Why being an RDA coach taught me more about sport than my PE lessons did

Laura and Marshall at Regionals 2022 (photo credit: Spidge Photography). More about this particular story here...)

Everyone's talking about sport: the Commonwealth Games are keeping the party going in Birmingham, and even I have happily succumbed to the latest pandemic of Football Fever.  Please don't panic! I've no intention of becoming a footie blogger (although how delighted I was to find that one of my new favourite Lionesses is a horsey girl too). What's been making me think more broadly over the last couple of weeks is the way sport at school has been discussed and remembered: girls not being able to play football in PE lessons is one part of a narrative of decades of uneasy relationships with sport, often because of the way we are (or aren't) able to access it at school.

I was a classically unsporty teenager. I worked hard and did well in most of my other lessons, but "India is punctual and usually remembers her kit (no other comment)" is the school report soundbite my mum still keeps in mind to cackle at on dark days. I don't think I suffered any permanent psychological damage from my experiences of school sport at the hand of my PE teacher - a woman who, it turns out, was actually very pleasant and probably didn't deserve the state of war we existed in, by my choice, for five years. That said, I didn't learn a lot from my PE lessons and I enjoyed even less about them. I wasn't short of exercise from my weekends at the stables and weeknights at dance classes, but that felt very far removed from the stuff I endured - with terrible grace - during the school day. I often forget that riding is a sport, like athletics, football, or (shudder) netball, purely because it was something I pursued myself because I liked it, rather than something that I did because it was what we were doing Tuesday period 3. When I stop to think about it, it's a bit of a surprise that as an adult so much of my free time actually revolves around sport, as an RDA coach. 

It turns out that RDA coaching has taught me much more about sport - and sport has taught me more about myself, and those around me - than I ever got out of my PE lessons. In the spirit of supporting all those who coach or teach, I suspect that things have moved on since I was at school, and that the way sport and exercise (and well-being) are handled is much better: more inclusive, interesting, fun. That said, I've got my own thing and I really do rate the way it includes, evolves and teaches. Here are some of my lessons learnt off the school field.

Thomas and Bobby enjoying themselves!

Sport can affect a whole person - that's why it's important to get it right. It took me mere weeks of involvement with my RDA group to get a flavour of the impact riding has on participants' senses of self. For people already within the organisation, it's not even questioned that RDA can have an impact on a whole person, but it's the thing I have to explain the most to people on the outside. I think disability sports are well set up to acknowledge and support this "whole athlete" approach, because there is often more than average to think about (adapted tack for riders, for example, or adapted communication) and/or clear reasons for somebody getting involved in a sport. Last week's interviewee, Mia, is a great example of somebody who was recommended riding by a physio. I also deal with groups of RDA riders no more than 20% of the size of an average school PE lesson, so it's easier for me to ask questions about the rest of the person I'm working with. It's built into RDA that we think about the whole person as an individual, which I think makes it second nature to consider how a wrong step - a bad match with a horse or coach, a communication difficulty, a mismatch with the whole sport - can affect this.

Nobody comes in knowing everything. Why do coaches exist? Because nobody is born knowing how to play a sport. It took me until I was in my twenties to learn how to run, because at school we were unleashed on the cross country course on the wettest, most dismal day November had to offer and told "go for a run". I didn't have the foggiest about how to pace myself so I could actually keep running, and as a perfectionist who likes to feel good at something or not bother with it at all, I obviously chose the second option and walked, saving my breath for complaining to my friends. No lasting harm came to me from this experience, but if I tried it with my RDA riders - slapping the pony on the quarters and telling them to get on with it - I think my group would've given me a red card by now.

Teaching is one of the best ways of understanding something, and I've had to work out how to teach all sorts of things which seem obvious, or hard to explain, or which need to be approached differently to the norm, as an RDA coach. My most obvious (and well-blogged) example of this is how I have to approach coaching a rider who is totally blind: it's coaching across a whole gulf between different sensory understandings. I've had to break down something as simple as using legs to kick because a rider's legs just don't yet understand how to work that way, and it really showed me how much I take my own muscles and joints for granted. Everyone needs time to learn. In 99% of cases, if my riders don't know something, it's on me for not teaching them or not teaching them well enough.

