In the last few years, the sporting world has raced ahead to professionalise coaching. In the process, teaching has receded into the shadows, and coaching has become the glamour-girl of the sports world! Yet, teaching is the foundation on which everything we do is built.
In this article, I will explain how teaching and coaching differ, and why you can’t have one without the other.
We’d never say we are ‘self-learned’, but we’re proud to say we are self-taught! Whether we are taught by a parent, a teacher, our coach, our horse, or ourselves, if we are to learn, then we must first be taught.
All coaches need to be able to teach.
This is especially true in equestrian sport where we need teaching from day one if we are to make sense to our horse and stay safe in the process. Yet even in our everyday language, teaching and coaching seem to have morphed into meaning much the same thing.
It’s not just about playing with words either. Teaching and coaching are different. What you teach a rider is usually entirely unsuitable material for you to use to coach them. How you teach, and how you coach are also worlds apart.
It matters very much when you choose to teach or when to coach, because your riders will show wonderful progress if you get it right, and disappointing results if you get it wrong.
It’s time we sorted out this muddle!
Teaching = Learning new skills
Definition: Teaching assumes no previous knowledge or practice of a new skill. We’ve all known the joys of having a good teacher.
Let’s take a close look at the skills that make our learning process so successful.
Equestrian knowledge and skills
To teach riding at any level, you certainly need equestrian knowledge and you definitely need good riding skills. This really goes without saying, because anyone teaching anything needs to have good subject or technical knowledge.
But while your equestrian skills are sufficient to ride and to demonstrate skill, you’ll need a swag of other skills to be able to teach well in an equestrian culture which is a world away from its original cavalry-style instruction(2).
To teach today’s rider, who has the lived experience of modern educational techniques throughout their school years and often college too, you’ll also need educational knowledge.
We know that our traditional military pedagogy centred on giving young men orders on how they should ride. What makes it tricky is that this style of instruction is how many people were – and often still are – being taught to ride! However, since we now know a whole lot more about how riders learn, it’s definitely no longer appropriate to instruct this way(3).
Today’s riding teachers need knowledge of the principles and practices of effective teaching – and learning. Even knowing how to plan a lesson is not enough. It needs to be the right lesson for the horse and rider. It needs to be their lesson, based on their learning needs.
These are learner-centred lessons, which are quite different from the old-style topic-based lessons of the past. Furthermore, each lesson should show progress that everyone can see and enjoy. To achieve this, teachers need to know about different sorts of skills, practice regimes, feedback and a stack of other teaching techniques, which we’ll talk about later in this Series(4).
Yes, we need the best interpersonal skills in town!(5)
No doubt you started an equestrian career because you love the horses, but you’ll find when you start teaching that you spend much more time with their owners! This means that you’ll need to be able to communicate with all sorts of people on all sorts of topics.
So how about you take a quick trip to the local TAFE, or do an online course, to put a shine on your communication skills? This is life-long learning, (or continuous professional development if you want to sound smart), and it will take all your interactions, including your teaching, to the next level.
Coaching = Improving existing skills
Definition: Coaching raises the standard of an existing skill.
Coaching is built upon teaching. Without teaching there can be no coaching. When you coach, you want to progressively improve the standard of a rider’s skills. This is provided they can demonstrate that they have the correct basic technique(6).
Coaching is a dynamic process of increasing the degree of difficulty of a task, and is exemplified by gradually increasing the height or width of a jump as horse and rider become more competent.
We must be careful not to over-face either of them (hopefully!) and both will tell us if the fence we build is too big for their skills or their confidence.
What is not so often recognised is that both horses and riders can be equally over-faced by too-hard tasks in the dressage arena, or by any other task we ask them to do for which they feel they have had inadequate preparation – like walking obediently on to a float.
Without a rider having been previously taught a skill, we can’t coach them to make it any better. And all the ‘coaching’ in the world won’t make it any better if the rider’s underlying technique is faulty, because the horse simply can’t get the right messages to gymnastically organise himself to do what is being asked of him.
Of course, that’s exactly what often happens out there in the real riding world, when riders are asked (or told!) to practice something which they don’t really understand or have been doing wrongly for ages. And like most things, horse and rider then get much better with all that practice – at doing it wrongly!
Coaching is forever a fascinating process, but now it is also short-speak for a whole bunch of processes which scientists are only just beginning to unravel(7).
One of these processes is polishing.
Definition: Polishing is the process of developing performance skills.
Polishing is a new word in our skill-learning vocabulary. In the theatre world, performance skills are known and acknowledged as being quite distinct from the discipline-specific technical skill such as acting, music, or dance.
