationship with coaching - is to stop some of the other plates spinning, to refresh some of my ideas, and to plan carefully, but not too carefully. I think that when I have fully settled in and trained all of my wonderful new volunteers, some of whom are very new to horses, I will have more headspace for not-perfect-but-very-much-good-enough coaching, for instance. This time of year in itself can feel a bit of a drag, with winter outstaying its welcome (as it does every year). I'm also doing a bit of research into new things I can do in my sessions to freshen things up: looking through horse magazines; at social media; chatting to people; just thinking hard. I'm also reminding myself as much as possible that this pressure really is a self inflicted thing: I'm still seeing riders who are having fun, smiling, laughing, and progressing every week. If I really crack it, I'll make sure I write about it.

I've rather selfishly chosen to write this week's post about my personal experiences, which are of coaching. That's not to say, of course, that perfectionism in athletes (as well as students, artists, and just regular old human beings) isn't an even huger phenomenon. I recognise some of my own perfectionist traits in my competitive riders, and it's one of my most important missions to make sure that it doesn't get in the way of them actually enjoying their riding. 

Laura is a superlatively cool customer, but found that virtual competition all through last year made her easily critical of herself in pursuit of the "right" take. In an in-person competition the adrenaline kicks in and her tests pass in a bit of a blur: I have to tell her afterwards how it went. Natalie, who experienced some big successes in her first year of competitive dressage, is learning gradually that subjective sports mean that your scores won't go up with every competition. "But that was my third worst score!" she proclaimed indignantly when I attempted to present her with a beautiful rosette from Virtual Nationals - perhaps I should've got a special guest in to do it instead of someone she knows as well as me. In times like these I really do understand how they're feeling, but have to prioritise hyping up the good parts, because there are always so many, and encouraging them to be kind and positive to themselves. Actually, I think it's one of the places where my own perfectionist streak can be at its most useful, if considered correctly.

At lower levels, I've often seen frustration from participant who just can't get their horse to do the exact thing they want them to. While this can be due to them needing to develop the right kind of strength, flexibility, or coordination to execute an aid or exercise, it's also something which I think all equestrians go through. Horses do make us rethink the ways we are able to keep control of an activity and reassess what "good looks like" (some classic Clive Milkins wisdom) when what we're doing, especially in RDA and para contexts, is actually pretty tricky. I think it is ultimately a good thing that RDA gives so many people such a safe and nurturing space to experience so many different challenges, and to develop the right physical and mental mettle to overcome them. I'm also not going to apologise for being a pedant about riding corners correctly for those capable of it - for the (stuck) record. 

There is no static optimum for how we interact with, encourage, and even push the people we coach, because they are all different. Sometimes they will be different in themselves from week to week. I might be hard on myself from time to time, but the person I am for my riders has definitely benefited from prioritising the ways I can encourage and nurture their abilities, rather than egging them on to think that how they are isn't good enough. I think teaming up with someone else to try hard at something makes it way easier not to beat yourself up, because it means getting out of your own head and prioritising empathy and cooperation: not so unlike how we have to handle working with our equine friends. This is why our own, internal, closely guarded standards are the ones which are hardest to shake off, whatever our relationship to a sport. Top athletes like Sophie have perfectionism lurking in the corner of every training session, but it has also likely made a significant contribution to her success in the first place. I'm not looking to rocket launch my RDA riders into para careers: I want them to enjoy themselves and to have a healthy relationship with the progress and achievement they want for themselves. After that, who knows what might be possible.

Is being a perfectionist a good or a bad thing for me as a coach? If I let this attitude bleed through into how I handle my riders, it would definitely be a bad thing (and a bit sad, in all senses). If I was more laissez-faire, more "that's fine" about things, I also don't think it'd be a good thing: I'd be learning and looking to learn much less, and developing less as a result. Does it sometimes get me down? Yes, no matter how objective I am about my own skills, experience, processes and plans. Has being an RDA coach actually given me a better outlook on perfectionism overall? Yes, I think it has, but it's definitely not squashed it for good. It's a swings and roundabouts sort of setup. I wonder if I can manage to jump off either...

Rosie, one of my group's riders (and volunteers), riding Bill in a lesson with Waveney Luke