The Smile Says It All

Nov 28, 2011 - 4:03 PM
This smile certainly tells a happy tale of good coaching and a positive riding experience. Photo courtesy of William Micklem.

Unless the person in front of you is naked or wearing a particularly outrageous outfit, you look at the face first. In this respect, the smile says it all. Not all animals can smile, but humans do it beautifully. Without a single accompanying word a smile can say: ‘Welcome, come on in,” “Keep going, you’re doing OK,” or, probably the most valuable of all, “This is fun. I’m enjoying this and enjoying doing this with you.”

If a coach is only going through the motions; if he’s working at a level, either higher or lower, that makes him uncomfortable; if he is bored; then the smile will be missing or at best forced and empty, and the student will be quick to see and feel this. As a result, the student will lose out on the wonderfully positive power of knowing the coach is willingly and happily along for the journey.

The Three Ss

This is a major part of what I call “keeping it sunny.” Being sunny is a key requirement for coaches, because coaching is all about human interaction. All the technical knowledge in the world is virtually useless without the human skills to connect with and relate to the student in a positive manner.

“Keeping it safe” has to be the first priority in any sporting situation, but keeping it sunny should be intertwined around safety. The two form the prerequisites for successful coaching. Think of the teachers or coaches we remember best. It is not necessarily the most brilliant ones, but the ones whom we trusted and who took real pleasure in teaching us; the ones who made a special connection; the ones who smiled and kept it sunny and positive despite the usual array of pressures and difficulties. These are the teachers we remember best. I believe coaches can be better taught how to be sunny.

There is a third S word that I connect to safe and sunny, and it is simplicity. “Keeping it simple” is the holy grail of coaching, and simplicity is the most powerful word in training. It will accelerate progress with all levels of riders and in all activities. Therefore, I am always trying to refine and reduce and simplify, no matter if it is tack, a training exercise or a sentence. This is the origin of both my Micklem bridle and my “Constants and Variables for all exercises.” (See my book: The Complete Horse Riding Manual published by DK.)

Greater simplicity equals easier for horse and rider to understand, fewer diversions and dead ends, less wasted time, and, therefore, an open door to greater progress. It’s particularly effective for competition riders, as research has shown that most of us have a cognitive brain function of only 3-30 percent of the normal level when under pressure.

This is why at worst we become mentally and physically frozen when under pressure, or at best we just make dumb mistakes. We have all done it.

However, keeping things simple helps us do the right thing even if we are under competition pressures in a jump-off against the clock or going cross-country. As a result, we are safer. This is the big payoff we cannot ignore, and this is why we need to challenge all the complicated and often contradictory methods of riding on offer today.

This is also why this quote is always with me: “We ascribe beauty to that which is simple; which has no superfluous parts; which exactly answers its end; which stands related to all things; which is the mean of many extremes.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

And this is why the achievement of greater simplicity creates what I call Carl Lewis or Sebastion Coe moments: improvements in efficiency that produce beautiful results both in action and on the scoreboard. Carl Lewis was a multi gold medalist in the 1980s and 90s as a sprinter and long jumper (19 in Olympics and World Championships!), and Sebastian Coe was a double Olympic gold medalist at 1,500 meters in the 1980s. They were both beautiful runners with every movement in harmony and nothing out of place.

In equestrian sports these qualities are epitomized by those such as Great Britain’s Carl Hester, the new European gold medalist in dressage; veteran show jumper Michel Robert of France; and Great Britain’s eventing superstar William Fox-Pitt. These elite riders keep things beautifully simple, classically simple. In the main all use plain snaffles and no martingales or gadgets for both schooling and competition. (Of course, according to international rules, Hester has to use a double bridle for advanced dressage.) All have beautifully balanced and soft positions, and all strive to do less rather than more as they ride and avoid confrontation or force. As a result of this simplicity their horses are happy athletes, consistently at ease, and they are winners.

For these reasons these riders often receive the “genius” label, suggesting that others can never copy or match them. But the reverse is true. They are the greatest role models for their sport because of the simplicity of their riding and training. They do not rely on tricks, complicated methods, strength, or anything that is unrepeatable. Trying to copy and reproduce the skills of an unorthodox rider will always be more difficult. The key point is that these great riders, and also great coaches, make outwardly complex things simple. The fact that it is possible to do this is hugely motivating to those who want to do things well.

You Can’t Go Wrong With The Three S Words

Keeping it safe, simple and sunny (K.I.S.S.S.) will consistently produce the right result on both the scoreboard and on the faces of the students, which is the ideal result. Therefore, the three S words are what I look for in a coach, and they form the initial priorities in coach education.

To be consistently Safe, Simple and Sunny is the huge achievement of good coaches and the challenge for all coaches learning their trade. This may seem obvious when put down in writing, but many coaches are not taught specifically how to be better in these key areas. In particular, too few realize the importance of a genuine smile and showing pleasure in having the student in front of them. Students need sunny coaches, and sunny coaches tend to produce sunny students. As they used to say in the old Pony Club manual, “The one who smiles is the one worthwhile.”

William is an international coach and educational and motivational speaker. He is a Fellow of the British Horse Society and author of The Complete Horse Riding Manual, the world’s top-selling training manual. He found Karen and David O’Connor’s three Olympic medalists Biko, Giltedge and Custom Made and breeds event horses, including Karen O’Connor’s Olympic horse Mandiba and Zara Phillip’s High Kingdom. He is also the inventor of the Micklem Bridle, which is now approved for use in dressage by the FEI.


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