Performance skills are what the actor, musician or dancer needs to perform in front of an audience. They include the ability to managing stage nerves, performing in different theatres or halls, carrying on when their performance comes off the rails, and other similar situations.
In our riding world, this translates as managing our competition nerves, settling our horses in strange venues, carrying on after making mistakes (like falling off!).
Polishing is “preparing for known contingencies”.
We’ve all heard a rider bewail the fact that their horse goes “…so nicely, at home”. That tells me that while the rider has clearly worked hard on their equestrian skills, they haven’t yet polished their performance skills.
Polishing is all about training the mental skills needed for a competition performance, like holding concentration and controlling those competition nerves in front of spectators(8).
In training, polishing also includes simulating the sights and sounds of the competition environment, training in the same sort of circumstances as the upcoming event (like in a grass or sand dressage arena) and learning to warm up quietly amongst a group of other riders, whose horses may not always be behaving nicely.
Polishing really does put the shine on any competitive performance. However, just as equestrian skills are not enough for today’s teacher or coach, neither are they enough for today’s competitor. Indeed, they are not enough for a young horse whose job it is to take the rider safely around the countryside, or for a young rider who wants to go to Pony Club.
Any activity outside of the enclosed space of an arena or an indoor school, requires the polishing of horses’ and riders’ skills if they are to be safe and able to perform at their best, no matter how modest their task may be.
Definition: Levelling is the process of smoothing out the skills of a horse or rider, so that they are all as close to a similar standard as possible.
Levelling is one of the ‘coach education mystery words I mentioned in Part 1 of this series.
In levelling, you would undoubtedly teach the rider new skills, or re-teach skills which they’ve learned with faulty technique (faults they have no doubt practiced).
You would coach some existing skills until they match the level of competency of the rider’s best skills. In amongst this, you’d be identifying and sorting out mistakes (but mistakes management is a story for another day).
Finally, you would polish the whole performance before they ‘go public’.
Levelling for the rider
Suppose you’re coaching a good young show jumping rider, who decides he wants to go eventing. You’d need to help him bring his cross-country jumping up to scratch. This is a whole different skillset of which jumping is only a part.
You’d need to teach him some new skills (like jumping into water), coach others (like walking a course or riding to time), and maybe polish a few (like his warmup routine) as his horse gets fitter.
In doing this, you’d be levelling their performance.
Levelling for the horse
Levelling is just as important for the horse as for his rider. It creates a sound foundation for their improvement, because all the pre-requisites for their skill development are firmly in place.
Let’s suppose you’re coaching this same young rider for his first dressage test. But the horse’s lengthening at the trot is woeful. Well, unless he understands stretching, even if he is going forward and more or less in working tempo, it’s not going to happen. The horse will either run, or break into canter, and each time this happens both he and his rider get more anxious and get a bit more practice at doing it badly.
So, while keeping the forward movement and the working tempo in order, it’s back to teaching him to stretch, until it’s A1 operational. Oh, and in the meantime, positively NO lengthening! Then you put it all together, with forward movement and a nice rhythmic working tempo and “suddenly” there’s his lengthening – worth a 7!
This could make the difference between winning and losing.
The ‘coaching’ framework
Bringing teaching, coaching, polishing and levelling together, we now have a framework for what we commonly abbreviate as ‘coaching’ but knowing the full meaning of what it involves.
Next time we’ll explore further, when and how to use these different techniques, but we can’t do that before we talk about how riders, and their horses, learn.
So our next article will be all about learning.
I’ll explain why, to maximise progress, teachers need to use different methods according to what they are teaching, and to accommodate the different stages of learning for horse and rider.
We’ll look at why learners get ‘stuck’, and how to get them ‘unstuck’, and I’ll show you some of today’s new educational tools which can make your teaching – and that of your riders’ learning – heaps more fun.
- International Council for Coaching Excellence, Position Paper Sport Coaching as a ‘profession’: challenges and future directions, International Journal of Coaching Science, Vol. 5 No. 2, July 2011.
- Cassidy, T., Jones, R.L. & Potrac, P., Understanding Sports Coaching, the Pedagogical, social and cultural foundations of coaching practice, Routledge, 2016.
- Loughran, John, Developing a Pedagogy of Teacher Education, Routledge, 2007.
- Schmidt & Lee, Motor Learning & Performance, Human Kinetics, Illinois USA, 2020.
- Summers, J and Smith, B, Communication skills Handbook, Wiley, 2003.
- Islay Auty, Coaching Skills for Riding Teachers, Kenilworth Press, UK, 2008.
- Simpson, Michael K., Powerful leadership through Coaching, Wiley, 2020.
- Josephine Perry, Performing under pressure: psychological Strategies for Sporting Success, Routledge, 2019.