My five most important things about coaching

I was asked a question on my Instagram a few weeks ago: "what are the top 5 most important parts of coaching". I love thinking (and talking) about the values that drive coaching, and I know a good free blog post idea when I see one, so I decided to think a bit more about my answer.

Natalie riding Lisa on a bright winter afternoon

There are a couple of things which come outside of the list of five, because they are common sense essentials. Coaching needs to happen in a safe environment, and when it involves horses, the welfare of all parties is as important as everyone's safety. It seems important enough to take as read that you don't coach RDA sessions using untrained or unsound horses which could endanger their riders; or that you don't do something daft like running a bareback session on black ice. Sometimes it annoys me that I can't control parts of these things as much as I'd like: like horses going lame, the weather, or other external factors, but that's only because my top five list is important, and because I am That Sort of Person.

1. Progress

The dictionary describes progress as "development towards an improved or more advanced condition". Like all the best definitions, that could be attributed to so many kinds of forward motion seen in an RDA session. Really this list is a proxy for the things that motivate me in RDA: progress is one of my biggest motivators as a coach. I love to be able to help people grow. I also think this is a foundational aim of RDA as a movement: early groups worked with disabled people, including patients in paediatric hospitals, to help manage medical conditions and improve otherwise limited lives. The fact that more than fifty years later this has expanded to include more technical forms of progression; different disciplines, competitive opportunities, and more crossover with the "mainstream" world of learning to ride; only adds to our progressive roots.

Even the smallest things can be or support progress. Repetitive movements during exercises in the saddle could be building muscles and coordination which help a child learn to walk. Exchanges with volunteer can help a shy person progress socially. As riders become more confident, competent, independent, my thought process is always "how can I help them do and be more of this?". The days when I feel the most fulfilled after RDA are the days where I'm able to put my finger on the progress I've helped make happen.

2. Fun

"If it don't [sic] feel good, what are you doing it for?" a wise man* once said. As I sometimes say to myself, when my sub-6am RDA alarm is shouting at me on a cold, wet Saturday morning, "I am doing this for fun". If we don't at least try to make sure the people we coach are having fun in our sessions, are we not missing the point? This is sometimes the easiest coaching value to uphold: I have had so many parents tell me "if my child is with the horses, they're having fun". It's important to work out what fun is for the people we're coaching, too: each group lesson I teach would define this slightly differently, from refining a dressage test to theming the whole thing around Roblox (I've not worked that one out yet). I really want my relationship with the people I coach to be between people who are having fun doing something they love, even if they've come to RDA because their physio referred them, or because there's nothing else they have been able to engage with. And, as a volunteer myself, I don't think it's selfish to put enjoyment pretty high up in my personal priorities.

*Robbie Williams

3. Communication

Coaching is communication with a very tangible, practical application. RDA has taught me that there is more than one way to communicate, and communicate well, but our sessions wouldn't happen at all if there was no communication driving them. Non verbal communication can be as important for the riders I coach, and the volunteers helping them in their lessons, as words are. It's also essential for keeping the basics (horses and safety, as above) up to scratch, for fostering a sense of belonging, and for fulfilling your duties as a coach. Looking back on my own riding lessons growing up, I realise now that I sometimes felt confused and frustrated when an instructor would tell me to do something (or worse, tell me I was doing something wrong), but not why, or how to change it. I try my best to explain as much as I can to my riders now, in a manner appropriate to them. 

Spending so much time coaching totally blind riders over the years has been a great reminder of the black and white importance of communication: if I don't say anything, or say something misleading, the rider doesn't know where they're going and we don't get anywhere. "If I don't tell them, they don't know" has become my most recommended coaching mantra over the last few years, and as an extrovert with a lot of my own to say myself, I am always trying to find more space for my riders' own voices. 

4. Trust

Trust and communication were always going to be next to each other on this list: they don't work properly without each other. I do not aspire to my riders trusting me with absolutely everything, but I do aspire to earn their trust to whatever level needed to work together well during their sessions: anything beyond that is a bonus, held in high esteem. Trust takes time and effort, and you're also in a trust triangle (squares, pentagons and hexagons may also be relevant) with your riders, the horses they ride, and any volunteers who are assisting them as leaders or side walkers. It's no easy goal, and I've coached people over the years with whom I have taken a long time to build a trusting relationship. You have to be prepared to put in the work.

5. The people

People are the most interesting things in the world, and few things bring me greater pleasure and satisfaction than working them out. At the end of the day, RDA participants are who the RDA sessions are for. If I'm frustrated at the end of the day that I haven't managed to achieve something in my lessons, 99% of the time it's because I feel I've let down the participants and not enabled them to get what they wanted out of their time under my wing. While I love the social elements of RDA and benefit from the friendships I have made and the time I spend with my peers at the stables, it's the people I coach who are my biggest motivators for showing up, in every sense. I can always hang out with friends separately from RDA sessions, and the strength of those friendships is more often than not down to believing strongly in shared aims which are focused on our riders and how we are able to help them. They thrive, we thrive. They have dreams, we have dreams. They have fun, we have fun with them.

"You get out what you put in" has never applied more than it does to the way RDA coaches can invest in those they coach. RDA couldn't keep going without our horses, or volunteers, but the organisation wouldn't have started at all without the people it serves. If my riders aren't at the front of my mind when I'm coaching, or thinking about coaching them, I know I've gone wrong somewhere.

Watching one of my own classes, being looked after ably by another coach! Maiya riding Plum and Lucas riding Marshall.

Whether you're a coach or a person who is coached: what are the most important parts of coaching for you?