Knowing the person is what makes coaching easier: not the person's talent. I expect nobody to come to their first RDA session understanding how to do everything, but I have coached (and am coaching) riders with genuine natural talent. The way they interact with the horses and with the instructions given to them just seems so right, even when they're still learning and have lots to correct - some of these talented riders don't believe or realise it yet.

Everyone likes coaching winners. It gives a false, but convincing, sense of satisfaction when an athlete does everything you ask of them first time. It feels nice to be able to sit back and say "yes, looks great", or "this is going well". This isn't really coaching at all. I find my riders easier to coach the more I know them as people: there is always some way they (and I) can improve, and if I've done my research it's so much easier to know how to do that. It makes it easier, but also more complicated, but who wants an easy hobby anyway...

Natalie riding Maple with no stirrups

Progressing physically makes us feel good mentally. I started cheerleading at university because I wanted a few hours a week where I could focus on something physical: I had plenty of intellectual challenges going on, and I really needed something different. Being able to chip away at a new skill - a really cool new skill - was such a buzz. I see and feel the same buzz for my riders as they chip away at their skills. Nobody likes to stagnate at the same level or feel lost in what they're doing, and there's satisfaction to be had in RDA sessions of every colour, from successfully throwing a ball into a bucket to riding through a higher level dressage test or jumping for the first time. I think it boils down to it being empowering to feel ourselves getting stronger. That's going to be an extra level of fulfilment for someone whose disability limits their body, mind or senses. It's music to an RDA coach's ears to hear "I can't believe I did that". 

Sport sets you up for disappointment: a coach can make that into resilience or resentment. The competitive part of sport, whether formal, internal, fun, quiet, or tough, keeps people humble. If your sport involves a large live animal with a personality of its own and a significant language barrier, it keeps you even more humble. Stay in a sport long enough and you aren't going to win every time. You'll miss a shot; you'll slip; you'll not be quite fast or precise enough. Equestrianism is such a character builder because your horse won't necessarily be willing to cover up or ignore your mistakes, and even if you're having a flawlessly on form day, they aren't necessarily going to be having the same. Handled with consistency by a coach, the "off" moments in riding can be used as valuable learning experiences years before a rider is ready for formal competition: the horse you wanted to ride being unavailable that week, or not doing exactly as you're trying to ask. None of us are in it for the disappointing moments, but they're going to show up regardless. 

I've talked before about sport not being all about competitions - often the site of the most acute disappointments - but competition being important for those who have chosen it for themselves. You can be totally engaged in a sport and not competitive at all, and I think that's something which equestrian sports do incredibly well compared to others. I love being a competition coach: the buzz from standing on the sidelines, the pep talks, the focus, the rituals. I've also learnt the most about the kind of coach I need to be from the competitions which haven't gone so well, and there's always a comfort in the week after a show when you're back in the arena at home. There are so many opportunities in RDA for people who don't want, or don't yet know whether they want, to compete. Nobody needs to do it for the sake of it.

Loving a sport takes time. It also takes the right, consistent people around a person to nurture a happy and motivated athlete. It's fun to try something a couple of times, but RDA when it works well is a series of good relationships, built over a period of time. Some riders have taken a while to warm to riding - and, indeed, to me! - but have grown to love it fiercely. Maybe the problem with sport at school is that there just isn't enough time to find the right match for everyone - this un-sporty person is starting to come round to the idea that maybe there is a sport out there for everyone, and that you don't have to be a world-beater in whatever that is. Everyone should be able to progress and enjoy their sport in an environment that seeks to understand them, and it's totally OK if that didn't or doesn't happen at school.

Some of my riders enjoying an adventure through the fields

That all said, I can provide multiple witness statements to confirm that RDA has done absolutely nothing to improve my ability to catch a ball. I'll just have to take the wins where I can...